Indigenous Communities, Human Rights and Environmental (In)Justice

By Meschelle Linjean


Social workers are charged with advancing human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice. We advocate for the rights of vulnerable populations and against any policies, practices, and attitudes that jeopardize anyone’s life, liberty, and security of person. Grave social, economic, and environmental injustices take place in the name of corporate development and greed.


This blog post looks at the ways extractive industry development (e.g., oil and gas extraction, mining, logging) in Indigenous homelands in the Americas often result in displacement, poisoning and desecration of the land and water, and contributes to high rates of sexual assault, sex trafficking, and murder.  The beneficiaries are wealthy outsiders, corporations and shareholders. Deep ecology, ecofeminism, empowerment theory, and trauma-informed perspectives are all insightful lenses through which these outrages may be viewed, but this post’s perspective will use the frameworks of human rights, oppression and empowerment.


Historical trauma, gender-based violence

Historical trauma, devastating assimilation policies, and continuing oppression have rendered Indigenous communities in the U.S. extremely vulnerable to human rights violations, and disproportionately high rates of poverty and violence. Four out of five Indigenous persons have suffered a violent crime in their lifetime; four out of five perpetrators of this violence are non-Indigenous (Nagle and Steinem, 2016).  American Indian and Alaska Native women suffer sexual violence at the highest rate of any racial group, per capita, in the U.S. (Brewer, 2017).








Pipelines and violent crime : Fort Berthold

Now extractive industry development is compounding this vulnerability, putting Indigenous women and children at much greater risk of being a victim of violent crime or sex trafficking. Indigenous lands hold 20 percent of the fossil fuel energy in the U.S. (Johnson, 2017).

The Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota is home to the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation (MHA Nation — also known as the Three Affiliated Tribes) and is located within the Bakken Shale Formation. Bakken is one of the largest sources for oil extraction in the United States (Gillette, 2016).   Its oil is extracted by fracking and horizontal drilling.



The Bakken Shale oil boom has resulted in dramatic increases in domestic violence and sexual assault against Indigenous women, and sex trafficking of Indigenous women and girls (Johnson, 2017). Other crimes include murders, aggravated assaults, robberies and drug trafficking  — mostly heroin and methamphetamine. Extractive industries create “man camps,” which are trailer parks where male workers are isolated for weeks or months at a time (Nagle and Steinem, 2016).  These camps frequently have no addresses or cell phone reception, cannot be found on a map or traced by GPS, and often are at least 60 miles from the nearest police station (Gillette, 2016). These camps become centers of drug abuse and violence where American Indian women and girls are transported specifically for sex trafficking. They are being kidnapped, sold, and transported to countries in Asia and the Middle East (Brewer, 2017).




The award-winning 2017 feature film, WIND RIVER, has scenes depicting a “man camp” in Wyoming where a brutal crime of violence against an Indigenous Woman occurs.



The ability for Indigenous Peoples* to protect themselves from these atrocities and prosecute the perpetrators of these crimes,  is severely restricted by the U.S. legal system. Federal agencies can approve extraction projects on reservation lands without the consent or input of the tribal government (Johnson, 2017).  The U.S. government eliminated tribal jurisdiction over non-Natives who commit crimes on tribal lands, except for certain instances. Indigenous victims therefore generally lack access to justice because the federal agencies that handle human trafficking largely overlook them.


Dams, drilling, mining and logging interests meet resistance in Brazil, Honduras, Mexico


A similar situation exists in Central and South America, where Indigenous communities face legal barriers to refusing proposed extractive industry developments on their lands. Indigenous human rights defenders are threatened, attacked, and killed without investigation or any punishment of the perpetrators. The Brazilian constitution recognizes that Indigenous Peoples have an original and inalienable right to occupy and use their traditional lands, and that these lands should become demarcated for protection. However, the demarcation process has been slowed or halted by a barrage of legislative proposals from members of Brazilian Congress representing large mining, logging, agribusiness, and hydroelectric dam corporate interests. Some governments are in collusion with these industries, and in order to promote their interests and profits, will deliberately undermine the national institutions charged with protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples (Jagger, 2017).

Caceres is shown standing in front of a march of women in blue shirts and kercheifs. She is smiling, weraing a white embroidered blouse and bright colored scarf.

