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It has been several decades since the Inter-American Human Rights System (IAHRS) began to address the situation of indigenous peoples in the region. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), since the mid-1980s, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, since the beginning of the 2000s, have adjudicated complaints and addressed the historical problems faced by indigenous peoples, especially in claims related to their lands, territories, and natural resources. The decisions of both bodies have created solid standards, especially on the subject of indigenous peoples’ property, with a level of detail that has been incorporated into other international human rights systems.
But never, until now, had the IAHRS looked beyond the state borders that separate these peoples, to adopt a comprehensive view of the biogeographic regions that they share, as is the case of the Pan-Amazon region. Such an approach is key because within this territory they share elements of their history and cosmovisión (worldview), as well as a contemporary reality marked by multiple patterns of rights violations that require joint efforts. The Report on the Situation of Human Rights of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Pan-Amazon Region, which the IACHR presented a few days ago in Quito, Ecuador, is therefore both groundbreaking and timely.
The report underscores the abuses that the peoples of this region have historically faced and, based on an analysis of the recent intensification of those abuses, makes recommendations to put a stop to them. It is based on extensive documentation, and the contributions of numerous indigenous, civil society, and academic organizations working in different countries of the Pan-Amazon region are impressive. The fact that only four governments (Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador) responded to the Commission’s request for information from the Amazonian countries is also notable, although in negative terms.
The report consists of five chapters and presents various aspects worth highlighting. An initial section takes up the Inter-American standards on indigenous peoples, adapting them to the context of the Pan-Amazon region. It starts with a premise that IAHRS decisions have generally shied away from: the right to self-determination. In the words of the IACHR, the recognition of this right is “a pre-requisite for the full exercise of the other […] human rights of indigenous peoples.” Along with discussing the standards developed on those rights, the Commission refers in this first section to intercultural, gender, and intergenerational solidarity approaches as mainstreaming tools.
The second section is primarily a factual narrative. This is a good reference for anyone who wants to take a look at the complex and multiple socio-environmental tensions in the Amazon region today. It documents impacts ranging from those linked to infrastructure, hydroelectric, and oil and gas projects to murders, attacks, and the criminalization of indigenous leaders. It underscores how different forms of pressure coexist and are interrelated in the territory, as is the case of organized crime closely associated with the cultivation of illicit crops; drug, firearms, and human trafficking, and other activities. The IACHR’s approach is supported by references to the situations of specific communities, and first-person testimony from indigenous people to offer the perspective of those affected.
In the third chapter, the Commission examined this complex scenario based on the obligations of states. It refers to the main human rights at stake, namely: collective ownership and guarantees related to land, territory, and natural resources; self-determination and free, prior, and informed consultation; a healthy environment from an indigenous worldview perspective; water and food; cultural and spiritual identity; health; life, and physical and sexual integrity. It thus provides legal tools based on Inter-American instruments and case law that can be used by indigenous leaders, activists, litigants, justice authorities and, in general, persons with an interest in the recognition and protection of those rights.
The fourth chapter discusses the situation of indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation and initial contact in the Amazon region—that is, those who do not have regular contact with the so-called majority society (in the case of the former) or have done so only recently (in the case of the latter). This section is an update to the IACHR’s 2013 report on these indigenous peoples. In general terms, the chapter notes that despite some progress the situation today is just as concerning as it was six years ago, if not more concerning. This is due to reasons linked to the expansion of natural resource extraction, and cases of contact or direct attacks, among other factors.
The report develops legal standards and factual analyses that the IACHR has not addressed in such depth in its previous thematic reports. For instance, it states that the right to property protects indigenous peoples’ own ways of conceptualizing the Amazonian space, which may involve seasonal movement patterns or subsistence practices using forest resources over vast territories. These ways of understanding space, according to the report, are part of the cultural identity of the Amazonian peoples that should be legally protected and not replaced by the ways of other ethnic-cultural groups. The Commission also includes a reference to desertification and its multiple causes as “one of the main drivers of climate change,” with “dire environmental, social, political, and economic consequences, not just for the Amazon region, but for the world as a whole.” Other novel references include a look at the most recent implementation of prior consultation and consent with an emphasis on the Amazon region; the impact of indigenous migration to urban environments; and practices of human trafficking (especially of indigenous women and girls for the purpose of sexual exploitation) associated with the drug trade or economic circuits generated by other types of projects.
The fifth and final chapter contains eighteen recommendations. Most notable is the urgent call “for the states to cooperate in coordination with each other, bilaterally or regionally as appropriate, to achieve a greater and more effective respect for the rights of these indigenous communities.” Under this rationale of joint actions, the report’s recommendations aim to overcome the legal and factual causes of the serious obstacles that prevent Amazonian peoples from being able to exercise their rights.
The report comes at a time marked by shifting currents. Although numerous institutions and organizations have been working to defend the Amazon for decades, world leaders who can help renew and strengthen the insufficient attention of the region’s governments have now joined in. The most significant voice echoing the defense of this ecosystem that is so vital for humanity is undoubtedly that of Pope Francis, who convened an Amazon Synod, held last October. In fact, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) played an important role in preparing the IACHR report under discussion. The fight against climate change and the growing relevance of this phenomenon in different spheres has also placed the Amazon at center stage, given its critical function as a global climate stabilizer.
Given the above scenario, this significant effort by the IACHR to bring a human rights perspective to the defense of the Pan-Amazon region must be coupled with actions to promote its impact. This entails, first, calling on the states of the region to take decisive measures to comply with the standards and recommendations contained in the report. Second, the document should be used by indigenous and civil society organizations as a tool to support advocacy on behalf of the rights of Amazonian peoples.
*Professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú and doctoral researcher at the University of Essex