When the El Cercado dam opened in November 2010, its Colombian project managers trumpeted it as an engineering triumph built entirely with national know-how.
Moreover, the project was touted as a way to help combat the effects of recurrent droughts in La Guajira, a north-eastern region.
But for the Wiwa Indigenous Peoples native to the area’s Sierra de Santa Marta mountains, the dam’s arrival signalled a devastating change in their way of life accompanied by a series of serious human rights abuses.
From 2002 onwards, Wiwa communities living in and near the planned construction area suffered a consistent pattern of intimidation, destruction of homes, attacks against places of cultural significance and threats and killings of their spiritual and community leaders, carried out by the security forces operating in alliance with paramilitary forces. Guerrilla groups operating in the region were also responsible for killings and threats against members of the Wiwa population.
By the time construction on the dam began in 2006, many members of Wiwa Indigenous communities were forcibly displaced from their homes.
All this took place in a context where the Wiwa were not adequately consulted about the dam and its effects – they only had one meeting with the regional environmental agency in May 2005.
Wiwa community members made clear that any decision would have to be reached by the decision-making body which represents the four Indigenous Peoples of the Sierra Nevada. The Colombian authorities did not waver from their plan to complete the US$360 million dam and three months later they issued a license to proceed with its construction.
To this day the Wiwa are campaigning to receive redress for the devastating impact the project has had on their lives.
“Sadly, the Wiwa case is not unique, but is symptomatic of an increasing pattern across the Americas where governments are trampling over the rights of Indigenous Peoples in the name of economic development,” said Mariano Machain, Amnesty International’s Campaigner on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the Americas.
Governments have a duty to protect against human rights abuses by corporations.
Among the many foreign companies carrying out extractive projects on or near Indigenous land in the Americas is Canada-based Goldcorp, which since 2003 has run the Marlin gold mine in San Marcos, Guatemala.
Goldcorp’s failure to properly consult some 18 Indigenous Maya communities in the area affected by the mine has divided the communities and sparked a string of human rights abuses.
In July 2010, grassroots activist Deodora Hernández was shot at close range and seriously injured in her own home in San Marcos by two unidentified men. She had spoken out to defend her community’s right to water amidst fears that mining had polluted the local water supply.
In February 2011, protesters were attacked after speaking out against Marlin mine. Community activist Aniceto López, was taken to the local mayor’s office, where he was allegedly beaten and threats were made against his life if he failed to stop speaking out against the mine.
Goldcorp has argued that it met its obligations under national law to consult with the communities in advance, but the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples has pointed out that those obligations fall well below international standards on consultation and consent.
Taking on the corporations and the laws
National standards in this respect are lacking in countries across the region.
For nearly two decades, the Hul’qumi’num Treaty Group (HTG) in British Columbia, Canada, have been in negotiations with the federal and provincial governments in an effort to gain legal recognition of their land rights.
While these negotiations drag on, logging and other companies have been allowed to buy, sell and exploit lands that the Hul’qumi’num still rely on for subsistence and ceremony.
Frustrated with the government’s failure to protect their rights, the HTG have been forced to take their case to the continental human rights arbiter, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
HTG negotiator Robert Morales summed up the stance of many Indigenous Peoples who find themselves at loggerheads with governments and corporations who threaten their rights:
“[We] are not asking…to turn back the clock and investigate historic wrongs. We’re urging effective protection of our land rights so that we can address the ongoing deforestation and other development activities happening on our land today.”
Despite myriad cases across the Americas where Indigenous Peoples – often with the support of Amnesty International and other civil society organizations – continue to fight to have their rights respected, there have been some glimmers of hope since last year.
In August 2011, Peru approved a law on Indigenous Peoples’ right to consultation when they are likely to be affected by planned development projects. While reaction to the measure was initially positive – it is the first of its kind in the Americas – the negotiations broke down with Peru’s Indigenous Peoples about further regulation and implementation.
Paraguayan authorities reached a deal in February 2012 to restore ancestral territory to the Yakye Axa Indigenous community, who had fought a two-decade legal battle to return after being forced off their lands by ranchers. But they are still waiting to get access to those lands. Other Indigenous Peoples in Paraguay, like the Sawhoyamaxa, are still awaiting the resolution of their longstanding land disputes.
Sarayaku leader José Gualinga is convinced that the Sarayaku victory will have an impact in the whole region.
“We’ll be watching to ensure the ruling is complied with and that the territories of Indigenous peoples in Ecuador and across the Americas are respected in the face of damaging extractive activities such as oil exploration. Long live Sarayaku and the Indigenous peoples of the continent,” said Gualinga.
Amnesty International will continue to campaign alongside the region’s Indigenous Peoples to ensure their rights are respected.
“These small glimmers of hope show that with tenacity and resolve, Indigenous Peoples can overcome the odds to ensure states respect their rights,” said Machain.
“From the Arctic Circle to Tierra del Fuego, we’re calling on all governments in the Americas to respect the right of Indigenous peoples to consultation and free, prior and informed consent. Authorities must work with them to ensure development projects do not neglect or threaten their rights.”