U.S. Congress Representatives Acknowledge Peace Hasn’t Reached Indigenous Communities in Colombia

On November 20, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress convened a hearing to discuss how the United States can leverage its role in Latin America and in multilateral institutions to protect the lives and culture of Indigenous people in the Americas. The hearing centered on many countries in the region and several speakers focused on issues specific to Colombia and its peace process. Congress representatives Jim McGovern, Deb Haaland, Christopher Smith, Hank Johnson, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Raul Grijalva led the event. Keith Slack, Director of Strategic Impact and Campaigns at EarthRights, provided an in-depth overview about violence against Indigenous groups in Colombia.

In Colombia, over 242 Indigenous leaders have been assassinated since the signing of the 2016 peace accords, including over 47 killed between January and June 2020. In their opening remarks, Representative Smith stressed how these assassinations often occur because Indigenous communities in Latin America are exploited for profitable gain and are further undercut by the lack of protection from their governments. Representative Haaland called attention to the Colombian government’s protection efforts for Indigenous leaders, but as evidenced by continued attacks against these leaders, concerted follow-up actions are rarely upheld. Representative Johnson revealed he has traveled to Colombia on several occasions and further documented that the rights of Indigenous communities in Colombia are sidelined. Racial discrimination is an underlying factor as to why these communities are recurrently exploited. Representative Jackson Lee also expressed concern at the lack of human resources dedicated for Indigenous people to protect their land, and ultimately stated that the rights of Indigenous people are human rights.

On behalf of non-governmental organization Amazon Watch, Leila Salazar-Lopez provided recommendations to protect Indigenous communities in the Amazon region. Over 73,000 Indigenous people throughout the multistate region have been killed by the COVID-19 disease, many who are elders and holders of cultural knowledge. Despite these distressing circumstances caused by the pandemic, agribusiness expansion and land grabbing has accelerated, as a result of illegal arson empowered by complicit government enablement and systemic racism. Salazar-Lopez called for a multi-year moratorium for any destruction; the strengthening of local and multilateral environmental agencies, so strategies from both Indigenous peoples and scientists inform policies implemented by governments; the endorsement of the Amazon Climate platform, to support ecosystem restoration efforts and Indigenous land rights; and the protection of environmental defenders. 

Melania Canales Poma, President of the National Organization of Andean and Amazonian Women of Peru, spoke on collective and individual rights for Indigenous people in the region. The extractivist policies of mining and agriculture when intersected with gender and Indigenous communities further deprive Indigenous women of their agency. Indigenous women must be included in all facets of the policy change process. Additionally, Policy Director of the Bank Information Center Jolie Schwarz discussed the weak state of multilateral accountability. In Colombia, Schwarz noted how the World Bank approved an $8 billion loan in 2016 following ratification of the peace accord. The loan was supposed to support territorial planning commitments but failed to consult with Indigenous people. These communities were entirely removed from the planning process. For these reasons, Schwarz recommends that the United States and the international community protect Indigenous rights in all aspects of development projects, provide rigorous assessments of the impact on Indigenous communities throughout a project, and outline clear procedures for raising concerns over potential violations of Indigenous sovereignty. 

Violence against Indigenous groups in Colombia has become acute during the pandemic. Keith Slack described the situation as a “potential ethnocide,” acknowledging the land grabbing role of corporations, drug cartels, and paramilitary groups that advance the destruction of Indigenous cultures. The mass murder of Indigenous people occurs every day in Colombia and has become worse with COVID-19 lockdowns that prevent Indigenous leaders from changing location, a key protection strategy. Slack stressed there needs to be respect for Indigenous sustainability and the right to refuse the exploitation of land without fear of retaliation. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights is set to hear the case of Indigenous violations, and a successful outcome will set an important precedent. Recommendations to the incoming Biden administration include ensuring that human rights protection bodies are responding accordingly to violations; establishing transformational partnerships between governments, the private sector, civil society, and Indigenous peoples; implementing comprehensive global guidelines through the State Department for adequate protection of at-risk human rights defenders; and pushing Congress to adopt further legislation for corporate responsibility in grave human rights abuses in the region.

Indigenous communities throughout Latin America continue to greatly contribute to food security, environmental protection, and conflict resolution. However, they are in crisis and the hearing urged for the creation of a working group on Indigenous peoples. Brian Keane, a former USAID advisor on Indigenous People’s Issues for U.S. Foreign Assistance, provided several recommendations for the Biden administration. It needs to continue reforming U.S. foreign assistance. There needs to be model that respects Indigenous sovereignty because they are not passive participants of development, but rather active catalysts that move their interests forward. Traditional knowledge and their sustainable practices are key in promoting viable living structures and must be included in the development process. Keane also proposed that a Native American representative should fill the Secretary of the Interior position. The Biden administration must ensure full implementation of USAID’s policies on promoting the rights of Indigenous people and ensure that these policies are also enforced in large infrastructure projects. The United States needs to reengage in multilateral efforts to protect human rights, which includes supporting the work of the UN with Indigenous groups and placing them at the forefront of the UN Security Council.

Ultimately, the United States must repair its relationship with Indigenous groups, who have been neglected by the Trump administration. In Colombia, this relationship is strengthened by supporting the full implementation of the 2016 peace accord.

Tags: Human Rights Defenders, Indigenous Communities, U.S. Congress

December 1, 2020

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