The international nongovernmental organization Global Witness found that 1,700 land and water defenders globally were killed in the past decade — an average of one defender killed every two days. Forty percent of these activists were Indigenous, while Indigenous Peoples make up just 5% of the world’s population.
Breiner David Cucuñame, a 14-year-old Colombian activist, is an example of this alarming trend. He was killed during an unarmed patrol of Indigenous lands, practiced as a deterrent to military groups encroaching on Indigenous lands in Colombia.
According to the 2021 report, land and water defenders are also silenced with death threats, surveillance and criminalization. In the Philippines, Indigenous land and water protectors are routinely arrested and accused of terrorism.
Defenders Beatrice Belen and Gloria Tumalon — he an opponent of a Chevron geothermal project, she of mining — are famously imprisoned, accused of engaging in terrorism.
While the air, soil and water we depend on are contaminated and endangered by resource extraction, those defending systems of life find themselves under threat.
As an Anabaptist, a central part of my faith is the peace witness. I take to heart Jesus’ commitment to non-violence. He instructed us to love our enemies, to pray for them and to turn the other cheek rather than retaliate. While Jesus might have called on his followers, or even the angels, to save him from crucifixion and death, he chose not to engage in violence.
But active nonviolence is more than refusing to engage directly in violence. Nonviolence is also resisting violence. Indigenous people are showing up to protect the lands and waters that we all depend on. They are peacemakers, confronting principalities and powers with nonviolent action.
Many of us in North America benefit from a more subtle form of violence: structural violence. Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung explains that social structures and institutions can cause harm by depriving people of basic needs. Structural violence, according to Galtung, is a form of violence where social structures — laws, policies and the institutions that enforce them — harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.
While ordinary Christians in North America might not perpetrate oppression directly, we benefit from mining and energy exploration.
An example of structural violence is found in a recent study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, which reports more than a million acres of tribal land in the United States have been flooded by dams.
These dams dispossess Native peoples of homes, livelihoods, farmland and traditional food sources like salmon. Dams re-engineer rivers and lakes to store, divert and control waterways. Hydropower is touted as a source of clean energy, counting on the dispossession of Indigenous people to generate power for those in the dominant culture. Hydro dams extract a resource for electric power, even though hydropower is viewed as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels.
It is not enough for peace activists to show up when actual shooting starts. Indigenous earth defenders know this. They are showing up in response to violent laws and policies that target the most vulnerable, including the air, water, and soil we all depend on.
The Apache Stronghold in Arizona is standing in defense of Oak Flat and the fragile desert aquifer threatened by copper mining. If violence is embedded in policies that dispossess the vulnerable to benefit the mighty, Indigenous land and water protectors are putting their bodies on the line in defense of the systems of life.
resisting the incursion of military groups in Colombia, isn’t Breiner David Cucuñame a peacemaker? Defending lands and waters against mining and extraction, aren’t Beatrice Belen and Gloria Tumalon peacemakers? Aren’t the Apache Stronghold peacemakers?
How can we show up alongside them? Amos 5 explains that keeping the traditions of worship alone does not please God. The Creator requires justice for the innocent. As followers of Jesus, and as beneficiaries of oppression, what is our role in standing up to violence?
It is time for us to join with Indigenous earth and water defenders as an expression of our commitment to peace.