On International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we celebrate the resolve and acts of resistance by indigenous people in Latin America. This is in the face of an economic model that promotes the expansion of mega-projects and extractive businesses, including mining and logging.
In June 2019, more than a dozen representatives of 10 different social organisations from Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia came together in La Paz to participate in the Regional Meeting of Communities Affected by Dams in the Amazon.
The gathering was an opportunity for representatives of the three countries to join forces and launch the campaign 'No to Dams in the Amazon. Yes to life'.
The campaign seeks to raise awareness and take action to prevent the loss of their territory through projects being promoted by governments funded with credit from foreign investors and multilateral development banks of the region.
We do not agree with the construction of the dams, because throughout the region they cause great environmental pollution, great economic, social and cultural losses, and debt.
- Herlan Domínguez, Representative of the Binational Committee of Human Rights Defenders.
'In Brazil we are already in the fight against hydroelectric plants. In the department of Rondonia, two hydroelectric plants have been built: San Antonio and Girao, both have affected more than 10,000 people and have brought no benefits to the communities. They have only been of benefit to large mining companies.
'Now Brazilians have to pay a high cost for energy. Brazil is among the countries that have the highest energy costs in the world.'
MAB Rondonia representative, Ocelio Muniz.
María Eva Canoe, adviser to CONDEF / COIAB, an organisation that brings together 46 indigenous and female communities from the Amazon, indicated that it is not a campaign against energy, but rather about proposing another type of energy development such as wind, solar or other sources of energy.
'We are not saying that we do not want energy, we want energy but not through hydroelectric plants that represent destruction.'
For centuries, indigenous people of different ethnicities have been sharing the territory with quilombolas in the Brazilian Amazon. The quilombolas are descendants from escaped slaves.
Despite the pressures they face from loggers, bauxite mining companies and large infrastructure projects, they have come together to build a historical alliance for the protection of the Amazon.
Protection from mining and energy projects
The Indigenous-Quilombola Alliance of Oriximiná is a partnership between indigenous people and quilombolas that aims to protect their territory from mining and energy generation projects.
'For us, the partnership we have with the quilombolas is important, because it strengthens the indigenous movement and the quilombola movement. Both the quilombolas and the indigenous people, share the same struggle to guarantee our territory.’
Juventino Kaxuyana from the Kaxuyana, Kahyana and Tunayana Indigenous Peoples Association.
Following the Indigenous- Quilombola alliance, a campaign was also launched to defend the territorial rights of the Indigenous Peoples and Quilombolas of Oriximiná, which enabled advances in the regularisation of the territories for many communities.
In 2019, faced with the renewed threats by private investment companies and state-led initiatives in their territories, the Alliance has gathered again to work jointly under the slogan: Indigenous-Quilombola Alliance for the Defence of the Territories.
'This alliance is important as it reaffirms the existence and rights of indigenous and quilombola peoples of this region of the Amazon', says Lúcia Andrade, coordinator of Christian Aid partner the Pro-Indigenous Commission of São Paulo, one of the key supporters of this initiative.
I think this partnership has so much strength... together we are stronger.
- Aluizio dos Santos, Quilombola leader from local association Mãe Domingas.
Colombia’s indigenous people have been some of the most affected people during the 60-year armed conflict. In recent years, indigenous leaders who have opposed megaprojects and the exploitation of natural resources in their lands have been murdered.
Despite the critical situation they face, they are increasingly aware of their rights as ancestral inhabitants of their territories.
Colombian law recognises their lands or 'reservas' and although many are the rightful owners of the lands and possess land titles, many find their lands invaded by companies, cattle ranchers or big landowners.
Despite possessing legal land titles for thousands of hectares of land by the government, many indigenous communities find themselves living just in very small plots in conditions of hardship and the rest of the land being invading by mining or agribusinesses.
What Christian Aid are doing
Christian Aid has been working to strengthen organisations - creating alliances and providing accompaniment by national and international human rights organisations. This work has empowered communities who in many cases have stopped the activities of mining companies in their lands.
For example, the Embera indigenous people in Alto Guayabal, blocked and stopped a mining project taking place in a location they consider to be sacred. Women played a crucial role, standing in the fields for days and preventing the company’s helicopters from landing on their reserve.
Similarly, the Jiw and Sikuani indigenous people are fighting the activities of a palm oil company. Women have been at the forefront of efforts to prevent the company from operating in their land.
Peace in Colombia
Finally, indigenous people have a prominent role at the Ethnic Chapter of the recent peace agreement reached between the government and the FARC guerrilla.
Jointly with black and mestizo communities, their organisations are putting pressure on the government to keep to agreements stated in the peace accord.
Groups of kiché and kakchiquel indigenous women in three municipalities in the department of Sololá in Guatemala are fighting local corruption and demanding improved public services.
The women form part of social audit commissions, groups that have been set up and trained by Christian Aid partner organisation CONGCOOP. They now have the skills to monitor the municipal budget execution and to present proposals to local authorities. Most importantly, they know their rights as citizens.
Tomasa Sicay Pérez is one of the women who is now actively participating in local politics. She says:
'Eight years ago, I started to participate in the Women’s Commission. Then I was invited to participate in [Christian Aid partner organisation] CONGCOOP’s training process.
'CONGCOOP doesn’t support us with productive projects, but with political awareness training. One woman told me that she would not participate because they only give training and not productive projects.
'I decided to participate because I didn’t know much about faraway communities and I wanted to learn new skills. The training made me lose my fear of going to other communities, expressing my opinion, speaking and demanding my rights.
'I’m now a leader in my community. I decided to participate in the Community Development Council, I’m no longer afraid to speak out. There are people in my community who have graduated, and they criticise me because now I’m invited to meetings in the municipality.
'They think I’m being paid, but it’s not true. I go voluntarily to campaign for the needs of my community.'
These women have dedicated their time to the training process the CONGCOOP has run, on social auditing and other issues. When there is a training or activity, these women always participate, even though they have not been to school and can’t express themselves easily in Spanish, they give their time. They want to be an example for others so that they participate. The authorities don’t take women into account, and therefore it’s important that they participate and know their rights, so that they can demand them.
- Tomasa Sicay.
These actions are just a few of the ways in which indigenous communities are demanding their collective and human rights.