By Louisa Reynolds
The fight to save the environment from predatory multinationals is currently one of the greatest causes of social unrest in Latin America.
As large scale oil, mining and infrastructure projects progress and anger swells across the region’s indigenous communities, it is hardly surprising that the right to prior consultation was the main issue on the agenda during the 10th Indigenous Fund Assembly, held in Guatemala City Nov. 29-30.
“In Latin America, indigenous people’s opinion has been perpetually ignored,” said Carlos Batzín, Guatemala’s minister of Culture, during the opening session.
The Fund for the Development of Indigenous People in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as “The Indigenous Fund,” is a Bolivia-based multilateral aid agency promoting indigenous rights and development.
“We expect that this space for debate and dialogue will lead to the creation of inclusive and intercultural policies that respond to the needs of indigenous people in Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Batzín.
In July, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, or IACourtHR, ruled in favor of the Sarayaku Kichwa community’s right to prior consultation in the southern part of Ecuador’s Amazon region.
Since 1996, the Ecuadorean government has granted oil concessions without seeking permission from more than 1,200 indigenous people living in the area. The Sarayaku celebrated the ruling with hours of revelry, drumming, singing and dancing, but it remains to be seen if the government will heed the IACourtHR ruling.
In August 2011, 600 Bolivians from the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory, or TIPNIS, marched against the construction of a highway that would connect the departments of Cochabamba and Bení, irate that President Evo Morales allowed the project to go ahead without consulting indigenous communities.
On November 22 in Guatemala, tensions escalated in the village of La Puya, in the municipality of San José del Golfo, 28 kilometers (17.5 miles) northeast of Guatemala City. Farming communities there have staged a sit-in against Exmingua S.A., a subsidiary of Canadian mining corporation Kappes, Cassiday & Associates, or KCA, for the past eight months.
The protest began after Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina granted Exmingua a gold and silver prospecting license in November 2011 without respecting the local population’s right to prior consultation.
Villagers are adamant they will continue to block the entrance to the site, known as El Tambor, until the government holds a consulta popular, or plebiscite, allowing them to exercise the right to decide whether the project should go ahead.
According to the Committee for Campesino Unity, or CUC, Exmingua strongmen have used intimidation tactics against protestors including threatening to lynch them and sever their hands to prevent them from filming.
Over 600 consultas populares have taken place since Guatemala ratified the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples in 1996, but the government has repeatedly ruled that they are non-binding and has allowed mining and hydroelectric projects to go ahead without consulting local communities, a clear violation of the convention.
Harassment and intimidation is an issue of growing concern, especially after Mayan leader Mario Itzep, of the local human rights nongovernmental organization Indigenous Observatory, survived an assassination attempt on Oct. 31, only two blocks from Guatemala’s National Palace.
Right to prior consent
The legal implications of indigenous plebiscites, the pledges made by the region’s governments in terms of guaranteeing indigenous people’s right to prior consent, and progress toward agreements between governments and indigenous communities, as well as case studies of consultation mechanisms used in Guatemala, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, were the main topics discussed at the Indigenous Fund Assembly.
As one delegate after another took the podium, they highlighted that their countries had ratified international treaties and conventions on indigenous rights, but had repeatedly failed to enforce them.
“Consultations are rushed and biased. The whole point of a consultation is that it must be free and transparent, with no hidden agendas. It mustn’t be done purely to meet an obligation,” said Luis Contento, vice-president of the Kichwa Confederation of Ecuador, or ECUARUNARI.
“Consultations are seen as an act of protocol, a mere procedure that is part of the legislative agenda,” echoed Gerardo Jumí Tapies, of the Andean Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations, or CAOI, adding that if multinational corporations and the governments that back them do not heed indigenous demands, communities will resort to more forceful means of protest, such as road blockades. “It is time we exert social and political pressure,” he said.