Working to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples

Minority Rights Group International campaigns worldwide with around 130 partners in over 60 countries to ensure that disadvantaged minorities and indigenous peoples, often the poorest of the poor, can make their voices heard.

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22 min read

Marialuisa Ferro


Afro-descendant communities have existed in the Americas for centuries, making up an important part of the continent’s demographic. Today, there are at least 150 million people of African descent in Latin America and the Caribbean,[1] with Afro-descendants especially prominent in Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela, as well as most Caribbean islands, where Afro-descendants in fact form a numerical majority of the population. However, Afro-descendants are still rarely represented in government and usually attain lower levels of human development. Afro-descendant communities also form a significant proportion of the population in North America, with more than 40 million citizens in the United States identified as black or African-American.[2]

Despite their large and long-standing presence, however, the socio-economic status of Afro-descendants is low and ethnic inequalities persist across the Americas, with Indigenous and Afro-descendant communities concentrated in the bottom strata of society. On a range of diverse indicators, Afro-descendants perform less well than whites or mestizos. The available indicators have demonstrated that profound inequality persists, even when factors such as social welfare have improved throughout the region. Women in the Afro-descendant community experience especially higher levels of discrimination based on gender and ethnicity, and tend to score lower on levels of economic and social rights attainment.

Integral to Afro-descendant identity and continued discrimination against Afro-descendants today is their history and ancestry. The vast majority derive from the tens of millions of Africans who were forcibly removed to provide slave labour for the mines and plantations that laid the basis for the wealth of the Americas. These ethnically biased slave labour enterprises were founded on the denial of the slave’s humanity and on their perceived hereditary ‘inferiority’. Though slavery was formally abolished in the nineteenth century, the current situation of Afro-descendants continues to be influenced by social attitudes and relationships developed during that early colonizing period.

Even though many countries, Brazil and the US often at the forefront, have adopted legal and institutional measures to combat ethnic discrimination towards Afro-descendants, access to justice remains poor and reports of police brutality are common. In the US today, more than a quarter of the black American population live below the poverty level, compared to less than a tenth of the white population. Across the Americas, Afro-descendant communities face similar social and economic inequalities, as well as barriers to political participation and other human rights.

Advocacy and political representation

In Latin America, many of the provisions made for Afro-descendants have come about under the recent rounds of multicultural citizenship reforms in the 1990s and 2000s. The World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) has also contributed to these measures, with governments either introducing or strengthening legal and institutional policies for Afro-descendants, notably in Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Peru. Despite positive steps in the public sphere, political representation remains weak. Many Afro-descendants have overcome obstacles of racism and discrimination in order to run for political office, only to struggle to secure a solid electoral base due to entrenched racism among voters.

One of the main barriers to increased political representation of Afro-descendants is weak social consciousness and mobilization along ethnic lines. There is little to be gained for individuals who self-identify as Afro-descendant: in practice, while many acknowledge mixed ancestry, relatively few claim to be wholly Afro-descendant. In fact, strengthening the weakened sense of an Afro-descendant identity is an important prerequisite for other forms of socio-economic progress. This is particularly the case in countries where the discourse of ‘racial democracy’ is strongest. In Brazil, for instance, there is a common belief among proponents of this argument that, due to widespread inter-ethnic relationships and the relative lack of legal segregation compared to the United States, the country has largely avoided ethnic division.

Nevertheless, while this may appear progressive, this view overlooks Brazil’s deep-seated historic bias towards ‘blanqueamiento’ (whitening). Instead of being constructed on rigid ethnic lines, its social hierarchy is based on a fluid spectrum of colour, with black at the bottom and white at the top – a legacy of colonial times, when it was used by whites as a political tool to secure power by reducing the black population. Although a multicultural strategy was implemented in Brazil and across the continent in the 1980s and 1990s in order to reduce ethnic tensions, sharp inequalities remain: 78 per cent of Afro-Brazilians still live below the poverty line, for example, compared to 40 per cent of whites.[3] However, even in the face of these obstacles, there still exist many groups fighting to combat and challenge the reality of ethnic discrimination. In Brazil, hundreds of black consciousness and civil rights organizations are actively at work today.

In Colombia, Afro-Colombian political consciousness is part of a strong culture of resistance on the part of people of African descent in the face of colonial oppression and ethnic discrimination. An example of this culture of political resistance can be traced back to the experience of the palenqueros, or the establishment of colonies of free Africans during slavery. Modern formal political organization by African descendants, based on ethnicity and the collective experience of discrimination, later evolved as a reaction to and inspired by the emergence of indigenous organizations.

