By Marisol Fornoni
Peru’s Congress has recently passed a law that states that indigenous people have a right to prior consultation regarding any plans that influence their collective rights. This includes their cultural identity, livelihoods and physical existence. On paper this law is revolutionary, but in reality many questions remain about the way this law will be enforced and the impact it will have on indigenous communities.
Latin America, a continent whose history consists of systematically killing indigenous people and erasing them from their national history, has only recently started carving out rights for indigenous people. In many Latin American countries indigenous groups are subjected to a type of racism- also known as racism without race. This type of racism has its roots in Spanish and Portuguese colonialism and defines race according to cultural features, instead of any supposed physical characteristics.
Hence, social hierarchies in many Latin American countries, like Peru, manifest themselves regionally, through a binary that places ‘civilized’ urban classes on the one end and ‘traditional’ rural dwellers on the other. These colonial social remnants remain visible today and have led to the rise of Peru’s current president Humala, who promises to finally give indigenous groups a voice in government.
In 2009, indigenous groups in the Amazon city of Bagua, staged month long protests against a government decree affecting their rights over lands and territories. Determined to be heard, violence erupted as indigenous protestors refused to back down from police. The unprecedented support the indigenous community received internationally and from inside the country established indigenous people in Peru has a force to be reckoned with.
While this law could be an opportunity for the Peruvian government to start a process of long reconciliation with this group, the question remains is if those in power are ready to hear the thoughts and opinions of indigenous groups regarding their profit driven and foreign led development schemes.
In comparison to other Latin American countries Peru has made a significant breakthrough. Relative to Brazil it has made great progress, which despite heavy international and internal criticism towards the construction of the Belo Monte Dam is planning to go full ahead and endangering thousands of indigenous communities. Or Ecuador, who despite a multibillion landmark ruling in favour of indigenous communities is still negotiating a deal with Chevron. Or even Bolivia, who implemented a similar law but due to its vague interpretation is facing protests by indigenous people that claim that being consulted implies vetoing powers.
Unfortunately, only time will tell if this law will be able to halt the footsteps of giant corporations ready to exploit Peru’s natural resources. And while the Inter American Court of Human Rights has praised Peru and stated that it “the hope is that other countries will follow [in Peru’s footsteps].”
Humala will like Morales quickly learn that adopting a consultative approach to government is never easy. If anything the protests in Bagua revealed is that indigenous people do not just want to be heard, they want their voices to play an active role in the government’s decision making process.