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LATIN AMERICA: Elusive Right to Land Inflames Indigenous Protests

Milagros Salazar* - Tierramérica

LIMA, Nov 14 2008 (IPS) - In the past two decades Latin America has made advances in signing international and national instruments that recognise and protect the rights of indigenous peoples. The problem is that these laws are not always heeded by governments, and the lack of enforcement has fuelled protests.

Women planting potatoes in the Peruvian Andes.  Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

Women planting potatoes in the Peruvian Andes. Credit: Milagros Salazar/IPS

For native peoples, the land is associated with vital sustenance, but also with the way they perceive the world, and is linked to the culture and legacy from their ancestors – and what they will leave to their own descendants.

Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru have ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169, adopted in 1989 to ensure the territorial, social, cultural and economic rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.

All, except for Colombia, voted in 2007 for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“In theory there is an important recognition, but in practice it doesn’t exist,” Colombian Senator Jesús Enrique Piñacué, of the Indigenous Social Alliance, told Tierramérica.

A major problem is that the government does not bring policies and measures that could affect their communities to the indigenous groups for consultation, such as the government’s approval of private investment in their territories. Prior consultation with native communities is required by Article 6 of Convention 169, says Piñacué.

Starting Oct. 12, Colombian indigenous groups held an unprecedented mobilisation in open defiance of policies of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe and in demand for recognition of their collective rights.

In that country of 44 million people, of which 1.6 million are indigenous, one indigenous person is killed in the decades-long civil war every 53 hours on average, and since 2002 at least 54,000 have been displaced from their ancestral lands, according to the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia.

Colombia’s 1991 constitution recognises native populations as autonomous and with the right to collective ownership of their lands, and the right to maintain their own languages, beliefs and justice systems.

Colombia did not vote in favour of the U.N. Declaration, citing national security concerns, because the document recommends against conducting military actions in indigenous territories, and states that if such activities are to take place, the native community should be consulted.

In Peru’s Amazon jungle region, local indigenous communities staged massive protests in August to demand the reversal of several decrees that promote private investment in their territories.

Congress agreed to repeal two of the most controversial decrees that had been approved in the context of the free trade agreement with the United States.

But the government insists that ILO Convention 169, ratified by Peru in 1994, does not give the communities the right to veto activities that are conducted on their land, and has merely held informational workshops as “consultations” with the people about mining and petroleum concessions that have already been granted to corporations.

“Many officials don’t even know the content of the agreements, and others misinterpret it,” Graham Gordon, of the non-governmental Peace and Hope Association, which participated in drafting the civil society report on compliance with Convention 169, told Tierramérica.

Peru was one of the main proponents of the U.N. Declaration, but the government now emphasises its “non-binding” character.

Article 42 of the Declaration maintains that the United Nations and the states party “promote respect for and full application of the provisions of this Declaration and follow up the effectiveness of this Declaration” – which is not a binding legal provision.

The Peruvian constitution of 1993 recognises the cultural diversity and political participation of peoples as groups, but it refers to native and rural communities who occupy 55 percent of the farmland, and not ethnic indigenous peoples as such.

Ecuador, meanwhile, has made great strides in the area of indigenous rights. After the June 1990 Inti Raymi uprising led by the Ecuadorean Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities (CONAIE), the indigenous movement became a key actor on the national stage.

The lawmakers elected to Congress in representation of the Pachakutik Plurinational Unity Movement/New Country spearheaded the ratification of Convention 169 in 1997 and, the following year, the constitutional recognition of prior consultation of indigenous communities before the start of mining and oil projects on their lands.

This year, with the new constitution approved on Sept. 28, Ecuador declared itself a plurinational and intercultural nation – not just multiethnic. Thirty-five percent of the population is indigenous, according to native groups.

However, indigenous leader Luis Macas, former CONAIE president, explained to Tierramérica that the new constitution should have established not just the requirement of prior consultation, but prior consent by local native populations, because only then would the government be obligated to respect their demands.

Indigenous groups have announced an uprising if large-scale mining operations begin on their lands, but President Rafael Correa insists that the investment initiatives will provide funding for social development projects in their communities.

In 1990, Mexico became one of the first countries to ratify Convention 169, but its measures have failed to reflect and recognise the enormous, long-standing problems that native peoples face, Nahua Indian Matías Trejo, a sociologist at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, told Tierramérica.

Under pressure from the barely-armed Zapatista indigenous guerrilla movement in southern Mexico, the 2001 constitution recognised the pluricultural nature of the country, home to indigenous peoples who conserve their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions.

But it is still the government that determines what to do with the territories of the 62 distinct indigenous ethnic groups in Mexico, where indigenous people are variously estimated to make up between 12 and 30 percent of the country’s 104 million people (the smaller estimate is based on the number of people who actually speak an indigenous language).

Unlike other countries in the Americas, in Mexico there are no signs of massive indigenous mobilisations.

Forty percent of indigenous Mexicans age 15 or older have not completed primary school, and 18 percent of these have had no formal schooling at all.

More than 40 percent of their homes have dirt floors and are not built to withstand catastrophes like earthquakes or floods.

In Peru, the poorest district in the country is Balsapuerto, in the Amazon rainforest. More than 90 percent of the native peoples living there lack basic services like water and sanitation.

(*With reporting by Helda Martínez from Bogotá, Kintto Lucas from Quito and Diego Cevallos from Mexico City. This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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