Regnskogfondet (the Rainforest Foundation of Norway) recently released a 52-page report entitled “Human Rights and Resource Conflicts in the Amazon.” The report took over six months to complete and gives an in-depth account of the conflicts activists and indigenous peoples (IPs) are having with corporations and governmental agencies. It relays a situation that does not look good.
The report details everything from physical attacks to “systematic pressure” by corporations and governments. According to the report, conflicts over land and territories have reached a ten-year peak in Brazil. In Peru, social conflicts have tripled since 2008, with two-thirds of the reported cases defined as “socioenvironmental” conflicts.
Río Huepetuhe gold mine in Peru in the Peruvian Amazon. While native communities may own the land on which they live, many national governments often have legal rights to subsurface mineral deposits. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Socioenvironmental conflicts, known for their complexity, describe when two communities or groups fight over the environmental resources one group may possess. Most of these conflicts happen when governments or corporations decide they want resources or lands owned by the indigenous peoples. These conflicts are also trademarks of development in the Amazon Basin.
At the center of these conflicts are the Amazonian natives. There are 385 indigenous groups in the Amazon, totaling to 1.6 million people. Even though they represent a small fraction of the 33 million people in total that live in the Amazon basin, they are integral to its cultural diversity. Of the region’s total area, 27.5 percent is classified as indigenous territories or protected areas, numbering 2,300 individual territories in all.
“The idea to make a report like this came after we…received several messages from our Amazon-partners of a deteriorating human rights situation in their home countries,” Dag Hareide, the director of Regnskogfondet, told mongabay.com
Kaiapo shaman in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Regnskogfondet has worked in the Amazon for 25 years, funding long-term policies and campaigns on the local and national level. Currently, they are working with close to 100 different organizations.
“Norway is a small country with limited interests in the Amazon,” Hareide continued. “The Norwegian government has, however, a history since early 1980s of providing financial and political support to IPs and human rights organizations in the region, and, since 2007, has been a world leader in providing substantial funds for the protection of the rainforest…”
“Norway, however, is far from perfect. Its gigantic government-owned pension fund, for instance, still invests heavily in companies destroying the rainforest and violating human rights, also in the Amazon.”
On paper, many of the Amazonian countries have made huge strides in protecting natives’ rights. All nine (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela) voted for the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Six have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights. But, as the report points out, “theory and practice are far between in the Amazon countries.”
The UN’s Universal Periodic Reviews have praised many Amazon countries for progress on social issues, such as stricter enforcement of human rights violations. However, surveys have found that indigenous groups still exhibit lower levels of health and education, and much higher rates of poverty, violence, and abuse than the general population. In many cases, although indigenous peoples may own the land on which they live, governments have legal rights to the its subsurface resources, such as oil, minerals, and gas. According to international law (Article 3 of UNDRIP), all indigenous groups have the right to self-determination. This grants them the right to choose political status, as well as continue economic and cultural activities without hindrance.
On paper, indigenous peoples have the right to freely determine how to use their lands. While an Inter-American Court of Human Rights case in 2007 (Saramaka people v. Suriname) ruled that tribal property rights can be restricted for large-scale projects, the state must consult with the community and receive “free, prior, and informed consent.” However, a painfully common theme in inter-American human rights complaints is that the government often does not properly consult with communities before beginning projects. According to Hareide, even in large countries like Brazil, most projects barely address legal obligations to receive consent from the indigenous peoples before they begin work.
Amerindian child. Indigenous communities in the amazon experience lower levels of health and education, and much higher rates of poverty, violence, and abuse than the general population. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
“There is a real conflict of interest between those forces wanting easy access to natural resources (including oil and gas), rapid development of pan-Amazon infrastructure and megaprojects of various categories,” Hareide said, “and those fighting for a development model for the Amazon based on long-term sustainability, maintenance of the region’s globally important ecosystem services and respect for human rights.”
The conflict is only made worse as the Amazon’s natural resources become more and more depleted. As land and materials become scarcer, indigenous land becomes more valuable. Currently, there are 83 proposed legislative bills in the Brazilian Congress that threaten indigenous territories (57 of these push to limit territorial rights of native communities). Now, in Brazil, approximately 75 percent of all existing native territories are facing a “concrete threat.”
“Indigenous peoples, having obtained some form of official recognition, still demand full respect for their rights,” Hareide added. “This is resisted by their governments, and it causes conflict… They very effectively put their national governments under pressure in order to weaken environmental legislation, reduce impediments against industrial activities on IP territories, etc.”
A tragic example of the consequences when these threats are carried out can be seen in Peru’s Block 1AB section of the Amazon. From 1971-2000, a US-owned company called Occidental Petroleum began to look for oil concessions in Block 1AB in and around an area inhabited by no fewer than six different indigenous groups. While working, Occidental dumped approximately 135 million liters on waste into the waterways every day. Many groups complained and demanded the company clean up the waste, which they did incredibly ineffectively, leaving tons of pollution still in the environment. In the meantime, natives have been diagnosed with higher-than normal rates of cancer and eye and skin disorders, as well as high levels of heavy metals in their blood. While the Peruvian government declared a state of environmental emergency, they are seeking to expand oil production in 2015.
Waura Indians in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
“Latin America has seen progress on many levels over the past decades,” Hereide explained. “Persecution of environmental, indigenous and human rights activists, thus, does not fit the dominant perception of the region nor the discourse of its governments. We believe that is a major reason for why so many incidents and worrying trends go unperceived in the West.”
Therefore, “one of the objectives of the report is to alert the present Norwegian government to the very worrying tendencies presently occurring in the region, in order for it to keep a vigilant eye on the development and not reduce, but maintain and increase, targeted programs of support to indigenous peoples, environmental and human rights organizations in the region,” Hereide said.
Hereide hopes the report will help to finally bring human rights issues in the Amazon to the attention of the international community. However, actually remedying the issues will take multifaceted, concerted efforts.
“This message is valid for any government. Neither Rainforest Foundation nor its many environmental and IP partner organizations in the region are against economic development. The complexities and vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest make sustainable development challenging. It needs investments, creativity and focus. But we all believe it is possible.”
- Regnskogfondet: Rainforest Foundation Norway. (2014) Human Rights and Resource Conflict in the Amazon. Oslo, Norway: Torkjell Leira and Rainforest Foundation Norway.
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