Photo: Olinda City Hall via Flickr Creative Commons

This year alone, the Latin America and Caribbean region has been rocked by a series of dramatic political shifts. In countries like Colombia and Brazil, “the major trend is populist governments with a very far-right perspective,” says Dr. Omaira Bolaños, director of the Latin America program at the Rights and Resources Initiative. “They favor the interests of corporations and private developers over the rights of indigenous, Afro-descendant, and peasant communities.”

Originally from Colombia, Bolaños is an anthropologist and human rights expert who has spent the last two decades working to advance collective tenure rights for Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendants, local communities, and rural women in Latin America. On the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, she reflects on the human rights challenges facing indigenous, Afro-descendant, and peasant communities—and how they and their allies are joining forces to take on these challenges together.

Q: Earlier this year, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples released a report which found that around the world, persecution and violence against Indigenous Peoples defending their communities’ rights is on the rise. What are some of the ways you have encountered this in your own work in the Latin America region?

A: The report by the Special Rapporteur was very important and necessary at this stage in history, in terms of the current trends that we are seeing in the Latin America region. Historically, Indigenous Peoples in Latin America have always lived under the pressure of different interests—especially development actors. But as the middle class increases its demand for commodities that rely on natural resources to produce, there is a new wave of pressure being exerted by the extractives industry—including mining companies—that is reaching further and further into Indigenous Peoples’ territories.

Indigenous Peoples inhabit some of the most precious land in the world, areas with high biodiversity value and rich natural resources that are becoming very important for commodity production and for international markets. And as the pressure to gain access to these resources continues to rise, both state and non-state actors have started to question the need to honor Indigenous Peoples’ free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) rights, when it comes to making decisions about projects that may impact indigenous communities’ traditional ways of life and threaten the natural resources they depend upon. They have crafted a narrative in which the “national economic interest” is valued over the rights of Indigenous Peoples, and so it is usually under the guise of this narrative that Indigenous Peoples’ FPIC rights are being violated and undermined.

An example is in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a UNESCO biosphere reserve in the northern region, where four Indigenous Peoples (the Arhuaco, Kogui, Wiwa, and Kankuamo) have inhabited this territory for centuries and consider themselves the Guardians of the Earth. They’re under tremendous pressure from mining companies that are interested in exploiting their lands and have systematically undermined and violated their rights to prior consultation. There are hundreds of mining companies already operating in the area and more than 200 waiting to receive permits. Constitutional Court decisions have ruled in favor of these indigenous groups’ rights to prior consultation. They had created protocols for their consultation rights and for community-private sector relations. Even with all of these legal measures, and the recognition by UNESCO, the rights of these indigenous communities are still being overshadowed by the interests of the mining industry. This is a type of violation that you see over and over again, not only in Colombia, but across the region.

There is also currently a huge debate in Latin America around how road and infrastructure development is affecting communities. In Mexico, for example, Indigenous Peoples are asserting their consultation rights on a Mayan train project that plans to cross the states of Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas. They believe that the only people who will benefit from this project are the tourists and the tourism industry, but not the indigenous communities, who have no say.

Ultimately, it’s a question of whether governments want to prioritize national interests and economic development through the extraction of natural resources from indigenous communities, versus respecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples to be consulted and to maintain their ways of life that have proven to be environmentally sustainable.

Q: This month marks the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. What are the most dire and significant human rights challenges facing Afro-descendant, indigenous, and peasant communities in Latin America today?

A: Indigenous Peoples, Afro-descendants, and peasant communities—the three groups that make up the majority of rural populations—continue to suffer from discrimination based on their race, their ethnicity, their origins, and their ways of life. Compared to other populations as a whole, they have very limited access to services, to education, to development, and to justice.

Regarding the rights of Afro-descendants, there has been some progress in the enacting of regulations and mechanisms to combat racial discrimination and promote social inclusion. However, positive outcomes have a long way to go before reaching the Afro-descendant population on the ground. Few countries, like Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, have developed specific regulations on the land tenure rights of Afro-descendants.

The governments of the Latin America and Caribbean region made a joint commitment toward improving all of their legislation and programs related to Afro-descendant rights via the International Decade for People of African Descent 2015-2024. That commitment was a response to a long-term historical gap in the recognition of the rights of Afro-descendant peoples in the region. Some countries, like Mexico, have only recently formally acknowledged the existence of Afro-descendants as an integral population of the nation after a 2015 national survey that found that over one million people identified themselves as Afro-Mexicans. And, earlier this year in Brazil, the Federal Supreme Court upheld the rights of the country’s Afro-descendants when it ruled in favor of the constitutionality of Decree 4887 that defines the procedures for recognizing and titling Quilombola communities’ collective lands.

When I started working at RRI in 2009, it was my personal mission to bring the land rights of Afro-descendants to the forefront of our work, alongside the rights of Indigenous Peoples. At this point, we are one of the few organizations who are working to advance Afro-descendant communities’ collective tenure rights, and we want to continue making this issue very visible.

But there is still a lot of work to do in this regard. There’s a lot to overcome. Afro-descendant, indigenous, peasant communities, and rural women continue to be criminalized, killed, and displaced from their lands. They continue to face huge discrimination and pressure, with others who want to “mainstream” them into wider society and take away their traditional ways of life.

Q: In September, shortly after Iván Duque, the new president of Colombia, took office, you wrote an op-ed for the New York Times urging him to take action to end the widespread and systemic murders of indigenous and Afro-descendant community leaders. Now that Mr. Duque has been in office for 5 months, has he made any progress toward achieving peace, security, and stronger rights for these communities?

