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We are the scream of those who no longer exist – Living with death in a Colombian Indigenous Resguardo

By Hector Jaime Vinasco and Cathal Doyle

An emotive candle light commemoration for all the indigenous leaders and community members killed in the two years since the adoption of the Colombian peace agreement was held in the town square of Riosucio, in Caldas, Colombia on 7 December 2018. The chant of “for our dead, not even a minute of silence” captured the sense of abandonment the communities feel from a government intent on projecting an image of a peaceful country to attract extractive industry operations and investment by foreign companies or investors, while failing to address the toll this is taking on indigenous leaders who are attempting to defend their territories and enable their peoples to live in peace and dignity. The chants were interspersed by songs and poems of resistance and hope for the future –

“In this serene night the wind carries a song,
the song of those who sleep covered in blood and tears,
their labouring hands trapped beneath the earth
their freedom, the dream of their grandparents”1
“We sing the hymn of resistance,
We carry words and thoughts
that pave the way for peace in our ancestral territories,
“mu buma” we are here and forever here we will be”2 
– with young and old alike declaring themselves “the scream of those who no longer exist”.

As in many other parts of Colombia, the picturesque Andean mountain Indigenous Resguardos of Cañamomo y Lomaprieta, Nuestra Señora Candelaria de La Montaña, San Lorenzo, y Escopetera Pirza, home to the Embera Chamí in the municipalities of Riosucio and Supía, Caldas, have been victims to an alarming number of assassinations of indigenous leaders and community members in the two years since the conclusion of the peace process.3 Most killers are unknown, paid by unknown actors with interests in the Resguardo territories and their rich gold resources.

Meeting during the SR’s visit to Colombia

During his two-week mission to Colombia from 20 November to 3 December 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, met with representatives of the Embera and other indigenous peoples. He expressed his deep concerns at the sharp increase in killings of human rights defenders, with the Colombian Ombudsperson’s office reporting at least one killing every three days. The Rapporteur identified indigenous peoples as “among the most at risk groups of defenders working on economic social and cultural rights”.4 This reality was evidenced by the killings of 15 indigenous leaders and community members, of which four were members of the Embera Chamí communities, over the course of the Rapporteur’s short visit.5As of August 2018, the number of human rights defenders killed since the signing of the peace agreement was estimated to be between 343 and 462.6  ONIC, Colombia’s national indigenous organization, states that in the three-month period since the Duque government came into power in August 2018, there have been 35 killings of indigenous leaders.7

The latest assassinations in the Embera Chamí communities in Caldas consisted of the massacre, on 23 November 2018, of three members of one family in the Cañamomo y Lomaprieta Resguardo – Gabriela Tapasco, a woman active in social organizing in the community, her husband Serafin Diaz and her son Cesar Arturo Tapasco. This was followed 10 days later by the killing of Edison de Jesús Naranjo Navarro, the son in law of the current governor of the Cañamomo Lomaprieta Resguardo, shot by a motorcyclist at 8AM on 4 December 2018 in the San Lorenzo Resguardo. On 11 December 2018, the Colombian Ombudsman issued an urgent alert identifying risks to the lives of indigenous leaders in the Embera Chamí Resguardos due to the activities of members of the former paramilitary group Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia (AUC) who are now organized as the Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC) and the Águilas Negras (Black Eagles), and activities of former members of the ELN.8 9

Site of an ambush on community members some years ago

Sitting in the small meeting room of the cramped office of the Cañamomo y Lomaprieta Resguardo just two days after that most recent killing, surrounded by portraits of former Embera Chamí governors, four of whom were killed as a result of their struggles to defend their territory, I was moved by the bravery of those indigenous leaders who continue to advocate for the rights of their peoples despite death threats and attempts on their lives.  

