Indigenous visions for rights-based approaches to sustainability


The problem

Indigenous Peoples in Latin America face increasing threats and violations of their human rights, particularly when they protect their lands and territories from outside exploitation. These violations damage not only the economic, social and cultural wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples but also weaken protection of the region’s globally important natural environments. The global COVID-19 pandemic has been observed to accelerate these processes while also producing new forms of Indigenous resistance and solidarity.

The solution

To co-produce research and digital technologies to contribute to an observatory of violations of Indigenous rights, environmental protections and responses to COVID-19 that will empower Indigenous communities, provide evidence for civil society and other actors who fight to defend human rights and the environment, and promote development and policy options which are inclusive and respect the cosmovisions and collective experiences of Indigenous communities.

  • Sustainable Development Goals

    This project examined the following SDGs:

    SDG 3 – Good Health and Well-being
    SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities 
    SDG 12 – Responsible Consumption and Production
    SDG 15  Life on Land
    SDG 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
    SDG 17  Partnerships for the Goals

    Find out more about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Project description

This project will build on and connect two successful parallel streams of research and networking activities at the University of Sussex that until now, despite obvious synergies, have remained separate.

First, the project builds on the work of Dr Mary Menton, building on her IDCF-funded project, 'Mapping Indigenous Rights Violations in Northeastern Brazil', as well as a British Academy-funded project ‘Sustainable’ development and atmospheres of violence: experiences of environmental defenders'. The mapping work in Brazil has created a network of Indigenous rights researchers (Dr Felipe Milanez, Dr Jurema Machado, Fellipe Sotto Cruz Tuxá) and students focusing on collective forms of resistance and collective experiences of violence and human rights abuses. Herein, violence includes direct physical or psychological violence but also structural violence, inequalities and ‘slow violence’ via environmental degradation and the erosion of Indigenous rights. Our research will contribute to the strengthening of this ‘Observatory of indigenous rights violations’ and an online platform currently being developed by Dr Fran Lambrick as part of the 'Atmospheres of Violence' project. This project represents adaptation of the model of student-led observatories tested in Brazil to include Peru.

This theoretical, technical and methodological work will then be integrated into the PI’s recent collaborative research and networking activities in Peru. Centred on innovative and non-hierarchical collaborations and pedagogical interventions with Indigenous Peoples in Peruvian Amazonia.

We are integrating these results into a framework for rights-based approaches to sustainable development that offers an alternative to the current negative impacts of development on indigenous rights in Latin America.

Development challenges and DAC

The project addresses one of Peru’s key development challenges, the support of the rights and livelihoods of its Indigenous Peoples, while also contributing to the country’s commitment to environmental and biodiversity protection.

Peru is included on the latest DAC List of ODA Recipients as an Upper Middle Income Country. This position reflects Peru’s recent economic growth and development. However, its Indigenous populations remain largely impoverished, with higher rates of morbidity and mortality than their non-indigenous counterparts. In the Amazon region these differences are compounded by a lack of appropriate educational, health and transport infrastructure even as the region faces increasing social and environmental issues. Moreover, in contrast with their political influence in neighbouring countries such as Bolivia and Brazil, Indigenous Peoples’ sustained engagement with politics at the national level has only recently emerged in Peru. It is for these reasons that the project is focused on the rights and voices of Peru’s Indigenous Peoples as their socio-political movement emerges.

Peruvian Amazonia also highlights the ongoing tensions between economic development goals and environmental protection with Indigenous Peoples caught between the government’s often conflicting approaches to both (See Global Witness 'Peru’s Deadly Environment'). Thus, while Indigenous Peoples’ Rights and territories are recognised in the constitution, they are nevertheless threatened by government policies promoting agriculture, logging and new transport infrastructure in Amazonia.

Through technological innovation and capacity building the project will help to ensure that local priorities are heard and acted on even as environmental protection remains a priority.