Bertha Cáceres.  Image: The Guardian



Bertha Cáceres (Lenca) was murdered in her home in La Esperanza, Honduras, on March 3, 2016. She was killed a week after she received threats for her opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, and less than a year after she received the Goldman Environmental Prize. Honduras is the most deadly place for environmental activists.


Such conditions have led to numerous atrocities. Criminal, misogynistic and political violence in Honduras can be directly linked to forced migration and displacement of Indigenous Peoples from resource-rich areas resulting from extractive development projects (Totaro and Ponsford, 2017). In South America, Brazil’s Belo Monte hydroelectric dam and additional dams that the Brazilian government plans to build in the Amazon threaten the survival of the Munduruku and other indigenous peoples by polluting their waters, destroying their way of life, and displacing them from the lands flooded. Similarly, in Mexico the Rarámuris’ ancestral lands, way of life and very existence are endangered by logging, land grabs, and deforestation (Jagger, 2017). As Indigenous Peoples try to resist the devastation inflicted by extractive industries, they are met with harassment, intimidation, imprisonment, assault and murder. During 2016, about 140 activists were murdered for protecting human rights, land, or the environment (Totaro and Ponsford, 2017).


Does the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples offer hope?


As Indigenous Peoples in the Americas and across the world currently lack effective legal mechanisms and political support to adequately safeguard their life, liberty, and security of person within their own countries, they are looking to the international community, including the United Nations and groups such as Amnesty International, for support. Indigenous tribal leaders recently addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council to call upon the U.S. to expand tribal jurisdiction under the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) to cover human trafficking in accordance with Article 3 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (“ND tribal councilwoman,” 2017), which recognizes the right to self-determination. The enforcement of the right to self-determination would allow Indigenous nations to better protect all their members, including women and children, and ensure that the impact of extraction industries are fully considered and addressed. However, because instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples are not legally binding agreements, there must be continued activism and advocacy from all interested parties, including social workers, to promote the protection of human rights and the correction of social injustices.


Group form a semi-circle. Indignous Women Rise is on one banner; Protect the Sacred is on a second. Many in traditional clothing. Wasnington DC buildings in background

Defending the Sacred: Indigenous Women Rise. Women’s March January 21, 2017,     Washington D.C., outside the National Museum of the American Indian.                   Photo: Pat Shelly




Brewer, S. (2017, September 28). Sold for sex: Senate Committee investigates human trafficking of Native women and children. Rewire. Retrieved from


Gillette, C. W. (2016, October 20). Pipeline expansion means increased violence against tribal women. Huffington Post. Retrieved from


Jagger, B. (2017, September 11). Stop the murder of environmental defenders in Latin America. Huffington Post. Retrieved from


Johnson, B. (2017, March 3). UN Human Rights official says U.S. oil projects inflicting crime, trafficking toll on Native Americans. PJ Media. Retrieved from


Nagle, M.K., & Steinem, G. (2016, September 29). Sexual assault on the pipeline. The Boston Globe. Retrieved from


ND tribal councilwoman addresses UN in Switzerland about human trafficking. (2017, September 21). Minot Daily News Retrieved from


Totaro, P., & Ponsford, M. (2017, June 19). Politics of death: body count mounts in worldwide wars over land. Thomson Reuters Foundation. Retrieved from


Meschelle Linjean is a part-time, first semester student in the University at Buffalo’s online MSW program. She has begun the process of changing her career in evaluating federal education programs to clinical social work, which is more closely aligned to her values and interests.

picture of head, neck, shoulders of Meschelle Linjean. She has long dark hari, is wearing beaded earrings and has a pair of glasses on top of her head.


Most recently, Meschelle worked as a social services coordinator for a community healthcare center where she implemented a grant to collect data on patients’ social determinants of health. Linjean is particularly interested in health outcomes for adults that endured adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and hopes to provide medical social work for individuals with a history of trauma who are living with a chronic illness. She is enrolled in the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and currently lives in Alexandria, VA with her Shi Tzu-Chihuahua dog, Bodhi.


*Editor’s note:
We capitalize “Indigenous Peoples” as a mark of respect for their shared identity and preferred collective noun whenever the specific nation (e.g. Hidatsa, Dakota, Lenca) is not applicable.  Other terms in the post were used  in reference to the U.S. Census data and its r
acial categories: White, Black or African American, American Indian and Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander.
ee this May 2017 editorial from the Toronto Star:  “Respect, dignity and fairness conveyed in capital letters.”



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