In the 1980s Afro-Uruguayans formed their own organizations to fight racism, such as Mundo Afro, which hosted a regional conference on xenophobia and racism in Montevideo in 1994. In recent years, an increasing number of grassroots organizations have emerged to promote the recovery of African culture. There are also many groups involved in local development projects in the poorer areas of Montevideo, some of which specifically focus on – and are even led by – Afro-Uruguayan women.

Many Afro-Bolivians adopted Aymara language and culture, and as a result the Afro-Bolivian Spanish dialect, as well as their music and dance, became less distinctive. However, this trend was reversed in the late twentieth century, with the revival of the Saya dance as part of a black consciousness movement. A number of groups formed in the 1990s, such as Movimiento Cultural Negro, formed in 1994, as well as Casa Afro-Boliviana in Santa Cruz and a Centre for Afro-Bolivian Development in La Paz. One of the most well-known groups is the Movimiento Saya Afro Boliviano, which aims to recuperate, strengthen and promote the values and cultural identity of Afro-Bolivians.
Indigenous peoples, however, have had greater advocacy and have dominated national and regional discourses on multicultural accommodation. The privileging of the indigenous is linked both to domestic and transnational discourses on indigenous identity, tied to culture and land and respected pre-colonial identities. While some Afro-descendant communities with indigenous affinities have been able to obtain specialized status and specifically land rights – one of the biggest legal issues Afro-descendants face today – in many cases the distinct culture and collective identity of Afro-descendants is not recognized.

In North America, while African-Americans are a recognized ethnic constituency with high levels of organization and a strong sense of self-identification, the effects of decades of discrimination, exploitation and segregation continue to be felt in many ways – from lower educational outcomes and elevated levels of unemployment to limited political representation and higher rates of incarceration. Despite an active civil rights movement and well developed anti-discrimination legislation, inequalities for African-Americans persist.

Land rights and displacement

One of the major challenges that Afro-descendants continue to face in the Americas is the dispossession of their land. There have been numerous incidents of settlements and communities uprooted for development projects or other economic activities, such as mineral extraction, at times with the complicity or indifference of the authorities. While evictions have frequently been accompanied by intimidation and violence, including the use of paramilitary organizations to terrorize the local population, the secondary status and limited rights of Afro-descendants in many countries has also enabled these abuses.

In Colombia, in particular, Afro-descendant communities and collective territories are mostly concentrated in resource-rich and geopolitically strategic regions of the country that continue to be the scenes of fierce disputes between armed groups. Along the Pacific coast, the fight for the control and exploitation of collective lands by armed actors has meant that such communities have found themselves caught in the crossfire, or continuously on the front line of the conflict. At the same time, despite the passing of law 70 in 1993 granting collective land titles for black communities and their right to manage the resources within them, Afro-Colombian collective territories are increasingly threatened by the arbitrary implementation of economic development or mega-projects. These have been associated with brutal forced displacement, mass violence and targeted killings by both legal and illegal armed groups, usually at the behest of the government and international and private capital interests.

Afro-Colombian activists themselves claim that they are the victims of a slow process of ethnocide, fuelled by the simultaneous economic and physical aggression waged against them. They argue that mega-projects, such as those currently being implemented for the mass expansion of palm oil plantations, endanger the territorial basis for maintaining the unique Afro-Colombian culture and social structure which has developed over the last 500 years. Yet protests against land grabbing incidents are often minimal due to the often fatal backlash that follows. Francisco Hurtado, who was assassinated in 1998, was one of the first Afro-Colombian leaders to advocate that Afro-Colombians struggle to regain titles to the lands where their ancestors settled many centuries before. Since then, many other Afro-Colombian leaders with similar visions have also been assassinated.

Land rights issues are not confined to Latin America, however. North America also has a history of disregarding or denying the land rights of its Afro-descendant populations. In Canada in the 1960s, for example, the Halifax city authorities took over Africville and bulldozed the neighbourhood to build a bridge across the harbour. Africville was a small, close-knit community that had existed for 150 years and was populated almost entirely by black Nova Scotians. To this day, African Nova Scotian advocates still demand that Halifax settle land claims from the people who used to live in Africville.

