There are more than 5,000 different Indigenous Peoples around the world comprising 476 million people – around 6.2% of the global population. They are spread across more than 90 countries in every region and speak more than 4,000 languages.   

Although their customs and cultures may differ, Indigenous Peoples experience the same harsh realities the world over. Their human rights are routinely violated by state authorities, and they face high levels of marginalization and discrimination.   

Indigenous Peoples face eviction from the ancestral lands they have inhabited for generations, as well as restricted access to education, health care and housing. Indigenous human rights defenders are intimidated, attacked, and sometimes even killed, often with the support of the state.  

Indigenous people are more likely to live in extreme poverty and suffer higher rates of landlessness, malnutrition and internal displacement than other groups. They often rank highest for prison inmates, illiteracy and unemployment, while their life expectancy is up to 20 years lower compared to non-Indigenous people.  

two women sit on a bench. Both are wearing intricately decorated clothes and headscarves.
Two women watch the Uyghur dancing show in the streets of Kashgar, northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China. 

What does it mean to be Indigenous?

Indigenous Peoples can be identified according to certain characteristics:  

  • Most importantly, they self-identify as Indigenous Peoples.   
  • They share an ancestral link with those who inhabited a country or region before they were colonized or before other peoples became dominant.  
  • They have a strong link to particular territories and the surrounding natural resources.   
  • They have distinct social, economic or political systems, which they are resolved to maintain and reproduce.  
  • They have a distinct language, culture and beliefs.  
  • They are politically and socially marginalized. 

How can we use inclusive language when talking about indigenous peoples?

The term ‘Indigenous Peoples’ is used in documents including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This is because, under international human rights law, the word ‘peoples’ carries important legal significance when asserting the right to self-determination.   

The UN now uses the capitalized ‘Indigenous Peoples’ in response to demands from Indigenous representatives. It’s intended to act as a recognition of their status as peoples in international law and the right to self-determination.  

Other terms such as ‘communities’, ‘groups’ and ‘minorities’ are often used interchangeably with ‘Indigenous Peoples’. However, these alternatives must be used cautiously. State authorities may use alternative terms to deliberately deny or undermine the right to self-determination that the term ‘Indigenous Peoples’ confers. Alternative terms should only be used if the people in question use the term themselves.   

Aboriginal, First Nation, Native American or Adivasi may be the preferred umbrella terms used in some regions or contexts. When referring to a specific Indigenous People, it is most often best to use the name of that people.

a portrait of Chan Tonnampetch, a young activist from Thailand. She is wearing a pink patterned shirt and a face mask hanging from her neck on a beaded necklace.
Chan Tonnampetch is a young Indigenous rights defender from Bang Kloi village in Thailand fighting to protect her community’s land rights.

How are Indigenous Peoples’ human rights violated?

Encroaching on their right to self-determination

Although some Indigenous Peoples are self-governing, many are denied the right to freely choose their own government or political systems. This is despite the fact that Indigenous Peoples were governing themselves freely for thousands of years prior to the arrival of colonizers from the 15th century onwards.  

These rights fall under the umbrella term self-determination – a binding right in international law which refers to peoples freely determining their political status and pursuing their economic, social and cultural development. It is embedded in legal instruments such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, designed to address the impact of colonialism on Indigenous Peoples.   

A group of people at a protest. Many are wearing shirts that say Yes 23, referring to the Article 23 referendum. In the centre of the photo is a person cheering with their fist in the air.
Thousands joined “Walk for Yes events in major cities in Australia ahead of the referendum that could grant Indigenous Australians a constitutionally enshrined right to be consulted on policies that affect them

Forced assimilation

During the 19th and 20th centuries, Canada removed Indigenous children from their families and placed them in federally funded boarding schools, with the intent of assimilating them into broader Canadian society. At these “Indian Residential Schools”, they were not allowed to speak their languages or express their cultural heritage and iden tities. As a result, “Aboriginal people were expected to have ceased to exist as a distinct people with their own governments, cultures, and identities”. An estimated 150,000 First Nations children suffered abuse in these schools.  

Indigenous children in Australia were also forced to assimilate into white culture and were placed in institutions where they suffered abuse and neglect. These children are known as the “Stolen Generations”.  

 a woman wearing an orange shirt that says 'Every Child Matters' and holding a sign that reads 'No Pride in Genocide'
A woman holds a placard during a march in Montreal, Canada to mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation to commemorate the victims of Residential Schools.

Trespassing on their right to cultural lands 

Indigenous Peoples’ land ownership rights are also widely abused.   

Under international law, states cannot relocate Indigenous Peoples without their free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) and without offering them adequate compensation. However, Indigenous Peoples’ lands – home to over 80% of our planet’s biodiversity and often rich in natural resources, such as oil, gas, and minerals – are routinely appropriated, sold, leased or simply plundered and polluted by governments and private companies. Indigenous land defenders face violence and even murder when they seek to protect their lands.  

