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Amplifying Indigenous voices at the global level: Interview with Dario Mejía Montalvo

Image by UN Photo/Manuel Elías.

  • Dario Mejía Montalvo, an Indigenous leader of the Zenu people of Colombia, recently stepped down from his role as president of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
  • With this year’s U.N. biodiversity summit set to take place in his home country, he reflects on some of the major issues affecting Indigenous peoples, including sovereignty, self-determination and direct funding.
  • Despite progress made in recognizing Indigenous people’s key role in protecting nature and climate mitigation, they still don’t have enough of a voice or negotiating power in global talks, while communities on the ground continue struggling for their rights to land and to healthy ecosystems and livelihoods.

For the past two years, Dario Mejía Montalvo has presided over the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at a time when Indigenous peoples worldwide have gained new levels of recognition by scientists and policymakers for their role in protecting biodiversity-rich ecosystems, including keeping carbon in the ground. Despite this, leaders complain that they haven’t been given enough place at the negotiating table in global climate and biodiversity talks, while communities on the ground face numerous threats that undermine their rights, cultures, livelihoods, and the integrity of their lands.

These include land dispossession due to deforestation and infrastructure projects, exacerbated impacts of climate change, and resource exploitation through unauthorized mining and drilling. Additionally, prominent issues in 2023 included continued killings of Indigenous environmental defenders across Latin America, and adverse effects of political upheavals on Indigenous rights, as well as the contentious sale of but that fail to include the consent of Indigenous communities.

Mejía Montalvo, an Indigenous leader of the Zenu people of Colombia, stepped down on April 12 from his position as president of the forum to take up a role advising the U.N. as part of a panel on critical energy transition minerals. He recently spoke to Mongabay from New York. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim (left), elected Chair of 23rd Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, takes over from Dario Jose Mejia Montalvo. Image by UN Photo/Manuel Elías.

Mongabay: There has been ongoing criticism from Indigenous leaders that U.N. climate and biodiversity conferences have been closed off to Indigenous peoples. How have you addressed this? 

Dario Mejía Montalvo: Indigenous peoples around the world have long understood that international structures and laws were created without their inclusion, and in some cases, with the deliberate aim of further excluding them. Indeed, these structures, imposed across almost all parts of the world, have colonial origins. Thus, it’s not that the spaces have been closed; rather, they have never been adequately open for Indigenous peoples at various levels. The Conferences of the Parties (COP) serve as a redundant component of these structures, as the same states have agreed among themselves, resulting in redacted discussions.

On the other hand, under that same logic, they created special mechanisms, in this case the Permanent Forum, whose mandate is to advise the U.N. entities, to recommend the best way to implement the rights of Indigenous peoples, especially those contained in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples; under this mandate we have tried during this period to urge governments and U.N. entities to listen directly to Indigenous peoples. Spaces are created, but above all, they should not be confused with other types of identities, groups or subjects. These confusions or improper use of their rights when implementing policies lead to actions that harm peoples who have not contributed to global warming as other societies or groups have done, yet who also receive the most negative impacts of the variations of the climatic cycles and who, in addition to this, contribute daily with their ways of life to prevent further environmental degradation and contamination of the planet.

Mongabay: What are the consequences when many states group together Indigenous peoples and local communities, especially for climate and biodiversity efforts?

Dario Mejía Montalvo: Even where Indigenous peoples have been recognized, they are sometimes confused with ethnic groups, vulnerable populations, and even, in some cases, with civil society. This confusion impacts the planning of public policies. All these confusions lead to ignoring the collective subjectivity that defines an Indigenous people. It’s not merely the sum of individuals; it encompasses their territories, governance systems, knowledge, and their unique relationship with the land. In other words, it transcends anthropocentric laws and planning focused solely on individuals. The amalgamation of these elements forms a collective memory and contribution. Consequently, local communities, not fully recognized as subjects or under international law categories, may use this ambiguity, along with other categories, to diminish the rights of Indigenous peoples and hinder progress in policy implementation.