Culture and heritage

Notwithstanding their long-standing marginalization, Afro-descendants have contributed immensely to the culture of most countries within North and South America. In Brazil, dance and musical traditions including Capoeira and Samba and much of the local cuisine, such as Acaraje and Mocqueca, were created by the Afro-Brazilian population. In terms of religion, Candomblé and its traditions, inherited from West Africa, are central to the lives of many Afro-Brazilians today. Religious leaders conduct their ceremonies in Yoruba and call upon spirits. Although Candomblé is still primarily associated with the Afro-Brazilian population, many other communities in Brazil now practise the religion and the rituals have been incorporated into the fabric of Brazilian national identity, such as the New Year’s Eve offerings to the ocean during Revellion.

In Mexico, African influence has been vital to the country’s music, usually mixed with Spanish and indigenous elements. For example, Mexico’s well-known Jarocho music, made famous through the song ‘La Bamba’, is of African origin. In Uruguay, similarly, the music, dance, art and writing of Afro-Uruguayans have played a major role in the evolution of national culture. African folklore is particularly prominent during the Carnival celebrations in Montevideo, and popular speech in the country has incorporated many words of African origin.

However, it is important to recognize that the celebration of Afro-descendant cultures can sometimes be exploitative in nature. In Cuba, for example, this has been a direct result of the increased marketing of Afro-Cuban culture as an exotic commodity for the Euro-oriented tourism industry. The apparent acceptance and celebration of Afr-descendant culture and heritage in countries can also belie the persistence of social stigmatization. In Brazil, for instance, Afro-descendant culture is one of the best-known features of its national culture – yet the community itself is still among the most marginalized in the country.

Garifuna people march to protest against land rights violatons in La Ceiba, Honduras.

Garifuna people march to protest against land rights violatons in La Ceiba, Honduras. Credit: Felipe Canova

The Garifuna’s battle to protect their land from urban development in Honduras’ ‘Banana Coast’

Kara Chiuchiarelli

Land rights are an ongoing struggle for Honduras’ Garifuna community, who for decades have faced forced eviction and the sale of titled communal lands as their territory has been appropriated for mining, oil extraction and palm oil cultivation. But communities are now being displaced to secure access to another resource – their pristine coastline. ‘There is now a process of expulsion of our people from Honduras,’ according to one local Garifuna community member. ‘From tourism to extraction megaprojects, the initiatives have been imposed without making the necessary consultations. “Model cities” are the latest forms of dispossession that affect us.’

In the early 2000s, the national Honduran government declared a plan to develop a resort in Trujillo, along the lines of Cancún in Mexico, despite the fact that those beaches had been granted as title lands to the Garifuna a century before. This plan has led Canadian developers to buy up land – including land titled to the Garifuna people – in Trujillo for vacation homes and a cruise ship port called ‘Banana Coast’, themed around what the developer has described as the ‘glory days’ of the region’s banana trade in the first half of the twentieth century. This was a period when foreign industries appropriated vast tracts of Honduras land and established considerable control over the area, with little regard for the wishes, traditions and cultures of the local people.

Now the community is having to defend its land against development plans by the Honduran government.

Today, tourism development seems likely to have similar effects. Efforts to urbanize Trujillo and its surrounding coastal communities threaten the Garifuna’s traditional lifestyle, cultural heritage and identity as a people. Though the unique value of Garifuna culture is widely recognized – in 2001, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared Garifuna culture one of nineteen Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity – the community is already struggling to preserve its rich heritage in the face of entrenched poverty and discrimination.

The community now faces a range of other challenges, including climate change, environmental vulnerability and HIV/AIDS. While Garifuna community members need greater access to employment and other opportunities, these are unlikely to be realized if development is simply imposed on their territory without their consultation or consent. In this context, empowering local Garifuna is an essential step in their fight to protect their ancestral territory from a form of urbanization that largely excludes them.

The continued challenges of institutional discrimination for African-Americans

Mariah Grant

The death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old African-American, shot by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, on 9 August 2014, sparked protests and allegations of institutionalized racism in the country’s police force. Although witness testimony is conflicting, Brown was described by some as holding his hands up while he was shot repeatedly. In the ensuing weeks, the streets of Ferguson were filled with demonstrators who believed that Brown’s death reflected widespread ethnic discrimination among law enforcement personnel. Though there were incidents of looting and arson of local businesses, the response by police was also criticized as excessive. Within a week a state of emergency was declared in the suburb and a midnight curfew was enforced.

