U’wa nation’s fight at international tribunal could set a precedent for Indigenous rights

Member of the U'wa Nation Heber Tegría speaks to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights about the violation of his communities Indigenous rights.
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This article follows a previous report by the Canary on a significant case for Indigenous rights brought by the U’wa Indigenous People at an international tribunal.

On Tuesday 25 to Wednesday 26 April, the U’wa Indigenous People took the state of Colombia to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR). In a historic hearing, leaders and members of the Indigenous nation asserted their territorial and cultural rights as original inhabitants and guardians of the land.

The U’wa Indigenous People articulated the impacts of nearly thirty years of fossil fuel companies plundering their traditional lands. They highlighted how government-permitted extractivism – the plunder of natural resources from the earth –  was denying it self-governance over its historic territories. Furthermore, ecotourism in a National Park on U’wa ancestral lands has compounded this issue.

In this case, the U’wa demanded that the state finally respect their rights and autonomy, long denied to their communities by the Colombian government. Crucially, the outcome of this hearing could set a precedent for the rights of Indigenous communities across Central and South America.

Solidarity between Indigenous Nations

The international court’s intervention in the U’wa struggle could be critical to communities across the region. This is because it concerns the Colombian state’s failure to uphold its own laws to protect the rights of Indigenous People.

The National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) stood alongside the U’wa in their fight for respect for their rights. It said that in the case at the IACHR:

at stake is the recognition of the collective ownership of the ancestral territory that the U’wa have inhabited for centuries and their right to make decisions about it following their worldview.

Read on...

Moreover, representatives of multiple Indigenous Peoples accompanied the U’wa to the IACHR in Chile, Santiago. Members of Indigenous Nations from Colombia, Peru and Ecuador joined the delegation.

From Ecuador, the Kichwa Original People of Sarayaku travelled to the IACHR to support the U’wa Nation. Meanwhile, from neighbouring Peru, the Autonomous Territorial Government of the Wampis Nation (GTANW) and the Federation of the Achuar Nationality of Peru (FENAP) turned out in solidarity. The Buenavista Reserve of the Siona People (ZIOBAIN) also journeyed alongside its fellow Indigenous Nation from Colombia.

The united delegation of Indigenous People from across South America raised its voice alongside U’wa Nation representatives and said in a statement::

The sentence that the Inter-American Court can give to the case of the U’wa Nation against the State of Colombia will be emblematic, because it will not only impact the U’wa Nation but will also set an important precedent for the protection of the rights of all the Indigenous Peoples who fight every day to defend and protect their territory from extractive activities and arbitrary decisions of states.

The statement from the delegation underscores the significance of the IACHR hearing. Each nation at the court is engaged in its own parallel struggles against extractive industries and complicit states. If the court rules in favour of the U’wa People’s demands, it could have ramifications for all Indigenous nations across the region fighting for their rights.

Exploitative ecotourism

However, the case could be groundbreaking for more than its challenge of the state-sanctioned plunder of extractive fossil fuel projects. Significantly, the U’wa People also challenged the exploitative ecotourism that has degraded their cultural and spiritual sites.

In 1977, the Colombian government designated El Cocuy as a National Park. The park is home to the snow-capped Mount Zizuma. The U’wa consider the sacred Zizuma mountain the resting place of their ancestral spirits.

The U’wa have highlighted how the park authorities have managed the area poorly. As a result, the authorities and tourists have impacted the health of the U’wa territories and communities. Writing for Mongabay, Aura Tegría of the U’wa Nation explained how “so-called ‘ecotourism’… brings serious consequences” to the Indigenous territory which:

include pollution of our water sources, solid waste trash left in our sacred sites, and the spiritual and cultural impact of breaking our relationship with our spirits.

A clear example of this problem is when a group of mountaineers played football on the fragile Mount Zizuma glacier in 2016. In short, tourist disregard for nature is violating the U’wa’s rights to their Indigenous ways of life.

A chance to hold governments to account

In response to the football incident, the non-violent U’wa Indigenous Guard mobilised to protect its sacred lands and mountain. It blocked the entrances to the National Park and set out a series of demands.

Among them, the U’wa argued for the right to sole custodianship of their territory. And they demanded, in particular, the return of the area where the state had imposed the National Park. Indigenous leaders have now articulated this demand to the IACHR.

Unfortunately though, colonial conservation is an experience with which many Indigenous People the world over are familiar. Colonial conservation refers to a form of protected area that excludes people from designated land. This is done to maintain a Global North vision of ‘wilderness’. Indigenous rights organisation Survival International suggests that colonial conservation:

rests on the racist misconception that indigenous people cannot be trusted to look after their own land and the animals that live there.

A 2017 study found that, between 1990 and 2014, governments had evicted more than 250,000 people from protected areas across 15 countries.

As a result, the outcome at the IACHR could signify an opportunity for other Indigenous People to hold governments to account. Specifically, it’s a chance for communities to challenge the historic and present-day impacts of this Global North conservation model.

Indigenous win against extractive greenwashing

While the U’wa await the court decision, an Indigenous community in Peru has celebrated victory in another historic court case.

The Kichwa People of Puerto Franco won the right to land titling for the entirety of the traditional territory inhabited by their community. The land titling involves placing the land in the name of the Kichwa community. This means that the state will legally recognise their land tenure rights over those of extractive industries and colonial conservation. Previously, the Cordillera Azul National Park and associated forest carbon offsetting projects had displaced community members from their ancestral lands.

Extractive companies like TotalEnergies, Shell, and BHP have bought carbon credits from the project. However, these have failed to slow or stop deforestation. Thus Indigenous People fight the dual impacts of extractive industries exploiting their lands for profit. In corporations’ plunder and greenwashing of natural resources, it’s these communities that they continue to harm.

Yet the Kichwa of Peru and the U’wa of Colombia both show that Indigenous communities can fight corporate and state goliaths to protect their peoples’ enduring worldviews.

Furthermore, if the U’wa win their case at the IACHR, the result will send a powerful message: that Indigenous communities can, though courts, hold to account countries that continue violating their rights.

Feature image via Youtube/Somos U’wa

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