An aerial photograph shows the impacts of illegal mining activity along the Mucajaí River in Roraima, in the Yanomami Indigenous Territory. Image courtesy of Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil.

Mongabay: Being an Indigenous leader from Colombia, what is the significance of the COP16 U.N. biodiversity summit taking place in your home country this year? What are your expectations regarding the meeting?

Dario Mejía Montalvo: It’s always crucial for parties to convene and assess progress regarding their commitments. Countries must demonstrate how their international commitments translate into their domestic agendas. In the case of Colombia’s Indigenous peoples, I see this as a tremendous opportunity to bolster their internal advocacy efforts, particularly concerning the self-determination of their territories and the management of their resources under the figure of Indigenous territories. This recognition isn’t just enshrined in domestic law but was included as a conservation category in the Kunming-Montreal work plan [from 2022’s COP15], a significant aspect of COP’s primary agenda.

Self-administration and participation in defining internal policies should also be emphasized. This presents an opportunity for the government to adapt its institutional framework, moving away from reports solely focused on the state’s perspective and interpretations regarding biodiversity conservation. It’s an opportunity for both. Parties can present results, or a work plan at least focused now on self-determination, on the recognition of biodiversity, understanding that biodiversity discussions are not about a landscape but about the relationship between man and nature.

For Indigenous peoples, it is not a real separation and fundamentally it is a question of territory. It’s also an opportunity for Indigenous peoples from other regions of the world to learn a little more about the internal processes of the country. And hopefully, this capacity for organization, mobilization, reflection and joy that the Indigenous peoples of Colombia have can contribute in some way to the process of organizing other peoples and to the international discussions and of the working group that is leading the biodiversity process.

Mongabay: Indigenous leaders complain that they continue to receive miniscule amounts of direct funding, despite being recognized as the best guardians of ecosystems and biodiversity. How can access to funding increase, and how can traditional funders as well as the private sector play a greater role in scaling up financing? 

Dario Mejía Montalvo: Money in itself is not the objective. If it were the main objective of the discussions, then we would be fighting for capitalism. Money has played a fundamental role insofar as it has been used to degrade environmental ecosystems and, fundamentally, rights. So, beyond money, what I believe should be fundamentally aimed at is the materialization of the rights of Indigenous peoples and territories. Their own governments must be strengthened. Their institutional structures must be part of the state administration and without processes of dilution. On the contrary, to recognize their capabilities and contributions surely needs money.

Members of an Indigenous community in Guangaje, Ecuador after the blessing of a water spring. Image by Azzedine Rouichi via Unsplash (Public domain).
Members of an Indigenous community in Guangaje, Ecuador after the blessing of a water spring. Image by Azzedine Rouichi via Unsplash (Public domain).

For Indigenous peoples, I believe that it is fundamental to advance in processes of the recognition of rights and strengthening of their institutionality, and this transforms the way in which resources are administered, including, of course, the right to self-determination and administrative autonomy.

Mongabay: You have already touched on the theme, but many U.N. states argue that the recognition of Indigenous peoples undermines sovereignty or territorial integrity. What is being done to ensure states’ behaviors are aligned to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples?

Dario Mejía Montalvo: The declaration does not create new rights but systematizes existing rights and organizes them for the collective subjects of rights that are the Indigenous peoples’. This implies that they are, in fact, preexisting obligations, which states are committed to respect regardless of their political regimes, since they are part of the international agreements of obligatory compliance, political rights and human rights.

Secondly, a provision in its final articles states that everything established therein is understood within the framework of international law. In that sense, this is a discussion that has already been overcome. There is nothing that can be interpreted as a violation of territorial integrity. But sovereignty must be interpreted in the light of the realities of each time.

The truth is that, at the international level, both in theory and reality, we cannot say that the sovereignty of states at this moment is the same as the sovereignty of states 30 years ago. They are different, and this is the exercise of sovereignty. It includes the right of self-determination of Indigenous peoples, which often bolsters sovereignty, even when countries have to undergo changes due to international policies and markets.

Mongabay: Indigenous peoples continue to face land grabbing because their rights are not being recognized. How can states tackle this issue?

