Commissioners: Francisco Jose Eguiguren Praeli, Margarette May Macaulay
On Friday, March 17, 2017, indigenous and religious leaders from Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador argued before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that extraction of natural resources in the Amazon infringes upon the rights of indigenous peoples. Representing various indigenous and faith communities, petitioners made impassioned pleas to the IACHR to support the right to protect the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples.
Archbishop Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimeno of Huancayo, Peru highlighted the extraction industry’s human rights violations vis-à-vis indigenous peoples, discussing additional damage that extraction causes to the ecosystem. He abhorred the States for “putting money ahead of everything else” and driving indigenous peoples away from their ancestral lands. Archbishop Jimeno also discussed the progress that a network of Amazonian religious and indigenous civil society organizations made over the past two years.
Next, four indigenous leaders presented testimony that gave the Commissioners an inside look at the suffering of indigenous groups. A representative from a Peruvian indigenous community discussed oil exploration on a large plot of land previously set aside by the Peruvian government for the indigenous peoples of the region. The oil extraction destroyed the drinking water, and limited hunting, collecting, and fishing, which the indigenous communities rely on for sustenance. In another instance, and without consulting the indigenous groups, mining companies began a project that made the water undrinkable and killed the fish in the local river.
A representative from Brazil spoke of the challenges his indigenous community faces in land demarcation disputes with the Brazilian government. Since 2003, Brazil has halted all attempts at delineation of land, and foreign corporations have even encroached on those lands, which the government has demarcated for indigenous peoples. Corporations have used the land for illicit harvesting of lumber, fishing, and gas extraction.
In Ecuador, the situation for indigenous peoples is characterized by forced removal. Louis Sanchez, a leader of an indigenous community in Ecuador, described half a dozen instances where the police or private security guards from mining companies violently evicted families from their homes in the middle of the night. The result, according to Mr. Sanchez, is not only the loss of ancestral land and damage to the ecosystem, but also psychological damage to the community. The indigenous peoples are now afflicted by higher rates of alcoholism, prostitution, and depression. Tearfully, Mr. Sanchez explained the pain fathers feel when children ask why they cannot go home and they, like Sanchez, do not have an answer.
After the testimony, both Commissioners present at the hearing expressed their sympathy and support for the indigenous peoples affected by resource extraction projects in the Amazon. Commissioner Macauley thanked the petitioners for their submission and articulated the need for additional testimony that would allow the IACHR to produce a thematic report. Commissioner Praeli highlighted the considerable progress that has been made in the area of indigenous rights. He noted, however, that the main problem is that even when States make commitments, there is “no one to enforce compliance.” To combat that reality, Commissioner Praeli explained, social action is critical, and thus he thanked the petitioners for their work.
Author’s Legal Analysis
The Organization of American States has spent considerable time and energy in recent years addressing the rights of indigenous peoples in the region, and States are bound by international law to respect the rights of indigenous peoples to rights over ancestral land and to an adequate standard of living, including rights to water, food, and traditional farming. Under treaty law, all three named countries—Peru, Brazil, and Ecuador—are obligated to respect the rights of indigenous peoples according to the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989 (ILO 169), which all three countries signed. Under Article 6 of the Convention, States parties must consult with indigenous communities prior to taking actions that would affect those communities, which all petitioners in this case identified as a problem in their countries. Under Article 7, indigenous communities have the explicit right “to decide their own priorities for the process of development as it affects . . . the lands they occupy or otherwise use . . . [and] they shall participate in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of plans and programmes for national and regional development which may affect them directly.” As Commissioner Praeli noted, however, the IACHR is limited in its ability to force compliance with these treaty obligations.