Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

COLOMBIA: Indigenous Groups in Danger of Disappearing

Constanza Vieira

BOGOTA, Jul 28 2008 (IPS) - The Permanent People’s Tribunal warned in its final statement on Colombia of "the imminent danger of physical and cultural extinction faced by 28 indigenous groups," adding that 18 of the communities have less than 100 members, "and are suspended between life and death."

The 28 groups in question are the Nukak, Shiripu, Wipibi, Amorúa, Guayabero, Taiwano, Macaguaje, Pisamira, Muinane, Judpa, Yauna, Bara, Ocaina, Dujos, Piaroa, Carabayo, Nonuya, Matapí, Cacua, Kawiyarí, Tutuyo, Tariano, Yagua, Carapaná, Chiricoa, Achagua, Carijona and Masiguare, who live in different parts of this civil war-torn country.

"Their disappearance from the face of the earth would constitute, in the 21st century, not only a disgrace for the Colombian state and for humanity as a whole, but genocide and a crime against humanity because of action or failure to act by the institutions of the state in order to help these peoples who are on the verge of disappearing," says the ermanent People’s Tribunal (PPT) statement, issued last week.

Of Colombia’s 43 million people, 1.4 million are indigenous, according to the latest census, from 2005, which counted 87 different native groups, although Colombia's National Indigenous Organisation (ONIC) identifies 102 distinct communities. The difference is accounted for by the fact that the census grouped linguistic families as a single ethnic group.

The PPT, which investigates and tries human rights violations around the world, is the successor to the Russell Tribunal, which in the 1960s investigated war crimes committed during the 1965-1975 Vietnam War, and in the 1970s investigated crimes against humanity committed by U.S.-backed dictatorships in Latin America.

Also known as the International War Crimes Tribunal, the Russell Tribunal was named for its organiser, British philosopher, activist and pacifist Bertrand Russell.


Although the PPT’s verdicts are non-binding, they are based on international law and legal precedent and take into account the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. The definition of impunity used by the PPT was adopted by the United Nations, according to Italian Dr. Gianni Tognoni, the PPT’s secretary general and a member of the panel of judges.

The PPT presented its final verdict on Jul. 23, after two and a half years of sessions that assessed the impact of the activities of foreign corporations on the rights of indigenous people in Colombia.

"Today I am very sad. They say the world has advanced, that it is civilised now, that there are human rights, that very significant progress has been made towards the protection of human beings on planet Earth," Lorenzo Muelas, governor of the Guambiano people and a former senator and former governor of the southwestern province of Cauca, told IPS.

"But for indigenous people, for us, that civilisation has never existed, nor have there ever been human rights," said Muelas, the only Colombian sitting on the panel of judges.

The PPT said it had observed "a profound lack of recognition of the identity of indigenous peoples," and thus the violation of "their right to exist…according to their own ways of life, customs, traditions and world view."

The Colombian constitution, which was rewritten in 1991, outlines broad rights for indigenous people, including recognition of their traditional leadership in their territories, as well as direct budget transfers for their own educational and health systems.

In addition, according to the constitution, indigenous groups must be consulted about decisions that affect them, like mining or oil production projects in their territories – a provision that is not complied with, however.

Muelas, who was a member of the constituent assembly that rewrote the constitution, said he thought at the time: "A break for us at last; at last we have something. I thought it would help strengthen us. But no, it wasn't possible. That’s why we are in the state we are in now.

"I believe in protesting. An international SOS had to be sent out about these 18 indigenous peoples. But we are thinking now about what to do," he added, since the PPT verdict "is not legally binding on any state."

"I feel impotent, it makes me very sad. I feel pain for my fatherland, for my brothers and sisters," said Muelas, who added that "I don't only represent indigenous people, but also Afro-descendants and campesinos (peasant farmers) who suffer the same consequences that we do."

In its previous statements, produced by 17 national and international hearings and six specialised hearings prior to last week’s final session, the PPT had stopped short of describing the plight of indigenous people in Colombia as genocide.

But the final verdict states that in this South American country, which has basically been in the grip of civil war since 1946, indigenous groups and the labour movement are the targets of genocide, which was also committed against the Patriotic Union, a leftist party that emerged in 1985 from a peace agreement with the leftist guerrillas but was completely wiped out by death squads.

With respect to indigenous people, the concept of genocide has to do with "the fact that these are specific groups of people who are disappearing because of the action, or inaction, of the state or an armed group," Philippe Texier, a member of the panel of judges, told IPS.

That "is the situation faced by a number of indigenous groups in Colombia," said Texier, a French judge and the chairman of the U.N. Committee for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

These groups are not disappearing simply because they are being absorbed into the dominant culture, but "because these people have had their natural resources taken away from them, their means to a livelihood, even their food, their water and sometimes their land, since many of them have been displaced from their homes," said Texier.

The PPT verdict explains that in the indigenous world view, their territory represents the universe, including whatever is above and below ground, and their land is sacred, the foundation of their social fabric, physical subsistence, work, solidarity and, in general, their sense of autonomy.

"The Colombian government, as well as other armed actors and national and transnational sectors, participate in different ways in the deployment of strategies that have the objective of expelling indigenous peoples from areas of economic interest," says the ruling.

This is done "to facilitate the exploitation of these areas by companies, the large majority of which are transnational corporations," it adds.

The verdict also describes a "widespread" phenomenon in which indigenous civilians are the target of "terror sown by armed groups, frequently at the service of transnational companies, in order to both clear out the territory before the start of economic activities and to clamp down on protests against such activities."

In that context, the militarisation of indigenous territories "is associated with major production projects," especially in the mining and oil industries and agribusiness, which also require large infrastructure works, the PPT states.

"The military presence is accompanied by restrictions on access to large swathes of territory and by problems of obtaining supplies of goods and services," it adds.

At the same time, it says, the rightwing government of Álvaro Uribe has promoted "national laws that are incompatible with the Colombian constitution….and which do not recognise the rights of indigenous peoples as guaranteed by the international treaties signed by Colombia."

The large-scale exploitation of natural resources and the resultant pollution lead to the destruction of traditional indigenous ways of life – farming, fishing and hunting – the verdict adds.

The ancestral territory of one-quarter of Colombia’s indigenous population is not legally recognised as belonging to them, and the government has stopped creating new reservations. More than 400 applications are collecting dust in the Interior Ministry’s national land unit.

The PPT tried 26 transnational corporations for making profits against a backdrop of violence in Colombia, including U.S. biochemical giant Monsanto, which produces the herbicide used to spray coca crops.

The aerial fumigation, carried out as part of the U.S.-financed anti-drug and counterinsurgency Plan Colombia, "gravely affected 105 indigenous territories between 2000 and 2006," says the verdict.

The PPT’s final hearing was presided over by Argentine Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.

 
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