The demonstrations and violence in Ferguson have led to ongoing discussions about ethnic profiling and the incidence of homicide by police while on duty in the United States. This is a particular problem in its cities, where ethnic minorities are often concentrated – in 22 of the country’s 100 largest urban areas, they now make up a majority of the population – as evidenced by statistics on police stops and street interrogations in New York City. Data collected by the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) since 2002 on the use of ‘stop-and-frisk’ by the New York Police Department (NYPD) shows that, of those individuals engaged by the NYPD officers, 54 per cent were African-American despite them making up just 25.5 per cent of the city’s population. Nearly 9 out of 10 of those targeted were completely innocent, a fact corroborated by the NYPD’s own reports.

Recent research, drawing on data between 2010 and 2012, has revealed that African-American young men and boys are 21 times more likely to be killed by on-duty police officers than their non-Latino white counterparts. In 2014, some of those killed were Akai Gurley, Ezell Ford and Rumain Brisbon. One of the most high-profile incidents was the killing of 43-year-old Eric Garner by an NYPD officer on 17 July in Staten Island, New York. The arrest and fatal choking of Garner, who was unarmed, were captured on video and quickly spread across the internet. In the video Garner can be heard pleading ‘I can’t breathe’ 11 times. This plea, along with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, soon became rallying cries of the anti-police brutality and equality movements in the United States. Popular outrage was further inflamed by grand jury rulings towards the end of the year that closed criminal proceedings against the officers involved in the Brown and Garner killings, triggering further protests in cities across the country.

One contributing factor to the tensions that arise in urban areas between minority communities and law enforcement agencies is the involvement of some members in violent crime, including gang membership. However, this occurs among the complexities of social, political and economic exclusion that fuel criminal behaviour – factors that are often overlooked in public discussions of urban violence within minority communities. The simplistic and discriminatory representation of these issues was reflected in comments by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who stated in an interview in the wake of Ferguson that ‘93 per cent of blacks are killed by other blacks’. He argued that attention should be focused on reducing crime within African-American communities rather than the killing of Brown by a white police officer, which Giuliani regarded as ‘the significant exception’.

While Giuliani’s comments were criticized by many commentators as harmfully reductive and misleading, evidence suggests that crime affecting African-American communities is disproportionately high, with African-Americans being four times more likely to die from homicide compared to the national average. However, in addressing urban violence it is neither useful nor effective to reinforce the inaccurate notion that members of minority communities form the overwhelming majority of perpetrators. New research on gang membership is evidence of this. A joint report from the US Department of Justice (DoJ) and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reveals that the use of law enforcement data creates incorrect perceptions about the ethnic make-up of gangs. The National Gang Center, which relies heavily on this dataset, reports that 84 per cent of gang members are from ethnic minorities. However, when these statistics are combined with self-reporting studies, the demographic of gang membership changes considerably. This is the case in the evaluation of the Gang Resistance Education Training (GREAT) programme, which indicates that nationally about 25 per cent of gang members are non-Latino whites. The report further notes that the factors driving gang membership should not be simplified in these terms: ‘most risk factors cut across… ethnic lines, including the negative consequences associated with poverty, immigration, discrimination and social isolation’.

For instance, decades of research has tried to determine the extent to which spatial segregation impacts on minorities in urban areas and issues such as educational attainment, social isolation, housing, poverty and health. In Chicago, a 2012 joint report from the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and the Center on Human Needs at Virginia Commonwealth University found that ethnic segregation in the city’s neighbourhoods caused as much as a 33-year difference in life expectancy between non-Latino white residents and certain minorities. However, other recent studies based in Chicago and elsewhere have suggested that African-American and other non-Latino minorities were more likely to report poorer health while living in predominantly non-Latino white neighbourhoods compared to those living in segregated minority neighbourhoods. One rationale given for this, substantiated by past studies, is that social isolation of minorities living within non-Latino white neighbourhoods leads to higher incidence of poor health.

Another issue that is especially acute within urban areas is educational inequality, with new evidence demonstrating continued school segregation, particularly within the country’s inner cities. A report from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights from March 2014 identifies that African-Americans on average have less access to rigorous educational programmes and are more frequently taught by lower-paid teachers with less experience. Furthermore, African-American students are four times as likely as non-Latino white students to attend schools where one out five teachers do not meet all state teaching requirements. The same Department of Education report found that ethnic minorities are more likely to be suspended or expelled overall, and that African-American students are three times as likely to be suspended or expelled compared to their white peers. Though the reasons for the increasing segregation within the schooling system are diverse, there are clear indications that school zoning policies favour affluent neighbourhoods, leaving minority students from poor inner-city areas disadvantaged and forced to attend under-resourced schools. The movement towards privately funded charter schools is also exacerbating unequal access to quality education among the country’s youth.

