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How to bend the curve of biodiversity loss

As the UN convenes the Biodiversity Summit in New York, Joji Cariño, Andy Whitmore, Milka Chepkorir and Claire Bracegirdle argue the case for centering the knowledge of indigenous people and local communities in the fight against biodiversity loss.

September has brought several urgent reminders that we are failing to protect nature: WWF’s latest Living Planet Report tracked a 68-per-cent decline in global wildlife populations – even faster than the 2018 edition. The UN has also announced that none of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets will be met.

Meanwhile, wildfires linked to global warming are sweeping California, and a second wave of Covid-19 (a zoonotic pandemic – ie one that has crossed from animals to humans – which are made more likely by increased deforestation) gathers pace in Europe.

Action is urgently needed. And this week, the UN Summit on Biodiversity will bring world leaders together to address the alarming loss of nature. Negotiations to replace the Aichi Biodiversity Targets are ongoing, and this months’ news is a stark reminder of the importance of ensuring that the next set of international commitments to protect biodiversity are successful.

In our rush to protect nature, however, we need to centre the perspectives, experiences and knowledge of indigenous peoples and local communities – not continue to marginalize them. Some of their vital contributions to the protection of biological and cultural diversity were drawn together in Local Biodiversity Outlooks, also published earlier this month.

If world leaders are serious about protecting nature, we outline three lessons that must be heeded:

“In 2019, the OECD estimated that subsidies to industries that are harmful to biodiversity total $500 billion a year, about 10 times the amount of global funding for biodiversity conservation and sustainable use”

1 Take away the incentive

It sounds simple, and yet it’s not being done: we must stop doing the things that are causing biodiversity loss. At the moment our economic system is actively geared to incentivize the destruction of nature. In 2019, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimated that subsidies to industries that are harmful to biodiversity total $500 billion a year, about 10 times the amount of global funding set aside for biodiversity conservation and sustainability. Brazil, for example, subsidizes deforestation-linked industries by an estimated $14 billion each year – and then spends $158 million a year to prevent deforestation.

n 2010, as part of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets, governments across the world agreed to eliminate, phase out or reform incentives (including subsidies) that are harmful to biodiversity. However, progress has been slow. Over the last decade, few governments have even identified the relevant incentives, let alone worked to reform them. Meanwhile, and supported by these skewed incentives, unsustainable production systems have intensified.

World leaders must grapple with the fact that it is impossible to stem biodiversity loss without addressing incentives, or our extractivist economic system more broadly.

“Progress has been slow – few governments have even identified the relevant incentives, let alone worked to reform them”

2 Successful conservation needs people

While the human rights impacts of exclusionary conservation practices are now better known, environmentalism’s racist history casts a long shadow. The environmental movement that emerged in Europe and North America in the wake of the industrial revolution attributed new value to the ‘wild’, casting these areas devoid of human interference as a representation of nature in its most abundant and pure form. The considerable role that human societies have played in supporting and stewarding these environments has been overlooked.

Over the years, the idea that people are bad for nature and that the best way to protect an environment is to remove the people has led to numerous evictions, violence, the loss of property and other human rights abuses.

This is ongoing: between 1990 and 2014, approximately 250,000 people in 15 countries were evicted from protected areas. Exclusionary approaches to conservation also risk the loss of important knowledge held by indigenous peoples and local communities – something that is increasingly recognized as key to preventing further loss of biodiversity.

We need to transform conservation towards collaborative, rights-based approaches.

By ik, rfa6517, Bob Duindam - van mijn fototoestel, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48776486
By ik, rfa6517, Bob Duindam – van mijn fototoestel, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48776486

3 Get behind what works

Sadly, conservation efforts led by indigenous people remain largely marginalized. The roles and contributions of local communities in protecting biodiversity are still excluded from most national biodiversity strategy and action plans. At the same time, however, their efforts are known to be one of the few bright spots: while under increasing pressure, nature managed in this way is generally found to be declining less rapidly than in other lands.

One easy way to support indigenous peoples and local communities is through the recognition of their land rights. Despite owning or managing up to 50 per cent of the world’s lands, communities only have legal ownership of 10 per cent. Secure land tenure will facilitate many communities’ ongoing protection and restoration efforts.

Another important consideration is funnelling resources to local action. Part of the shift that is needed in conservation practice is towards community-managed, locally-led initiatives. At present, while there’s insufficient data to properly assess the overall amount of funding available for the efforts of indigenous peoples and local communities, it’s highly likely that the amount they receive is in no way commensurate with what they contribute to global efforts to meet the objectives of the Convention on Biological Diversity.

“The idea that people are bad for nature and that the best way to protect an environment is to remove the people has led to numerous evictions, violence, the loss of property and other human rights abuses”

On Monday 28 September, the leaders of 70 countries (and counting) signed a 10-point pledge committing to stem biodiversity loss. Wednesday’s summit will see this momentum continue. But, as the UN’s Achim Steiner has noted, if is to have any hope of success, indigenous peoples and local communities ‘must be an integral part’ of global efforts to protect biodiversity.

View the full Local Biodiversity Outlooks report.