Dario Mejía Montalvo: The issue of land grabbing in many parts of the world is led by national citizens, but many times they are contracts with multinational companies based in other countries. This reality is a violation of national sovereignty. Even when the contract is made by the state government, the country’s society does not have control over its territory.

Indigenous peoples seek to exercise only their self-determination. In these cases, it cannot contribute to national sovereignty. This is a practical example of how the foreignization of land use, administration and use of resources has changed the sense of what sovereignty means, and that, on the contrary, Indigenous peoples at this moment in time need to be seen as really contributing to having more of a relationship with the territory and not merely using the land as a resource.

Mongabay: In January 2024, the forum hosted an international expert meeting on “Indigenous Peoples in a Greening Economy,” where it was noted that solutions pursued by states to tackle the effects of climate change predominantly stem from economic paradigms rooted in market-driven models. Are there opportunities for the private sector to become an ally in scaling funding and solutions for key Indigenous issues like land titling?

Dario Mejía Montalvo: A crisis is always an opportunity, depending on the perspective and on the interests and the way in which the crisis is handled. Opportunities will materialize for everyone, in a favorable sense for some and unfavorable for others. In this case, I believe we need to understand that the climate crisis is not a matter of one sector of society nor is it a matter that can be overcome solely by the market’s good intentions.

Image by Christian Braga.

Understanding that we do not have another home, there is one planet, can help us live with more humility and coherence, to recognize that Indigenous peoples have other knowledge and that they can help. Financial contributions from the private sector or other actors need to come together with the need for more rights for Indigenous peoples.

Mongabay: Looking ahead, the 2024 forum will focus on the link between enhancing Indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination and Indigenous youth. What type of opportunities do Indigenous youth need to have to reach that self-determination? 

Dario Mejía Montalvo: The rights of Indigenous peoples are not the rights of their individual persons, but of the collective subject. Apart from territorial rights, the right to self-determination is one of the rights facing the most challenges within issues such as biodiversity protection, carbon markets, conservation policies, or the foreignization of land use.

Therefore, it cannot be interpreted as the separate rights of the youth sector or the elderly sector or the right of women. Young people are the human group within Indigenous peoples who are seeing this reality and who will transmit the right to self-determination, their culture, their identity, to the next generation and, consequently, will ensure that all Indigenous peoples are collective subjects. They are the ones who face the current challenges and will face upcoming challenges over time.

Mongabay: Some of the key emerging issues you identified during your mandate include providing sufficient digital services to Indigenous peoples, particularly around translation and transmission of legal rights and information and protecting Indigenous peoples’ knowledge within intellectual property law frameworks. What progress has been made in these areas?

Dario Mejía Montalvo: Difficult to know. International spaces are pointing to conversations happening. As early as May, ministers will meet in Geneva to discuss these intellectual property issues. On the other hand, discussions on digitalization, systematization of knowledge, are ongoing. COP will definitely address part of these discussions. What I know is that even more momentum is still needed at the international level to not only include Indigenous peoples in the discussions, but I think fundamentally to create sufficient safeguards to avoid damaging actions. Processes of digitization, artificial intelligence, and access to information are moving ahead, yet they are not identifying very well the real legal boundaries that rights and subjects have in the field.

Mongabay: What stands out for you as the biggest success during your tenure as president? 

Dario Mejía Montalvo: I believe that the permanent forum had already been carrying out important work with my predecessors, and we have tried to increase its visibility and its capacity for discussion with the states. This means recommending measures and bringing back onto the agenda some issues that had been somehow left behind by the pandemic, such as the participation of Indigenous peoples in the U.N. entities. Talks on this issue return to New York this year.

During this decade of Indigenous languages [a U.N. initiative for 2022-2032 to raise awareness about Indigenous language preservation and revitalization] it’s not just a matter of speaking the language of Indigenous peoples, but that the U.N. system and governments speak properly in the language of the rights of Indigenous peoples, that they interpret it in the light of what Indigenous peoples understand by their rights.

Banner image: Image by UN Photo/Manuel Elías.


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