  • Training of Indigenous students at the two partner universities in Peru: Universidad Nacional Intercultural de la Amazonia (UNIA) in Yarinachocha, NOPOKI-UCSS in Atalaya in research methods, GIS applications including drone mapping and filming, and design for an online platform
  • Extension of research fellowship for two students in Brazil to focus on GIS to map the data from both countries and keep the Brazil observatory updated
  • Research fellowships for Peruvian students focused on collection and mapping of new data on rights violations
  • An online course for the Brazilian and Peruvian indigenous students to share lessons learned from the Brazilian mapping project and share lived experiences of rights violations across countries
  • Collaborate with indigenous students and in-country researchers on the publication of papers. Three in development are: 'Coalition-based, Bottom-up Socio-environmental Governance in the Absence of the State: A Case Study from Peruvian Amazonia during and post-COVID 19', 'A Framework for Indigenous Visions for Rights-based Approaches to Sustainability and Alternatives to Development', and 'The Co-production of Knowledge During a Pandemic: Adapting to new realities in mapping indigenous rights in Peru and Brazil'
  • The production of a Peru-based (Spanish) website and continued development of the Brazil-based website: Um Outro Céu (Another Sky Project)
  • Online proposal writing workshop
  • Drone and GPS mapping training for students, researchers and local indigenous leaders (drones and GPS’ belong to UNIA)
  • Adaptation of the Tella app to the Peruvian context.


  • An ‘Observatory of Indigenous rights violations’ for Ucayali which will link to the indigenous rights observatory in Brazil and inform the online platform built for the 'Atmospheres of Violence' project
  • A geo-referenced map of incidences of indigenous rights violations in the Peruvian Amazon and the actors/development projects and economic sectors linked to those violations
  • Four co-authored academic papers
  • Six student thesis proposals approved for funding (and continued supervision by Dr Aoife Bennett after the project)
  • Petition to the Peruvian government for socio-environmental crisis control and intervention using data from fieldwork
  • A policy brief (in Spanish and English)
  • Preparation of one large-scale funding application.

Research excellence

The PI, Dr Evan Killick, has 20 years of research experience in Amazonia including in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil while both Co-PIs, Dr Mary Menton and Dr Mika Peck, have similar levels of knowledge and experience in the region with Peck focused on Ecuador and Colombia and Menton working across both Brazil and Peru.

The team also has a strong track record of grant capture and successful completion. Killick won a large ESRC grant to examine the social and environmental impacts of the implementation of official ‘Protected Areas’ in Peru, work which this new project and collaboration will complement. Peck has a similarly successful record of internationally recognised research, with over £500,000 in research funding, and £1,000,000 applied conservation projects.

Dr Aoife Bennett has been conducting research in Ucayali since 2012 and raised more than £120,000 for her post-grad field research there. She currently works as a research scholar at the UNIA and is professionally and socially embedded in the study region. The Brazilian partners are ‘rising stars’ in political ecology and indigenous studies in Brazil and are Co-Is on projects funded by the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and other international funders.

Long term sustainability of the network

The project is founded on the established research and collaborative networks of the core team which have been built over many years, and which this project will help to support and then extend through the new partnership with UNIA and its national affiliates and between Global Studies and Life Sciences at Sussex. Fieldwork, training and the UNIA-based workshop, as well as student exchanges and the dissemination events in both Peru and Sussex will all strengthen current working relationships and build new South-South relations. The final period of the project will focus on future opportunities and funding applications.

Project progress

The project has brought together our team’s networks in Brazil with counterparts in Peru. In the first 9 months of our phase one of the IDCF-SSRP funding the project has achieved the following:

In Peru:

  • An article by Milagros Toala, Aoife Bennett and Mary Menton (2020): 'COVID-19 as camouflage for the depredation of access to information, public participation and socio-environmental justice in the Peruvian jungle'.
  • Extensive virtual research during the pandemic, including a database of relevant materials, fieldnotes from webinars and social media interactions.
  • After quarantine two field trips were undertaken by Aofie Bennett and local indigenous leaders in regions severely affected by the pandemic where indigenous leaders have died and chaotic socio-political and environmental circumstances continue. Additionally Bennett has been actively participating in local indigenous movements that promote intercultural medicine and institutional participation for indigenous people, this will inform a paper (in progress) on indigenous peoples leadership of pandemic responses in the absence of the State. This work helped to identify critical areas for continued work when fieldwork with indigenous students began in February 2021.