Joji Cariño has been an active campaigner and advocate over the past 35 years on indigenous peoples’ human rights, at community, national and international levels.

Andy Whitmore is a researcher and activist specializing in extractive industries and indigenous peoples.

Claire Bracegirdle works for Forest Peoples Programme and is a PhD candidate on community-led conservation.

Milka Chepkorir comes from a Sengwer community and has for many years advocated for the recognition of their land rights.

Indigenous Peoples reclaim decision-making power and protect territories, lives and rights using Autonomous FPIC Protocols

by Helen Tugendhat, Cathal Doyle, Andrew Whitmore

What we want is that they leave us our own model of development and our autonomy to protect and realize this”

Luz Gladis Vila Pihue, Founder and former President of the Founding Congress of the National Organization of Andean and Amazonian Indigenous Women of Peru (ONAMIAP)

The publication “Free Prior Informed Consent Protocols as Instruments of Autonomy: Laying Foundations for Rights Based Engagement” is being released in Spanish in April 2020. It complements the English version launched at the UN Forum on Business and Human Rights in November 2019. It explores the potential for these Autonomous FPIC Protocols to contribute to indigenous peoples’ struggle for self-determination, self-governance and territorial control.

The rights, well-being and survival of Indigenous peoples throughout the world are at grave risk as a result of extractive, energy, agri-business and tourism industries. To protect them against these threats, international law recognises the self-determination right of indigenous peoples to decide what happens in their own territories. This right is implemented through the requirement for governments to obtain indigenous peoples’ free prior and informed consent (FPIC). Governments and companies are increasingly paying lip-service to FPIC. However, in practice, they continue to consult with indigenous peoples in ways that manipulate indigenous ways of making decisions and ignore the outcome of their decisions-making processes.

In response, indigenous and tribal peoples are increasing documenting their governance rules around consultation and FPIC and demanding that all external actors comply with them. Different indigenous peoples refer to these documents in a range of ways. Many indigenous and tribal peoples call them “Autonomous FPIC Protocols”, while others refer to them as their regulatory or normative frameworks or manifestos.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the urgent need for governments and other external actors to respect these autonomous FPIC protocols. Diseases introduced through colonisation and subsequently by encroachment of outsiders have decimated indigenous peoples. To this day, disease and contamination caused by imposed development activities have profound impacts on indigenous peoples’ lives, health and well-being. Faced with the latest grave threat of Covid-19, indigenous and traditional peoples are once again asserting their right to regulate access to their territories, closing them where needed to prevent the influx of individuals, government agencies and companies, and sharing informational materials highlighting the risks posed by loggers, miners and tourists when they enter indigenous territories now. To date these actions have helped slow the spread of the pandemic within these communities, despite cases being confirmed on their peripheries some weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the pandemic is also providing cover for many companies and government agencies to continue, or to expand, unwanted exploitation in indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples’ territories, as illustrated by continued killings of indigenous and Afro-descendant human rights and land defenders. In some countries, such as in Colombia, Covid-19 has even resulted in government attempts to impose “on-line consultations” which are completely at odds with indigenous peoples’ self-governance rules and their full and effective participation in decision-making.

Published by the European Network for Indigenous Peoples, INFOE, Forest Peoples Programme and the University of Middlesex School of Law with support from the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation, the publication reviews initial experiences with Autonomous FPIC Protocols in South America. It finds that they have made tangible contributions to tackling critical shortcomings in national laws and State and corporate practice, around consultation, FPIC and respect for indigenous peoples’ self-governance and territorial rights. Case studies contained in the book – from the Wampis (Peru), the Juruna (Brazil) and the Embera Chami (Colombia) – show that these protocols can act as tools for resistance and defence of human rights. These community rules, internal laws and collective affirmation of the right to self-government and community-based justice, challenge inadequate or absent consultation processes and establishing standards and procedures with which external actors, project proponents and state consultation and FPIC processes must comply.

In addition to the three case studies, the book also provides a review of global experiences with FPIC protocol development. It finds that their development is increasingly common among indigenous and tribal peoples throughout the world. It shows that because indigenous peoples are diverse, there is no one-size-fits-all consultation and FPIC process. Instead, diverse processes must be defined by each people in accordance with their own realities and practices. It concludes that the autonomous development of such protocols“can open spaces for reflection and dialogue among and between indigenous peoples. These spaces can be highly empowering and contribute to the creation and maintenance of unity and self-governance among indigenous peoples. They facilitate the development of tools and strategies that allow indigenous peoples to challenge structural discrimination and pursue the implementation of international standards in their lived experiences.”

The aim of this Spanish language publication is to contribute to the realisation of the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination and autonomy in Latin America. We believe the publication’s reflections on the many challenges involved in the development and use of FPIC protocols offers food for thought at this critical juncture facing indigenous peoples, where effective territorial control is more urgent than ever for their futures. Our hope is that Latin American indigenous and tribal peoples will find the materials and experiences shared in this resource useful in their efforts to assert self-governance and territorial control, and to realize the rights and well-being of their peoples throughout the region.

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