Many Indigenous Peoples have been uprooted from their land due to discriminatory policies or armed conflict. They are regularly cut off from resources and traditions that are vital to their identity, wellbeing and survival. Situations like this force them to flee their homes and move to towns and cities, or face greater marginalization, poverty, disease, violence and even extinction as a People.    

a group of people stand in a line. They are wearing patterned face masks and colourful feathered headdresses.
Over 6,000 indigenous people marched up to the Supreme Court in Brasília to protest against a court ruling which may define the demarcation of indigenous lands.

Blocking access to healthcare and other public services

Discrimination impacts Indigenous Peoples’ everyday life, restricting their rights to health care, education and housing.  

Healthcare for Indigenous women

From India to Peru, Indigenous women have higher rates of maternal mortality, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases and are more likely to suffer violence.  

Indigenous women are less likely to have access to healthcare facilities when pregnant because of discrimination and mistreatment; and so, they are more likely to die giving birth. For example, in Panama and Russia, Indigenous women are about six times more likely to die in childbirth than women from the non-Indigenous population.

The birth rate for Amerindian adolescent girls is twice that of the general Guyanese population. In Kenya, Maasai women are twice as likely to have had no antenatal care, and in Namibia, San women are ten times more likely to give birth without skilled attendance.  

Public health services

Their marginalization also means that Indigenous Peoples are at greater risk during public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. A lack of access to health care and public information, as well as essential services including sanitation and clean water, means that Indigenous Peoples were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.  

The effects were exacerbated by the failure of many states failed to properly consult with Indigenous Peoples when developing COVID-19 response plans. This meant that policies were not tailored to their specific needs. For example, public health information was often not provided in Indigenous languages.   

Indigenous people are also more likely to get diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV.  


An education gap between Indigenous children and their peers persists on a worldwide scale. Education systems often fail to cater to the particular needs of Indigenous Peoples, with obstacles including a lack teachers who speak Indigenous languages.  

This is compounded by Indigenous Peoples’ lower levels of access to computers and the internet – the so-called ‘digital divide’.  

A Maasai woman sits in front of a thatched home
a young indigenous child does schoolwork at a desk
When the Covid-19 pandemic closed schools, many indigenous children were left without an education, since they were not able to join virtual classes.

Case Study: Covid 19

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, Indigenous Peoples had less access to education than non-Indigenous individuals because of long-term and systematic discrimination.   

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted and exacerbated these disparities. Indigenous children have less access to computers and the internet, meaning they were cut off from educational opportunities when the pandemic hit.   

The pandemic magnified the impact of this ‘digital divide’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous students even further, as schools closed their doors and turned to online learning. Many Indigenous children, especially in rural areas, lacked access to the devices and internet connection to access virtual classes. Further issues included high internet costs, low or non-existent reliable network or speed, and regular power cuts.  

These impacts could have been avoided if governments accounted for the needs of Indigenous students in their Covid-19 response plans. In most countries, Indigenous Peoples were not included in the development of these plans. This failure to consult with marginalized people resulted in Indigenous Peoples being denied some of their most fundamental rights, including education and healthcare.    

Although school closures have ended, the pandemic’s impacts on Indigenous children continue in the form of learning loss and dropouts.   

The impact of climate change

Despite contributing a tiny proportion of global carbon emissions, Indigenous Peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change. Their intimate relationship with the natural environment means that climate change poses a unique danger to their way of life. Climate change threatens the habitats and ecosystems Indigenous people depend on for food, water, medicine, livelihood, and identity.  

Indigenous Peoples are also disproportionately impacted by fossil fuel exploration and extraction because political marginalisation makes it harder for them to oppose it. Exploitative companies often infringe on these communities’ rights to information, public participation and free, prior and informed consent. For example, Amnesty International has shown how Adivasi communities in India affected by coal mining are rarely properly consulted before their land is acquired, ecosystems decimated and livelihoods jeopardized.  

Indigenous People also have a critical role to play in combatting climate change. Although they comprise only 6.2% of the world’s population, Indigenous Peoples safeguard 80% of the planet’s biodiversity.  

Their sophisticated knowledge of the natural world means that where Indigenous Peoples have control of the land, forests and biodiversity flourish. Their sustainable land use fights climate change and builds resilience to natural disasters.  

We must support Indigenous peoples and preserve this knowledge as a vital tool to protect the environment and tackle climate change.  

Uncle Paul and Uncle Pabai are community leaders from the Guda Maluyligal Nation at the northernmost part of Australia in the Torres Strait. They argue that the Australian government is taking insufficient action to prevent harm from climate change, resulting in the destruction of their lands and culture.