One such leader is Héctor Jaime Vinasco. A former governor of the Cañamomo y Lomaprieta Resguardo and Coordinator of its Natural Resources and Mining Program, Héctor Jaime is responsible for overseeing the implementation of the Resguardo’s own laws governing mining, a law-making ability that is recognized in Colombia’s Constitution and more recently by the Constitutional Court of Colombia in a landmark ruling in 2016,10 which also recognized the Resguardo’s territorial title and its colonial origins. Because of his active role in defence of the Resguardo territory, Héctor Jaime has faced multiple death threats over the course of the past decade and has seen his friends and mentors killed. Like several leaders across the country, he is the beneficiary of precautionary measures, and travels with three bodyguards in a vehicle paid for by Colombia’s National Protection Unit. “Colombia is not a post conflict country,” Héctor Jaime explains when asked about the context that gives rise to this violence against indigenous peoples.

“We still live with the impacts of internal armed conflict on a daily basis. The rich natural resources in our ancestral lands continue to be besieged by external interests, ranging from extractive companies to outlawed armed actors, who in many cases use gold as a means to launder money obtained from drug-trafficking”.

At a personal level for Hector Jaime this harsh reality is reflected in the fact that for the past decade he cannot leave his home without the accompaniment of armed bodyguards. Over coffee, under the watchful eyes of his bodyguards, in Riosucio’s vibrant and colourful local market, Héctor Jaime explains that having a coffee or a beer in public places is something he has rarely done these past years. Without his bodyguards he simply could not stay in the Resguardo, and he is not willing to contemplate leaving his ancestral lands. The threats to his life have been continuous and repeated over the years, he has no privacy and he cannot even relax when he in his own home. As he explains: 

“at night it’s not even safe for me to even go out of my house to feed the dog. I feel like a prisoner in my own home.”

Héctor Jaime could leave the area and live a peaceful life with his family elsewhere, far from the Resguardo, but his commitment to the Embera Chamí struggle to defend their territory is absolute. 

The positive results of this struggle on the part of the Embera Chamí are evident throughout the Cañamomo y Lomaprieta Resguardo. They are reflected in their autonomous legal frameworks governing both activities and the presence of external actors within their territories. They are also evident on the ground. Trees have been planted to help protect the territory and restore its eco-systems; Resguardo land has been reclaimed from landlords and ranchers, and land has been secured to limit further urbanization encroaching on community land; the Resguardo has declared itself a GMO-free zone and its seed banks provide one of Colombia’s few sources of guaranteed GMO-free seeds; indigenous guards train and mobilize to protect their territories from outside threats; sacred places have been protected and ceremonial buildings constructed; ancestral mining has been protected from large scale mining concessions and important legal victories facilitating further realization of territorial, natural resource and self-governance rights have been secured.

All of these are momentous achievements when viewed against the backdrop of constant threats to territory and life that are a daily reality in indigenous territories in Colombia.11 At the same time, significant challenges remain to strengthen Resguardo self-governance, to protect the entirety of its territory, and to guarantee the model of development chosen by the communities. Not least among these challenges is the ever-present threat to the lives of the Resguardo leaders and community members.

Almost everyone has a story to tell of how the killings and the terror they cause affects them. Some community members lost their entire families during the armed conflict – killed either by members of the military or right-wing paramilitaries because they were suspected of supporting the FARC12, or by the FARC because they were suspected of supporting the paramilitary groups. A thirty year old man recounted how, on an almost daily basis,

“during the conflict my classmates and I discovered dead bodies in the Resguardo on our walks through the mountains to school. Nowadays its more likely there is a killing once every week or two in this or the surrounding Resguardos. You come to expect it, and when you don´t hear of a killing for a while you start to think that something really bad is going to happen”.

Another man explains how the mere sound of an approaching motorbike can generate fear on his night time walk home. An indigenous woman echoes these perspectives and explains that in the new “post-conflict” era, while the open combat and bombing have stopped, the terror remains:

“In the past you knew who was doing the killings. Now indigenous leaders and community members are killed, and nobody knows why or by whom. They say we have peace, but we have no tranquillity in our own homes and territories”.

Colombia’s increasingly conservative political establishment, which presents extractive industries as the solution to the country’s economic woes, remains wilfully blind to, or unconcerned by, the enormous risks this poses to the survival of many of the country’s indigenous and afro-Colombian peoples and more immediately to the safety of their leaders. The extensive coverage of indigenous territories by large-scale mining concessions, agri-business plantations, infrastructure and tourism projects, all granted or established without meaningful consultation or consent, the presence of illegal mining, drug-traffickers and the remnants of armed groups in their territories, creates a volatile environment in which those who challenge these interests are inevitably targeted and killed.

