Commissioners: Commissioner Dinah Shelton, Commissioner Jesus Orozco Henriquez; Commissioner Maria Silvia Guillen
Amazon Legal Network, Regional Foundation for Human Rights
Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru
Right to territory and self-government for indigenous peoples

On October 27, 2011, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights held a thematic hearing on the collective rights of various indigenous groups living in the Amazon region. Petitioners representing the Amazon Legal Network (RAMA), and the Regional Foundation for Human Rights Advisory (INREDH) presented situation briefs on Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. When an issue presented in a thematic hearing relates to several states, the individual states do not appear at the hearing.

Venezuela’s historical approach to indigenous populations was to treat them as any other peasant population in the country, without any differentiated rights or independence from the state government. The only protections they enjoyed were established under International Labor Organization (ILO) convention 107. The approval of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in 1999 guaranteed indigenous peoples rights, providing status in the international sphere. However, territorial rights are still lacking. Venezuela has established the indigenous population’s right to land, but has not clearly recognized this right in practice. Currently there is no officially demarcated land in the Amazon region to separate territory by population. The petitioners advocated allowing the various indigenous populations to self-govern and set up their own demarcation lines, which Venezuela should officially recognize.

Colombian indigenous populations are experiencing similar difficulties in achieving their constitutionally recognized rights. Despite the 20-year existence of the Colombian constitution, which guaranteed indigenous populations’ rights, there is a backlog of requests to create and expand indigenous territories, compounded by an increase in government-sanctioned natural resource extraction without permission of the indigenous peoples. Indigenous populations are said to occupy 30% of Colombian territory, and these private projects on indigenous lands are a continued threat to their livelihood. The petitioners requested that the Colombian government move forward with stalled efforts to regulate these indigenous areas and make the indigenous right to land a reality.

The ancestral territories of Bolivian indigenous populations were recognized by the Constitution of Bolivia in 2009. The indigenous populations may also create autonomous governments through an administrative process based on these ancestral territories if they meet density, population, governmental, and financial requirements. However, the Bolivian government has made several recent detrimental decisions. In 2009, the government allowed hydro-carbon exploration rights to trump indigenous rights to land, despite the indigenous people’s right to their environment, as recognized in case law of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Ecuador also recognized the rights of indigenous peoples in its constitution in 2008. However, while land belonging to indigenous populations is constitutionally inalienable and cannot be attached or seized, including the natural resources within it, these rights are not recognized in practice. Currently, three million hectares have been seized for and mining projects, with seven different people groups affected. A representative of the indigenous populations in Ecuador implored the Commission to consider the persecution of transnational companies from the timber, mining, and oil industries. Indigenous groups have been criminalized for their resistance to the presence of these companies, ending up in prison on charges of sabotage and terrorism for defending their territorial rights.

Indigenous populations in Peru had an official right to their ancestral lands as far back as 1974. However, these rights were eliminated in 1993 when Peru desired to increase development projects on the indigenous lands. This left many indigenous communities without title to their land, and those that did have titles lacked proper resources, including lakes, forests, and rivers. Oil pipelines and roads on the land were excluded from the titles. Furthermore, many indigenous lands protected by the government were no longer available for use by the indigenous populations themselves. This fragmented the living patterns of the indigenous populations, and turned their land into semi-useless, remote areas with little access to food and water, at the mercy of large multinational companies working nearby.

Collectively, the petitioners asked the Commission to encourage these states to fulfill their commitments to their indigenous populations, and asked that the Commission follow up on its 2009 indigenous person’s report, and to seek state reports on cooperation with ILO convention 169.

Commissioner Dinah Shelton asked about the situation of trans-border populations, and whether there were any projects spilling over from one country to a population in an adjoining country. The petitioners responded that there is a network of trans-border populations coordinating to protect their own interests. However, because these isolated peoples are often nomadic, there is a need for state-to-state cooperation to accommodate them. The petitioners said they would provide additional information in the future. Commissioner Shelton also requested information on indigenous groups that are not in contact with the outside world. Petitioners responded that these people are currently experiencing a severely deteriorating quality of life from gold prospectors, hydro-electric dams, and the oil industry, because many valuable resources are on these untitled lands. The lack of contact with these groups makes protection efforts difficult, but still necessary.

Commissioner Jesus Orozco Henriquez requested information on the stigmatization and criminalization of indigenous peoples who defend their communities. The petitioners pointed to a recent victory in the habeas corpus release of Shuar leader Pepe Acacho who was arrested in Ecuador. However, Acacho’s case points to the much larger problem of poor dialogue between the government of Ecuador and the indigenous peoples regarding resource projects on indigenous lands, a violation the population’s constitutional rights.

Commissioner Maria Silvia Guillen asked for clarification on self-demarcation efforts in Venezuela with regard to state recognition. The petitioners responded that while Venezuela has procedurally recognized the self-demarcation, it has not taken steps to officially demarcate the territory.

The case of indigenous populations in each country of the Amazon region is distinctly complex. While each shares the common thread of legal recognition, the petitioners contend that all of the countries lack willingness to actually enforce these rights.