Sub-standard education for poor students attending schools in less affluent neighbourhoods, as is the case for many minority children, has a lifetime effect on their future economic wellbeing. Furthermore, limited educational opportunities for minority students have been associated with a phenomenon known as the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’, particularly as the expansion of the presence of police officers inside schools has led to increased contact with the criminal justice system. Infractions that were previously dealt with by teachers and school administrators now lead to fines and even incarceration in juvenile facilities. This experience has long-term ramifications, as children and adolescents sent to juvenile facilities are 37 times more likely to be arrested again as adults. Students with criminal records are further marginalized in some school districts through the use of alternative schools, which segregate them from the general student population. The discrimination within the school system is borne out in their disproportionate incarceration rates in the country’s prisons, with African-Americans accounting for 41 per cent of those imprisoned though they make up just 13 per cent of the national population.

While stronger institutional safeguards and a steady process of rebuilding trust between African-American community members and the police force are urgently required, greater efforts must also be invested in tackling the root drivers of inequality, alienation and disenfranchisement that have perpetuated violence and social exclusion in American cities. Only by recognizing and addressing the disparities experienced by many African-Americans in education, employment, housing and other areas will the long-term situation of the community be improved.

Dominican-Haitian man with baby in the Dominican Republic. Credit: MRG.

Dominican-Haitian man with baby in the Dominican Republic. Credit: MRG.

Using street theatre to tackle discrimination in the Dominican Republic

Livia Saccardi

‘They do not accept us. In Haiti we are not Haitians. In the Dominican Republic we are not Dominicans. So where are we from?’

‘She told me that my parents were foreigners, and she did not want to give me my papers. After one week I went back there and I told her that my parents are not foreigners and that if she is a Dominican, then so are my parents.’

This is what two young women in the Dominican Republic, both members of the country’s Haitian minority, said when interviewed for the documentary film Say My Name. Dominico-Haitians represent a substantial minority of up to a million people and form a distinct ethnic group. But although many Dominicans have Haitian ancestors and connections, anti-Haitian xenophobia is rife – and the state, despite their considerable contributions to the country, still considers them ‘in transit’. Yet only a few government officials acknowledge the existence of this prejudice: in general, authorities claim there is no discrimination.

In this challenging context, beginning in 2010, MRG partnered with a local organization, Movimiento de Mujeres Dominico Haitiana (MUDHA), to challenge commonly held racist attitudes and stereotypes through drama and theatre. This provided an opportunity to engage ordinary members of the majority community in debates about diversity, difference, discrimination, equality and justice. MUDHA, having recruited a theatre troupe with a mix of Dominico-Haitian and Dominican actors, then developed the focus of the play through research. This involved spending time with the minority community – talking with different community members, cleaning a local children’s playing area, organizing baseball games – to identify the main challenges for the Dominico-Haitian population. Through this approach, it became clear that the main obstacle confronting them was the absence of official recognition, citizenship and identity documentation.

Their situation was then dramatized in their play to allow the actors to express these issues vividly to a wider audience. ‘The programme defied racism. It allowed Haitian people to say in public “I am here. I am like this …”’, said one community member working with MUDHA. Through engaging storylines, mixing humour and tragedy, the performance communicated the discrimination that young minority members had experienced to a wider audience. Though the group faced some challenges, especially in engaging the majority population, the final results greatly exceeded the original targets. Street theatre enabled MUDHA to reach out to new audiences and draw them in emotionally with the story. Rosa Lidia Yan, one of the actors, says:

‘We are trying to raise awareness in our own community and the general public. In our play we are expressing our difficulties in getting identity papers and difficulties with discrimination.… The theatre is a help, it gives support to people, supporting those that have problems with their documentation not to give up their fight, to continue defending their rights. Because if we do not defend our rights, nobody else will do it!’

This was echoed by Sirana Dolis, acting head of MUDHA, who said:

‘We know that the fight will be long and maybe I will not see it [the end] but my grandchildren and great-grandchildren here in the Dominican Republic, they can say their grandmother fought for this.’

[1] Davies, J.D., ‘Latin America: Afro-Descendants’, in R. Green (ed.), State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2006, London, MRG, December 2005, p. 71.

[2] United States Census Bureau, ‘Annual estimates of the resident population by sex, race, and Hispanic origin for the United States, states, and counties: April 1, 2010 to July 1, 2014: 2014 population estimates’, retrieved 1 October 2015,

[3] MRG, ‘Brazil: Afro-Brazilians’, in World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, retrieved 1 October 2015,

This story pack marks The International Decade for People of African Descent, officially launched by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.