Environmental and human rights defenders play a vital role in the protection of the individual and collective rights of Indigenous peoples (IPs) in the Amazon region. They often face high risk scenarios of threats, violence and killings, while being perceived as target enemies of powerful interests related to natural resource extraction and infrastructure projects. Additionally, there is an asymmetry of power between the defenders and the peoples they represent and fight for, on the one hand, and the State, private companies and even armed groups, on the other.
With that perspective, defenders represent a counter balance power, which is vital for democracies. Therefore, governments should implement effective protection mechanisms to ensure the minimum safety conditions for their work, besides law enforcement measures for an effective protection of Indigenous lands in the Amazon region.
The last episode of the AEA webinar series explored the main actions, challenges, recommendations and resources for the protection of Indigenous defenders and lands. The Spanish session of the webinar (May 13) was facilitated by Doris Ortiz, Representative of Hivos in Ecuador, and counted with the participation of Gregorio Mirabal, Leader of the Curripaco Indigenous people in Venezuela and General Coordinator of the Coordinator of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), Alicia Abanto, Deputy Ombudsman for the Environment, Public Services and Indigenous Peoples of the Peruvian Ombudsman Office, and Ana Gabriel Zúñiga, Freedom and Transparency Development Manager at Hivos Latin America.
The Portuguese session (May 14) was facilitated by Paula Bernardi, Brazil Coordinator for All Eyes on the Amazon at Hivos, and had the participation of Mário Nicácio, Vice-Coordinator of the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COIAB), Thiago Firbida, Coordinator of the Protection and Security Program of Article 19, and Erika Yamada, Program Director at Ford Foundation Brazil, as panelists.
- Monitoring of Indigenous Lands: Ancestral strategies such as those currently taken by the “Guardians and Warriors of the Forest” - community groups of indigenous men and women who promote the land surveillance and monitoring of their territories, have proven their effectivity in avoiding the presence of invaders in the territories. Furthermore, they have shown to be even more needed in cases where the federal government is an opponent to the protection of Indigenous rights, as is the case of Brazil. However, this activity poses great risk to the monitors due to limited preparation towards huge threats, lack of equipment, and to greater exposure to the risk of COVID-19 infection.
- International advocacy for health response: To denounce violations and demand for government responses, the indigenous movement applies international legal mechanisms and advocacy campaigns. For instance, since the arrival of COVID-19 in the region, COICA has been promoting a strong advocacy work towards the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Catholic Church and the governments and Armed Forces in all the 9 countries of the Amazon Basin, demanding for an immediate attention and action on how COVID-19 affects IPs differently than how it affects urban populations [for more on this, see highlights of our second webinar of this series]. Specifically, COICA is requesting the establishment of COVID-19 healthcare protocols for IPs, which none of the 9 countries has developed up to date.
- National advocacy and civil society actions for the strengthening of policies and laws on human rights and environmental defenders: Many Amazonian governments are due to ratify the Escazú Agreement [more on Resources below], a treaty that promotes the Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, which civil society and governmental actors believe will strengthen the defense of advocates in the Amazon; combined with the effective implementation of national policies and laws, such as the Peruvian Government´s Protocol to guarantee the protection of human rights defenders, approved in 2019. Furthermore, there are also parallel and strong initiatives being taken from the indigenous movement in collaboration with other actors, such as the design and implementation of the Defending the Defenders Program, led by COICA.
- Role of Ombudsman Offices: In May 2020, Ombudsman Offices of South and Central America met to discuss the vulnerabilities of IPs in the context of COVID-19 and have agreed upon demanding their respective national governments to prioritize and take into account the specific vulnerabilities of IPs in their healthcare responses to the disease; to open data of how COVID-19 is reaching indigenous populations and territories; and to promote a safe and agile supply of food and hygiene products. Among other petitions, the Peruvian Ombudsman Office requested the Peruvian government to ensure that any entrance in indigenous territories is previously authorized by the indigenous communities, following duly sanitary precautions to avoid infection, and to establish a communications channel with indigenous organizations in the design of tailored healthcare responses to IPs, as they are the ones most aware of demands and needs on the ground.
- Increasing violence in the Amazon: Latin America is considered the world's most dangerous region for environmental and human rights defenders, with the highest rates of killings of advocates. In this scenario, it is widely known that IPs from the Amazon face even greater risks due to the political and economic interests and pressures that usually result in the promotion of illegal and extractive activities in their territories and violation of their rights.
- Limited State protection: Despite IPs being the main responsibles for the global conservation of biodiversity and forests, overall governments continue failing to ensure their effective and integral protection, the security and protection of their land rights as well as to recognize their contributions to fight against the climate crisis.
- COVID-19 - Another powerful threat: The arrival of COVID-19 health emergency has put Indigenous peoples in a position of double vulnerability. Indigenous movements consider that the coronavirus pandemics is the greatest threat for Amazonian Indigenous peoples in the last 50 years, as it poses a real and powerful risk for the extermination of some communities, in addition to all the other threats and violations faced by those populations.
- Integral protection mechanisms: It is not possible to analyse violations in the Amazon region without contextualizing them within the political and economic structures that are the core of the threats and violations. Likewise, for an integral protection strategy to be effective, it must consider and address these structural mechanisms, that are related to deforestation, land grabbing, illegal mining, cattle, among other economic activities.
- Effective governmental protection: Democratic States must comply with international treaties on the protection of Indigenous and traditional peoples of which they are signatories parties, as the Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization. Thus, governments have the duty and responsibility of taking into account defenders' demands for their protection and to implement mechanisms that guarantee an effective protection in practice, also dealing with the political and economic interests that are at the base of the risks and threats faced by defenders.
- Sanitary control of borders: The simple militarization of borders, as adopted by some countries from the Amazon region, does not result in further protection of indigenous territories, as no sanitary control is implemented. Besides, in some cases, there are militaries involved in allowing the promotion of illegal logging and mining in the region, which pose further infection and violations risks. Thus, indigenous movements demand for the improvement of the sanitary control of borders, specifically in the borders of Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Guiana and Bolivia, as those areas currently present the most critical risk of COVID-19 infection among IPs.
- Regulation for data protection: While governments' data must be open as the citizens are the ultimate owners of the public information, the data produced and collected by IPs regarding their communities and territories - such as those collected by the “Guardians and Warriors of the Forest” [see Actions above] - should have a different approach. In those cases, no data should be published or made available without the prior consent of the IPs who own that data, also due to legal and digital protection reasons.
- Escazú Agreement: The Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement) is the most important and recent legal milestone for the protection of defenders in the region, by qualifying the four pillars to an effective protection: access to information, access to justice, social participation and strategies for the integral protection of defenders per se. Nonetheless, even if the Agreement is ratified by the required minimum 11 countries in order to be in force (up to date, 9 countries have ratified the Agreement), its full implementation will rely on the definition of subnational mechanisms to ensure its appliance.
- Defending the Defenders Program: Led by COICA, in coordination with its nine national indigenous organizations and with support from diverse allies, this program provides legal support, information and advocacy in cases of criminalization of Indigenous peoples of the Amazon, besides promoting an early warning system to prevent violations and to strengthen surveillance mechanisms.
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