The Special Rapporteur highlighted the disproportionate impact of the armed conflict on indigenous peoples and the intrinsic link between the defence of their lands and environment and the on-going threats they face in the context of mining, agribusiness, energy, infrastructure and tourism projects. He welcomed “the inclusion of an ethnic chapter in the Peace Agreement, [and] the increased recognition of indigenous jurisdiction and their autonomous governance systems” but noted that “ensuring its swift and effective implementation is imperative for their protection”. He also “strongly encourage[d] the Colombian authorities to guarantee the right to free, prior and informed consent” stressing that “consultation processes should be meaningful in order to guarantee the protection and respect of the rights of indigenous communities, in full compliance with United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” 13

In response to the latest killings the Cañamomo y Lomaprieta Resguardo’s authorities have repeated their demand for effective investigations and punishment of those responsible, calling for:

  • The immediate designation of a Specialized Prosecutor to investigate the homicides.
  • The immediate and urgent presence of organizations responsible for the protection of Human Rights (the Ombudsman’s Office, the Governor’s Office of Caldas, the Attorney General’s Office and all other competent institutions), so that they are aware of the situation and take appropriate actions to address the serious human rights situation that threatens the survival of the indigenous communities in Riosucio, Caldas.
  • That the Office of the Attorney General conduct timely investigations when there are threats against members of the indigenous communities, as the absence of appropriate procedures has resulted in the death of community members, such as Edison de Jesús Naranjo.
  • The immediate adoption of protection measures for the indigenous communities of Caldas in the framework of the precautionary measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, on March 15, 2002.
  • That the National Government and its authorities provide the necessary conditions and guarantees for the protection of human rights for the indigenous communities of Caldas and elsewhere in the country.14

Unsurprisingly, given the almost complete impunity of the perpetrators, there is little faith in the State´s willingness or capacity to investigate these killings or hope that they will stop anytime soon.

Arnobia Moreno Andica, the current Governor of the Cañamomo y Lomaprieta Reguardo, whose eldest daughter lost her husband to the latest killing in the Embera communities, echoed the feeling of many in the community:

“it’s extremely painful. We don´t understand how or why people can do this. It causes huge suffering in our communities, but we have to continue our struggle.”

References

FPIC and the right to self-determination: report from a workshop in Geneva

There is a growing consensus that extractive industry activities, such as mining or oil extraction, affecting indigenous territories should not be carried out without their Free, Prior and Informed Consent. The affected community must receive all information relevant for their decision and must be freely able to give or withold their consent. The procedure for negotiating consent must be in accordance with the community’s customary law. This is a consequence of the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination, as articulated in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In some countries, FPIC has been a legal requirement for years, for instance it has been required by the Philippines Indigenous Peoples Rights Act since 1997. However, legal texts and corporate practices often have little to do with the spirit of FPIC, reducing it to a mere box-ticking exercise. What the reality looks like, and what it should look like, is the theme of a project ENIP has undertaken in a GIZ- sponsored project. As part of the project experts, including indigenous peoples from countries such as Peru, Colombia, the Philippines and Malaysia, came together in Geneva in November 2018 to discuss these issues.

FPIC protocols asserting indigenous rights

Outside of national laws or guidelines indigenous peoples have been been increasingly developing and devising their own FPIC protocols as a means to defend their rights. These protocols describe their customary decision-making practices which should be used in FPIC negotiations. By providing clarity on decision-making processes they enable states and businesses to better protect and respect the rights of indigenous peoples. Many protocols are “living documents”, and vary greatly in their level of detail. They often reflect the predominantly oral cultures they emerge from.

