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Indigenous groups gain rights
Latinamerica Press
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Indigenous groups of the Amazon get governments to recognize rights to their territories.

“Resistance is worth the effort,” said members of the Embera Katío indigenous group crowded into a colonial mansion in central Bogota, after learning of the agreements reached on April 8 with President Álvaro Uribe´s government.

Some 450 Embera Katío remained in the office of the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) for 106 days. In December, they had installed themselves in ONIC after being expelled by police from the lawn of the Environment, Housing and Territorial Development Ministry, where they had been since October.

The members of the indigenous group had declared themselves in “permanent assembly” and had traveled some 800 km (480 miles) by busses from their territory to protest the government´s failure to meet commitments regarding security, education, food security, human and territorial rights affected by the construction of the Urrá hydroelectric plant, which formed a dam in Sinú River— source of food, transport and part of the culture of 3,500 Embera Katío — (LP, Feb. 21, 2000).

Although the government initially refused to talk to the Embera Katío, pressure forced government representatives to accept negotiations on March 11. Four weeks later, the group´s members and the government signed an agreement that included respect for the group´s territory, environmental license, rights to health and education and compensation for environmental, social and cultural damage caused by the Urrá dam.

Thirty years of indigenous resistance in Brazil has also produced results. On April 5, the Justice Ministry recognized the right of 15,000 members of five indigenous groups —Macuxi, Ingarikó, Patamona, Taurepang and Wapichana— to a 1.74 million-hectare territory in the northeast of the Amazonian state of Roraima, on the frontier with Guyana and Venezuela.

President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva immediately signed the decree giving recognition to the Raposa/Serra do Sol reserve (LP, Dec. 31, 2003), putting an end to decades of clashes with farmers and hacienda owners opposed to demarcation. About 20 members of indigenous groups died in the clashes.

Four days later, to mark Indigenous People´s Day, Lula decreed the creation of five new reserves in the states of Roraima, Tocantins, Maranhao, Amazonas and Para, that benefitted eight indigenous groups, some in danger of extinction such as the Avá-Canoeiro, Javea and Karajá, said the state National Indigenous Foundation (FUNAI). The measure brings the number of reserves established during the current government to 54.

In his speech, Lula ratified his campaign pledge to “guarantee that the indigenous ethnic groups be treated with respect and dignity.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged that “it will still take many years so that we can return (to the indigenous people) that which was taken from them.”

Along this line, in April the Peruvian government announced the creation of the Alto Purus Protected Zone, located in the extreme eastern Amazon jungle. It is one of the largest conservation areas in the world which will include territorial reserves for isolated indigenous groups. The World Wildlife Fund Peru office (WWF Peru) said the Alto Purus Protected Zone has an extension of 2.7 million hectares (6,670,000 acres) in the Amazonian departments of Ucayali and Madre de Dios, on the border with Brazil, and it is one of the last zones that harbors indigenous groups in voluntary isolation.

“Nine different indigenous groups —Arahuaca, Ashaninka, Cashinahua, Chaninahua, Culina, Mastanahua, Sharanahua, Shipibo and Yine— live on these ancestral lands in harmony with nature,” said WWF Peru, which has worked in the zone since 2000. In addition, between 200 and 600 indigenous people live in voluntary isolation.

Kathryn Fuller, of WWF Peru, said that “the Alto Purus is the piece that was missing in the grand corridor of 1,700 km (1,020 miles) of protected areas in Brazil, Bolivia and Peru.”

Nevertheless, Alto Purus —inhabited by not more than 5,000 people, 2,800 of them members of indigenous groups— is threatened by the illegal logging of cedar and mahogany.

WWF Peru said that involving the indigenous communities in the sustainable management of natural resources, especially forests, fish and local fauna, is the key to success in incorporating “the integral vision of the indigenous people regarding nature.”

Not all news was good, however, for indigenous groups´ rights in April. In Paraguay, the Chamber of Deputies rejected a law to expropriate 114,000 hectares to protect the ancestral lands of the Ayoreo indigenous group living in isolation (LP, March 25, 2002).

The Ayoreo, who are hunters and gatherers, live from hunting wild pigs, anteaters and armadillos. From the early 20th century, lumber and livestock farmers have invaded the territory of the Ayoreo. Survival International, which defends the rights of indigenous groups around the world, said that the big Brazilian and Paraguayan companies have illegally bought parcels of the Ayoreo ancestral lands.

Stephen Corry, director of Survival International said that with the bill’s defeat, the Ayoreo “have lost the opportunity to finally obtain some protection from the livestock farmers that have felled trees in most of their territory... But Paraguay also has lost the opportunity to promote a civilized policy in favor of the most vulnerable sector of its population.”


April brought good news on the indigenous rights. The threemonthsit in by the Embera Katío in Bogota produced tangible results. (Photo: www.colombia.indymedia.org)
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