My piece for the New York Times was triggered by what is happening in Colombia right now. Since the signing of the peace agreement two years ago, we have seen an increase in the systematic and individual killings of community leaders, and it’s reaching a moment where the killings are at their peak. Every day, there is a leader being killed from the Afro-descendant community, from the indigenous community, and from the peasant communities.

But the systematic killing of community leaders hasn’t stopped. It continues. There is a national mobilization that is drawing attention to the fact that Decree 2137 of 2018, which the government passed to create the Commission of Timely Action Plan (PAO in Spanish) for defending social leaders, is not working; that the killings have not ceased; that impunity continues.

One of the critical cases relates to the Awá people, who have suffered so much killing that it has almost reached the point of extinction as a group. During the internal conflict of the past several decades, they suffered massacres. And now that the conflict has ceased, they are suffering from systematic killings. Just a few days ago, an entire family from the Awá community was killed. The Colombian National Indigenous Organization, ONIC, presented a report in July of this year which found that 66 percent of the country’s Indigenous Peoples are in danger of extinction.

It has become extremely difficult for indigenous, Afro-descendant, and peasant communities to be able to protect their leaders from the killings. So, around the time I published this op-ed, there was a huge mobilization from the international and national community calling for attention to this issue, pressuring the government to sign a decree that would provide protection to community leaders. This op-ed was one of the pieces that we produced to support that call.

Another critical issue: recently, 15 countries in Latin America signed the Escazú agreement, which was a commitment to take measures to protect the environment as well as the rights of environment defenders—mostly communities. Colombia didn’t sign the agreement, and we are still waiting for it to sign. Also, the UN recently approved a declaration on the rights of peasant communities. Colombia didn’t vote in favor of that, either. These all point to the question of whether the Colombian government is really taking serious steps to protect indigenous, Afro-descendant, and peasant communities.

Q: In Brazil, we are seeing a similar threat to indigenous rights and livelihoods, with the new president poised to strip protections for indigenous territories in the Amazon. What tools and resources can indigenous and environment rights defenders use to counter the exploitation of their resources? What can others do to support their efforts?

Brazil has just elected, with a great majority at the polls, a government that considers Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendants a burden to development and thinks there is no value in recognizing their territories. The new president has promised to open the Amazon to development, calling for opening the lands of Indigenous Peoples to investors, oil, mining—any type of investment in the region. If the Brazilian government develops actions and new regulations to limit the rights of indigenous and Afro-descendants, it could ignite a new wave of rollback of rights in the region.

But at the same time that pressure is building in Brazil, Colombia, and other parts of Latin America against community rights, we are also seeing indigenous organizations, Afro-descendant organizations, and civil society in general mobilize in unprecedented ways. They have coordinated actions to generate proposals, to resist the pressure, and to open up dialogue and speak on policies that affect Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendants and other groups.

Some are developing very specific strategies, such as establishing commitments with regional governments to continue defending their rights even if the national government is not listening. Many of them have created tools, like mapping their territories and providing information on the violation of rights in their region, and they are sharing these tools with other groups that don’t yet have this type of knowledge.

We are seeing indigenous groups, Afro-descendant groups, peasant groups, and women’s groups all working alongside their counterpart civil society organizations, bringing their unique knowledge, and highlighting their contributions to the country. This is a big part of the work that we at RRI want to do for next year: an analysis of the entrepreneurial initiatives that women from Afro-descendant and peasant communities are already developing, which will benefit their families and their communities.

There are many ways we can work to contain the possible rollback of rights. Indigenous, Afro-descendant, peasant, and women’s groups are now better positioned on different political platforms that allow them to open direct dialogue with the government to discuss compliance with international and national legal frameworks to protect their rights. They have used these legal frameworks, both international and national, to fight through the courts. We can provide support to keep people informed—not only of their rights, but of the new tools that they can use to stay alert—and warn them of the threats that are coming, like the changes in policy and decision-making by governments that will affect them. And we are also connecting different organizations across the region to facilitate the transfer of knowledge on all of these issues, and to make a consolidated push for their rights in this very difficult moment.

Q: Looking ahead to 2019, what are the biggest opportunities you see for indigenous and local communities fighting for rights recognition in Latin America?

A: One of the biggest foundations of discourse against the rights of Indigenous Peoples is the argument that giving rights to indigenous and Afro-descendant communities doesn’t allow the rest of society to access resources for development; that they do not contribute to the economic development of the country as a whole. So we need to continue to support Indigenous Peoples and local communities in advancing their own economic initiatives that are contributing to national development. We need to continue to demonstrate that Indigenous Peoples and local communities are contributing to conservation and to tackling climate change. People tend to see these groups only as beneficiaries of projects, but what we need to show is that indigenous, Afro-descendant, and local communities are not only contributing to the benefit of the country but also to the benefit of the whole world.

In Peru, for example, indigenous organizations we work with are creating a proposal on the indigenous economy that they will present to the government in order to help develop a public policy on food security. Their expertise on this issue is based on the fact that indigenous and local communities play a vital and often underestimated role in safeguarding the world’s food systems; in fact, 70 percent of food globally comes from small-scale food producers. This is an issue that needs to be reflected in national policies, and it’s an example of what Indigenous Peoples and local communities are doing to defend their rights—showing the government that they’re not just protesting other economic activities, they’re also proposing initiatives that can develop the country.

About the interviewee: Omaira Bolaños is the Director of the Latin America Program at Rights and Resources Initiative. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Florida. Omaira has 23 years of professional experience throughout Latin American working on topics related to Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendant communities’ collective tenure rights, sustainable development, gender justice, watershed management, community forestry, forest policy, community-based conservation, applied research, and capacity development. Follow Omaira on Twitter at @OmaBoca.

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