The struggle to protect land is a shared mission in the Americas that has been globalized together with exploitation.
On July 30, 25 organizations from the indigenous, Afro-descendent, and human rights movements from 10 countries in the region met with Rose-Marie Belle Antoine, Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to present cases of violations of their rights. From the leaders’ presentations, two lessons regarding the situation of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants may be drawn, as well as the necessity to protect their lives and territories.
- “This land is ours, ours from before”: Protection of territory against natural resource exploitation.
Central and South America form a central pantry of the global market. Several decades ago, countries in the region entered the international economy selling coffee, cotton, or corn. Today, after several decades, their economies have gone back to reliving the past, depending on the extraction of a product. Now, instead of agricultural products, they are selling copper, coal, or oil.
In this expansion, those most affected are the people that live in the places that are now the focus of disputes regarding exploitation. From Mexico to Argentina, indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants feel the expansion of the economic border in flesh and bone.
As Peruvian indigenous organizations informed the Rapporteur, indigenous peoples in the Amazon region suffer from the impacts of gold exploitation in their rivers. Additionally, Afro-descendant communities confront the impacts of coal exploitation that has effects on the air and land use. Together with these impacts, there are also forms of resistance.
For example, the U´wa people, in Colombia, continue fighting to prevent oil extraction in their lands. They have opposed the exploitation and even the realization of consultation proceedings because oil represents the earth’s blood, not a source of resources. To achieve this, they have created a transnational support network that begin in the middle of Curabá (Boyaca), and reaches across the globe, including indigenous organizations, human rights organizations, activists, and academics. The global group the U´wa have created, together with the strength of their leaders, is what has kept the drills outside their land.
The Sarayaku people have lived a similar situation, managing to prevent oil exploitation in their land. Nonetheless, after a large social and legal mobilization that included a decision from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Sarayaku peoples live in a minefield. The Argentine company CGC planted pentolite in the Amazon to explore for oil, which prevents the Sarayaku from using the entirety of their land. Therefore, they have mixed their work in the jungle and river with marches and legal arguments. Their experience has been replicated by other indigenous peoples throughout Latin America, who have learned strategies of resistance and mobilization from the community. As Nelson Gualinga mentioned in Panama, “the Sarayaku people were an example and this is the story that we will tell our brothers outside Ecuador.”
2. “Tourism only distracts a few:” protection of land against the expansion of tourist projects
While some people enjoy the apparent paradises of the region, others are displaced from their homes and confront changes to their lifestyles imposed without prior consultation. The second focus of economic projects in the region is on touristic projects. Although they are presented as ecologically friendly economic projects, in practice, these initiatives negatively affect those who inhabited the forests and beaches.
Honduras is one of the focal points for the violation of the rights of Afro-descendant peoples. Beaches that were previously full of fishing boats are now bursting with tanning chairs and souvenir shops. Tourists enter one door, while Afro-descendants leave through the other.
Therefore, OFRANEH has denounced how the expansion of tourism projects in the country has displaced hundreds of Afro-descendant families. Miriam Miranda, one of their leaders, recounted how the changes in her land has led to the creation of alliances with other social organizations that have experience, for example, litigating in the Inter-American system. “Our movement grows from telling and listening to different experiences.”
Further south, in the Islas del Rosario in Colombia, the black community is fighting for compliance with the Constitutional Court’s ruling that the State return them their land, and thus put an end to privatization of the land. Black organizations in the region have found a replicable strategy in the Orika’s struggle, which they have used to protect their beaches. Therefore, one of their leaders mentioned in Panama, “I come from Costa Rica to tell our story and see how others use their land.”
The stories told during the meeting show that the report the Commission will publish at the end of the year is an important opportunity to evaluate the level of protection of the rights of indigenous and black communities. And while it is being written in Washington, indigenous and Afro-descendant people in the region will continue to build alliances to mobilize together, share experiences, and create mechanisms of resistance.
*Carlos Andrés Baquero is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).
Photo credit: Islas del Rosario, Colombia. Photo by Ben Bowes.