FPIC as a binding principle

At the international level the state duty to obtain FPIC is enshrined inter alia in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 and standards such as the World Bank IFC Performance Standard 7. It also increasingly features in codes of conduct by industry associations, such as those by the International Council on Mining and Metals. Most Latin American countries, including all the ones that presented workshop cases, have signed ILO Convention 169 and have thus committed to realizing the right to FPIC. But often what is promised and reality diverge widely.

Exchange of experiences in the workshop

Under the project, a workshop was held before the 7th UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva on 24 November 2018, attended by representatives of various indigenous organisations and peoples from Latin America and Asia. The workshop reviewed the subject of FPIC protocols, exploring the content of some key protocols and how they worked in practice. The overall goal was, through a shared understanding of the cases presented, to identify how FPIC protocols works, how they could be improved and identify how to better networking between different peoples and organisations working on this topic. After an introduction to the project by Dr Cathal Doyle of Middlesex University, four case studies were presented.

Realizing FPIC in a violent Colombia

Hector Jaime Vinasco and Viviane Weitzner shared the experiences of the Embera Chami people in Colombia. Living in a mountain region with rich gold deposits, the Embera Chami have many rights on paper, which are often disregarded in practice. The biggest problem is the continuing armed conflict, which has given Colombia one of the highest rates of internally displaced persons in the world. As in so many other places in Colombia, the community are caught between the violence of right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing guerillas. Partly as a result of a desire to access their natural resources, including gold, the people are being subjected to wide-spread harassment and extra-judicial killings. Viviane Weitzner pointed out that although it is officially a post-conflict situation, a de facto state of war persists, which is obviously a huge obstacle to the implementation of FPIC protocols.

Yet desite this, a Constitutional Court decision has formally reaffirmed the community’s right to internal autonomy. As a result the community are currently developing autonomous regulations for mining activities within their territory, are working to limit urbanisation and have officially declared their territory GMO free. They have developed an advanced FPIC protocol for projects which would impact them, and have created an ‘indigenous guard’ to patrol their territory monitoring against unauthorised incursions.

Dams and mines resisted in Brazil

Bel Juana and Biviany Astrid Rojas Garzon from Brazil presented via Skype the protocol developed by the Juruna people living in Mato Grosso del Sur in Northern Brazil. This FPIC protocol was developed after companies repeatedly disregarded their right to be consulted. In particular, the long struggle around the Belo Monte Dam, which in 2016 became operation despite worldwide protests and court decisions, has moved the Juruna to make explicit their own decision-making rules. Currently, the Juruna are affected by the gold mining company Belo Sun. However, following a decision by a federal court, the project was terminated and the license revoked until the company complies with the indigenous laws found in the Juruna Protocol.

It is not yet clear what the election of the right-wing politician Bolsonaro as President of Brazil will mean for this case. His remarks condemning indigenous rights before the election cause concern.

Establishment of ICCAs in Malaysia

Gordon John Thomas, working with PACOS based in Sabah, Malaysia, talked about community practices, customary law and spirituality. In Sabah, traditional knowledge is usually passed on orally, which is why it can be difficult to convey this knowledge to outsiders. As a result indigenous communities is frequently not included in decisions affecting them. Currently, there are plans to establish Indigenous and Community Conserved Areas (ICCAs), which contain protocols explaining to outsiders indigenous governance over the natural. It is hoped this will improve the situation of the communities.

Autonomy of the Wampis Nation in Peru

Grimaldo Sanchez and Tami Okamoto presented the situation of the Wampis nation in Peru. The indigenous Wampis communities have established an autonomous territorial government there to protect themselves against their rights, including the right to FPIC, being violated by companies and the government. The background is that Peru, as a signatory state to ILO Convention 169, has had a consultation law since 1994. In reality though it has limited the scope of the consultation so that no genuine indigenous participation is possible. While they expressly identify as Peruvian citizens, they place great importance in asserting complete sovereignty over their own territory. The Wampis provide an excellent lesson in how to achieve, and govern, their own indigenous territory, although they are in the early stages of creating an FPIC protocol to deal with outsiders.

The presentations were followed by an exchange on the different experiences and the challenges indigenous peoples face, as well as the transferability of the experiences of one people to the situation of other peoples .