Further IDCF-SSRP funding for phase 2 supports the staff time to continue to build on the progress of the project. This new funding will facilitate uptake of new, unexpected and novel opportunities to produce additional high-quality, high-impact academic journal articles focused on environmental justice as well as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We also propose additional training in technology (drones, GPS, smartphone apps) for the students and staff at the UNIA. This training will directly benefit indigenous communities in conditions of socio-political violence through high-definition mapping of areas of conflict and illegal forest activities for provision to the authorities through indigenous organisations. We will also continue to collaborate with our UK-partner Not1More and the creators of the Tella app in the use of secure smartphone technologies to document human rights violations, adapting the app to the needs of indigenous and grassroots organisations from Brazil to Peru, including its translation into Spanish and Shipibo (the language spoken by Indigenous Peoples who live in the Ucayali region of the Amazon rainforest in Peru).

Timeline and funding


January 2020-July 2021


IDCF-SSRP funding


Centred on Indigenous and Intercultural Universities in Peru, UNIA (Universidad Nacional Intercultural de la Amazoía) and NOPOKI UCSS (Universidad Católica Sedes Sapientiae), the project will bring together the intercultural, collaborative work of the Principle Investigator (PI) in Peru and Co-PIs in Brazil with the new research partner at UNIA. Through capacity building for faculty and students at UNIA and NOPOKI and technological innovation, we are co-producing a map of indigenous rights violations in the state of Ucayali in Peru and integrating this with similar efforts in Brazil. The work explores the collective experiences of Indigenous communities faced with human rights violations that emerge out of projects and policies that claim to foster ‘economic development’, support and amplify their voices and build pathways for their integration into national policy discussions and rights-based approaches to sustainable development.

Related work

This ‘Indigenous Visions’ project, funded by IDCF-SSRP, builds on Dr Mary Menton’s IDCF-funded project ‘Mapping Indigenous Rights Abuses in Northeast Brazil’ and the British Academy funded project ‘‘Sustainable’ Development and Atmospheres of Violence: Experiences of Environmental Defenders’. The website ‘Another Sky Project’ (or ‘Um Outro Céu’ in Brazilian Portuguese) was created to map acts of violence upon Brazilian indigenous peoples and exhibit indigenous art in response to this violence.

‘Another Sky’ also produced a one hour film called ‘Kin - The Hope of the World’ available with English subtitles on YouTube. This was produced by Indigenous filmmakers and was shown on public television in Brazil (TVE Bahia) in April 2021 as part of an ‘Indigenous Cinema’ series. The participation of the filmmakers led to the co-production of a show for the national TV station ‘Globo’ called ‘Falas da Terra’ (available on YouTube in Brazilian Portuguese).

'Environmental Defenders and Climate Justice' short film

As part of Not1More and SSRP researchers awareness raising activities during COP 26, the group, together with frontline environmental defenders and activists from Brazil, Tanzania and Cambodia set up workshops looking further into the links between violence to environmental defenders and climate justice, including film screenings, conversations with defenders and a collagraph printing workshop. These activities were also used as an opportunity to visually document the impactful work which researchers at the University of Sussex, frontline environmental defenders and their in-country partners had been undertaking over the last few years through the SSRP. With funding from the SSRP Impact Fund, video footage was filmed by Dave Aspinall Films during the COP-side events in November 2021 and now been put together as a 15-minute video. With the main focus being on environmental defenders, human rights abuses and climate action, the short film features interviews with frontline activists from Brazil, Tanzania and Cambodia and their fight for climate justice supported by Not1More representatives and SSRP researchers.

Media coverage

In Brazil:

University of Sussex news items:

The team

  • Principle Investigator (PI) and Co-Investigators

    Principal Investigator


  • In-country partners
    • Dr Aoife Bennett, UNIA (Universidad Nacional Intercultural de la Amazoía), Peru
    • Milagros Toala, UNIA (Universidad Nacional Intercultural de la Amazonía), Peru
    • Dr Jurema Machado, Universidade Federal do Recôncavo da Bahia (UFRB), Brazil
    • Dr Felipe Milanez, Universidade Federal da Bahia (UFB), Brazil
    • Fellipe Sotto Cruz Tuxá, Universidade do Estado da Bahia (UNEB), Brazil
    • Dr Fran Lambrick, Not1More, UK.

Where we worked

Peru and Brazil.