Amazon’s indigenous call for open dialogue with extractive industry leaders

Members of the Cofán Dureno community in northern Ecuador have suffered numerous problems from oil production on their lands. File 2010. (Credit: Rainforest Action Network)

Indigenous rights leaders from a Catholic Church network traveled to Washington, D.C., to highlight human rights violations against people in the Amazon and to call for prior consultation with extractive industries pursing projects on their lands.

Pan-Amazonian Church Network Vice President Pedro Barreto Jimeno told Humanosphere that Friday’s hearing was the first time Amazonian people were the primary focus of a human rights hearing at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C.

“This hearing was a very important moment to highlight the reality experienced by our indigenous brothers and sisters, and in general all the ethnicities of the Amazon,” said the indigenous leader and Archbishop of Huancayo, Peru. “We have to continue working with [extractive industries]in order to have harmony with nature, with all people, because [extractive industries] mistreat nature and also mistreat people. And I think we are already on this path.”

Pan-Amazonian Church Network requested that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights prepare a report to urge authorities to find new ways to display respect for human rights and the environment with economic and productive development.

One of the speakers at the hearing, Luis Sanchez, said his people from the Tundayme region of southern Ecuador suffered numerous human rights violations after gold and copper mining companies polluted rivers and forced them to flee their lands.

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“The damage has been irreparable and our mother earth is suffering,” Sanchez told Humanosphere. “The animals have fled because they no longer have a home, the rivers remain contaminated so we can no longer fish and bathe.”

He described one violent incident in spring 2014, when state police officers entered the Tundayme territory and destroyed the community’s church, school and local mine.

“In our customs, community work is done in the mine, so it was an attack on our cultural identity,” he said.

The Amazonian region is home to 390 indigenous peoples and 137 isolated peoples, who make up the most disadvantaged group in Latin America. According to the World Bank, poverty rates in these populations are higher and are decreasing more slowly than in the population as a whole, while human development indicators (education, health, and access to water and sanitation) are lagging far behind.

Rights advocates say this inequality is perpetuated by land grabs from governments and extractive industries that facilitate the construction of dams, roads and other infrastructure projects without consulting local communities. They say such projects often threaten local water quality and the livelihoods of people who have lived there for hundreds of years.

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To combat this trend, advocates have insisted that corporations consult indigenous groups before pursuing any economic activity affecting their ancestral lands. Pope Francis emerged as one such advocate last month after publicly supporting indigenous land rights at the third Indigenous Peoples’ Forum held by the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development.

He said the key issue facing indigenous people is how to reconcile the right to economic development with protecting their cultures and territories.

“In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail,” the Pope said. “Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict.”

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau or email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org.