Again and again the question came up as to whether and how FPIC is even possible in a stuation of armed conflict, as in Colombia and the Philippines. Windel Bolinget of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance considers a secure, free, democratic environment to be essential for developing and applying protocols.

He said: “So in our case, in developing or practicing our FPIC-protocols […] we have learned that if the state is undemocratic, a tyrant or totalitarian we can not expect that there will be an […] environment for us to practice our free prior informed consent, much less than recognation of our right for ancestral lands. And the government is undemocratic. So that means it’s up to the people to all organize and strengthen the people’s movement to be able to engage the strength.”- Windel Bolinget.

Participants agreed that there must be an end to the militarization of indigenous territories and of criminalization of indigenous human rights defenders. Within a dictatorial regime, indigenous peoples are unable to exercise their self-determination.

It was not all gloom though. Much progress has been made, and there was agreement that protocols are an important tool for building consensus in the communities regarding traditions and customary law as well as for improving the implementation of FPIC in practice. Although more work more needs to be done, it is clear that FPIC protocols are making a big difference to indigenous communities being able to assert their rights.

New Book – Mining, the Aluminium Industry and Indigenous Peoples: Enhancing Corporate Respect for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

Global demand for the world’s most popular metal – aluminium – continues to rise, making it is increasingly critical that the aluminium industry address its environmental and social impacts, particularly in indigenous peoples’ territories, according to a new book published by Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP), Forest Peoples Programme (FFP) and International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  The book, edited by ENIP members Cathal Doyle, of Middlesex University, and Helen Tugendhat, of Forest Peoples Programme, in conjunction with Robie Halip, of Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, was launched at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in Geneva this November.
With many of the world’s bauxite mines, and the rivers used to generate power for its processing, located in or near indigenous peoples’ territories, the book seeks to highlight the need for the aluminium industry to ensure the rights of indigenous peoples are respected and protected, as outlined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
This important and timely book entitled “Mining, the Aluminium Industry and Indigenous Peoples: Enhancing Corporate Respect for Indigenous Peoples’ Rights”, provides a global overview of the challenges facing indigenous peoples, presenting five case studies from Australia, Cambodia, Guinea, India and Suriname of indigenous peoples’ experiences.  The case studies reveal that indigenous communities are affected by primary production activities, such as mining and associated infrastructure (Australia, India, Guinea, Suriname), and by secondary processes such as smelting and energy production used to sustain operations (India, Suriname).
The publication is intended to inform the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative’s new voluntary industry standard, which requires certified companies to adhere to key principles concerning the rights of indigenous peoples, including obtaining their Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) “where new projects or major changes to existing projects may have significant impacts on the Indigenous peoples associated culturally with and living on the relevant lands.”
“The lack of respect for indigenous peoples’ rights particularly to their lands, territories and resources, and to decide on the development that they want, is found in all stages of the mining and hydroelectric projects — from initial project planning to concession insurance, operations and project closure. In areas where there is an ongoing conflict, these injustices are often magnified,” said Joan Carling, Secretary General of AIPP.  As highlighted in this book “indigenous communities must be able to define the terms and conditions of their engagement with the industry as well as develop their own technical capacity.”
FFP Director Joji Cariño added: “As many indigenous territories are located in areas of rich biodiversity and natural resources, governments have often neglected indigenous peoples’ rights in the name of externally defined ‘national interest’, which makes the ASI’s inclusion of a requirement to obtain the consent of indigenous peoples particularly welcome. Going forward, governments must create a more secure, enabling environment that supports the right of indigenous peoples to self-determined development, including full control over sub-soil resources and full participation in any discussions regarding the development of such resources.”
This book underscores the serious challenges facing the aluminium industry – and mining in general – by examining its historical legacies with regard to indigenous peoples and identifying some positive steps that can be taken across the sector,” said Giulia Carbone of IUCN, which also contributed to the study. “By creating a consistent approach to indigenous peoples’ rights, the ASI Standard can help companies improve their environmental and social impacts in areas that are most at risk.”
For more information contact Cathal Doyle at doncathal@gmail.com or Helen Tugendhat at helen@forestpeoples.org.