Indigenous peoples tell UN of persecution

Murders of environmental activists and lack of consultation top the agenda at New York forum

Indigenous peoples are being persecuted and have called for an urgent examination of the dangerous situation faced by those defending their rights and the environment, representatives said at the UN’s Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) recently. Violations of indigenous rights and the lack of proper consultations on the impacts of large infrastructure and extractive projects took center stage as thousands of representatives of indigenous groups attended the 15th session of the forum in New York. “This is a real concern,” Álvaro Esteban Pop, one of the leaders of the UNFPII, told Diálogo Chino, adding: “There’s not a single country in Latin America that doesn’t have cases of indigenous rights violations. In almost all the regions of the world we have situations that violate the right of these peoples to be consulted.” The forum provides a space for native and indigenous peoples to draw attention to the difficulties they face and propose recommendations to the UN’s 193 member states. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted on December 20, 2006. A decade later, leaders are demanding a worldwide evaluation of their rights, with a special focus on cases of violations against defenders of the environment. According to Rodrigo de la Cruz of the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), those who live on the frontline of conflicts over resources and the impacts of large projects need most protection: “We have legal instruments and regulations, but the authorities are silent,” he told Diálogo Chino. Esteban Pop says the dire current situation is reminiscent of the oil exploration era, which was marred by conflict: “What we’re seeing is that there is a persecution of the people who are spearheading the fight to respect nature. We’re seeing murders, imprisonments, massacres, and genocide.” Indigenous peoples also bear witness to the corruption of constitutional principles by large corporations in many countries, Pop said. “The case of Berta Cáceres makes this quite clear and demonstrates the modus operandi of this marriage between corrupt officialdom and a corporation that corrupts,” said Pop, “we want to have a comprehensive review of this reality.” Berta Cáceres, the Honduran leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was murdered in March this year for opposing the Agua Zarca hydropower project. The project would mean reorienting the flow of the Gualcarque river, an important resource for indigenous Lenca communities in Rio Blanco and one they consider sacred. “We asked for better conditions and empowerment of indigenous women, who are the ones that suffer most from these conflicts,” said Pop, highlighting that the Permanent Forum is also calling on the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) to recommend that an indigenous woman be seated on the UN Security Council (SC). Defenders of natural resources The world needs to start treating nature as a “collective space for mankind”, Pop said, adding that the task of defending natural resources falls on indigenous people since the vast majority of water resources and 60% forests are located within their ancestral territories. Pop said this new approach should harness the will of political leaders, but also the will of financial and business leaders. “It’s for them to recognise they are endangering mankind with these actions,” he said. In Latin America, only Suriname and Guyana have not ratified the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. The 1989 agreement is an instrument that enshrines the right of Latin America’s more than 500 indigenous groups comprising 40 million people to be consulted on development projects that affect them. Rodrigo de la Cruz, however, laments that the covenant is non-binding. “The formal consultation exists, but what we talk about in these consultations does not impact the decisions made by the state,” he said. For almost a year, COICA has been trying to advance discussions and present a proposal for binding safeguards, which would oblige governments to consult with indigenous peoples. Brazil’s national development bank BNDES, one of the largest in the world, is currently trialing a binding system of safeguards. BNDES is responsible for financing 60% of the projects aimed at improving connectivity in South America, known as the Initivative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA). Rodrigo de la Cruz laments the absence of any “strategy for political dialogue” in Ecuador, where COICA’s regional headquarters are based. Conflict over the impacts of the El Mirador mining project was linked to the murder of Shuar leader José Isidro Tendetza Antún in December 2014. Tendetza’s body was discovered just days before he was due to go to Lima, Peru, to participate in the UN Climate Conference (COP20). In April, two suspects in the case were acquitted and released by local authorities. According to de la Cruz, conflicts such as that at El Mirador turn violent because there is no space for dialogue between actors. Pop said that Tendentza’s murder highlights the weakness of the rule of law in remote, resource-rich regions and the power of corporations that “have no ethics and no respect for human rights”.