Americas

This Land is Their Land: A Case for Indigenous Land Rights


Image Courtesy of Fibonacci Blue

¨We are sitting on gold,¨ he said, looking out past the few small houses towards the mountains of Urabá, a region of northern Colombia that has been a hotbed of the armed conflict. Having grown up in the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartadó, he was well aware of the price for their land. For 20 years, the Peace Community has remained neutral in the conflict, and non-violently resisted armed actors fighting to dominate their territory. Since the Peace Community’s founding, over 180 of its members have been assassinated, which is among hundreds of additional human rights violations. After the signing of the peace accords last year, they continue to resist various threats to their rights. The region has a huge reserve of coal, and they fear that multinational corporations will eventually push them out to build mines.

This is not an unfounded fear. One of the six main points in the Peace Agreement between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government is rural development and land reform. Scholars and activists have emphasized that this is critical to a sustainable peace, as unequal distribution of land is considered a root cause of the conflict, and two thirds of agricultural land is concentrated in just .4% of all farms. The rural development reform plans for a massive project in registering the large portions of rural land in Colombia that have no formal title. It also includes measures to prevent land accumulation so that small-scale farmers and indigenous communities, who have borne the brunt of the violence, will not be forced out.

However, the peace agreement also emphasizes a need for competitive rural development. This idea is being implemented through the ZIDRES bill, which would overrule some of the key points in the peace plan to allow companies to accumulate huge territories. Alongside this proposed legislation, an alarming number of leaders have been assassinated from rural social organizations that advocated for land reform.

The battle between small-scale farmers and indigenous people against large-scale energy projects is certainly not unique to Colombia. In the United States, the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, or DAPL, provides a discomforting example of why land rights cannot be left to wavering politics. The protest was led by Native Americans at the Standing Rock Reservation, concerned that the proposed pipeline would cross sacred burial grounds and could contaminate their water supply. Although in December the Army Corps of Engineers decided to reroute DAPL, the Trump administration passed an executive order to move forward with the planned pipeline, and removed the last of the protesters in February. The quick reversal is evidence of the need for stronger legal frameworks to protect indigenous lands.

This is not to say that all resource extraction projects should be immediately halted, as there is no denying the current global dependency on fossil fuels. Many commentators also make the case that these operations boost economies and provide jobs where work is limited. But protecting indigenous lands can be good for the environment and the economy. A recent report by World Resource Institute in Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia found that securing indigenous land claims protected forests, helped local farmers, and reduced pollution and erosion.

While investments are being made in alternative energies, securing land rights is a way to slow current environmental damage. Protecting territories with a valuable resource is not easy, but it is possible. In November of 2016 an agreement was reached between 24 nations and the European Union to designate the largest marine preserve in history in the Ross Sea in Antarctica. People worldwide recognized the need to act, despite possible losses for the commercial fishing industry. The same can be done for indigenous lands.

One possible way is through National Action Plans enacted by the Paris Climate Agreements. At the landmark summit in 2015, 188 countries passed an agreement to cut global carbon emissions and keep temperatures within 2 degrees of pre-industrial levels. However, 167 have still not agreed to recognize indigenous land rights in their national action plans. In the same way that carbon emissions have effects beyond borders, exploiting resources in one country affects global ecosystems. As many energy companies transcend national borders, there is an international responsibility to ensure they respect vulnerable territories.

Colombia provides an example of progress in securing land rights on the national level. Companies are mandated to consult with indigenous and ethnic groups on projects that would affect their territory. Though there is dispute over what “consultation” means, last February the Constitutional Court of Colombia was able to halt two major extraction and petroleum companies for not properly following this procedure.  In other regions, such as in the Peace Community, activists will continue to work with international supporters to hold the government accountable, and ensure the rural development plan provides for rural communities’ long awaited land titles, and not eviction notices.

Indigenous communities and small-scale farmers have consistently been on the front lines of environmental activism. It is time that they gain the legal right to the lands they have long fought to protect, so that all of our descendants might be able to appreciate them.

Kati Hinman is a human rights accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) Peace Presence. FOR Peace Presence accompanies at-risk human rights defenders in Colombia to support their ability to defend life, land and justice. She currently accompanies the Peace Community in San Jose de Apartado. She graduated with a degree in Peace and Conflict studies from UC Berkeley, and then served as a John Gardner Fellow with the Children’s Village, a child welfare agency in New York. She is passionate about survivor-lead programs to address violence. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.

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