Green colonialism 

Indigenous leaders, fisher folk, African-Descendant communities, peasants, other land-dependent communities and environmental rights activists are working tirelessly to increase pressure on governments and companies in the Global North to take biodiversity loss and climate change seriously. On the surface, it might look as though these world powers, many of them colonial powers, are finally starting to take responsibility for the detrimental destruction that they’ve brought on our planet.  

But Global North countries have to a very large extent abandoned attempts to restore biodiversity at home. Instead, they promote militarized fortress conservation models in countries of the Global South. They often target territories of Indigenous Peoples, who are driven off so that those lands can be incorporated into national parks.  Amnesty has documented this in Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Nepal and Cambodia.  

This phenomenon is called ‘green colonialism’ and explains how ‘Big Green’ conservation NGOs from the Global North are operating, with funding from their governments, in a way that reinforces colonial power over Indigenous Peoples

Because they do not work with Indigenous Peoples or benefit from their centuries-old scientific knowledge of nature and conservation, these organisations fail to effectively address biodiversity loss. 

More recently, carbon credits are providing a financial incentive to governments to drive communities off their lands. This is presented falsely as saving biodiversity and fulfilling the obligation of Global North countries to reduce carbon emissions. In practice entire carbon credit projects are being unmasked as fraudulent, and making little or no contribution to forest restoration.  

a lush green forest landscape. A large waterfall flows off cliffs
And banana and coffee plantations, on the slopes of Mount Elgon, Uganda.

Attacks on indigenous and environmental rights activists 

Environmental defenders are at the forefront of the struggle for climate justice, particularly in the Americas – the world’s deadliest region for those defending land, territory and the environment.  

In 2022, according to Global Witness, 177 people were killed for defending the environment – a rate of one every other day – with almost 88% of the killings taking place in the Americas. Colombia was the deadliest country for environmental defenders, with 60 murders, with Brazil, Mexico and Honduras also in the top five. Of those killed across the year, 34% were Indigenous people. 

Amnesty International has recurrently documented how environmental defenders in the Americas are intimidated, attacked, harassed or killed, especially when their demands run counter to powerful economic and political interests who often act with impunity. These crimes are invariably not properly investigated, and victims almost never receive justice.  

Despite the enormous risks, Indigenous people and other activists across the Americas continue to mobilize to protect the environment. They carry much of the burden for preserving the environment, protecting and caring for 22% of the Earth’s land surface and 80% of remaining biodiversity.  

Smiling man standing by a river.
Bernardo Caal Xol was imprisoned for over four years for his work as an indigenous and environmental rights activist in Guatemala.
a drawing of Berta Cáceres

Case Study: Berta Cáceres in Honduras

Berta Cáceres, a Honduran human rights defender, spent decades campaigning for the environment and Indigenous rights. This is particularly risky work in Honduras, one of the most dangerous places on earth for human rights defenders. 

Since 2013, Berta led with COPINH (Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras) a campaign against the proposed construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam in Río Blanca. If built, it would have disrupted the flow of the Gualcarque river, a site sacred to the Lenca Indigenous community as well as an invaluable source of food and drinking water.

Berta’s fearless activism made her some powerful enemies. Along with others involved in the campaign, she suffered harassment and even death threats – something she had long been used to. Despite this, the authorities failed to provide Berta or any of her colleagues with effective protection and on 2 March 2016, two armed men broke into her home in Intibucá and shot her dead. 

After a long-running fight for justice, in June 2022, David Castillo, a former manager at the hydroelectric dam company, was sentenced to 22 years in prison for organizing Berta’s assassination. Seven others had been already sentenced to prison in 2019. Berta’s relatives and COPINH continue to call for all those involved in ordering or carrying out the killing to be held accountable.  

What is Amnesty doing to help Indigenous Peoples?

Amnesty International works to defend the rights of Indigenous Peoples in all regions of the world and demands that states apply and develop urgently needed laws to protect their lands, cultures and livelihoods.  

At the international level, Indigenous Peoples have made their voices heard and effectively lobbied governments. Amnesty has supported them, for example, on the development of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  

We also work to support Indigenous Peoples in claiming their lands. For example, after more than 20 years of living in deplorable conditions beside a main road, the Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous community in Paraguay won their legal battle to return to their ancestral land in 2014.  

We Indigenous People cry only when we have achieved our freedom. Today, it is like we are coming out of a prison, so many of us are crying because it is so emotional. 

Carlos Marecos, Community leader, Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous community 
An Indigenous leader smiles as he speaks to his fellow protestors, many wearing yellow Amnesty t shirts.
Chief Na’Moks, a Wet’suwet’en Hereditary Chief, with Amnesty members at a protest in Montreal Canada. The group assembled outside the Royal Bank of Canada offices, to oppose the bank’s financing of a pipeline that infringes on the rights of Wet’suwet’en People.

Take action to support Indigenous People now  


Land defenders from Wet’suwet’en Territory are facing criminal charges in Canada for their efforts to stop the construction of a pipeline that would destoy their home.