Saving the Colombian Amazon: Deforestation and the Territorial Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Secure territorial rights of indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge must be central to post-conflict initiatives to save the Colombian Amazon and achieve sustainable development

A new report “Deforestation and indigenous peoples rights in the Colombian Amazon” co-published by social justice and environmental  NGO  DEDISE  and Forest Peoples Programme  (FPP) underlines the critical role of secure land and  territorial rights and  traditional knowledge in sustaining one of  the most culturally and biologically diverse forests on the planet.

Drawing  on  grassroots  interviews,  community  workshops  and  a  review  of  official  documents,  the  study assesses historical and contemporary direct and underlying causes of forest destruction and associated human rights impacts in the region. It finds that current deforestation and associated negative impacts on indigenous peoples are most rampant in Caquetá, Guaviare and Putumayo. Forest loss and rights violations in western and northern areas are driven by expansion of cattle ranching and commercial cultivation of illicit crops. According to the  report, deforestation  is closely linked  to  road  construction,  while  mining  and oil developments  act as poles  of  colonisation  leading  to  urbanisation,  land  grabbing,  militarisation,  conflict  and  human  rights violations.

Insecure  land  rights,  perverse  incentives  and  violation  of  free,  prior  and  informed  consent  (FPIC) are key underlying drivers of land use change and rights violations. The report finds that existing Colombian legal and institutional mechanisms to apply the FPIC standard and prior consultation are defective, while mining, oil and gas concessions overlap indigenous forest territories throughout the region. Imposed infrastructure and road building programmes like the  Iniciativa para la Integración de la Infraestructura Regional Suramericana (IIRSA) , facilitated by the  Inter-American  Development  Bank  also  threaten  indigenous  territories  and  fragile  forest watersheds in the region. As one indigenous Kamentsa leader observes:

Implementation of IIRSA  in Colombia  will  lead to the extermination of indigenous peoples and accelerate deforestation as it opens up forests to mining and logging. In Putumayo, one of the country’s major oil production  areas,  the impacts have been very negative  for our people  and our way of life…

The study pinpoints contradictions between  national policies for economic growth and recent pledges made by Colombia’s government to  tackle  climate  change,  promote  sustainable  developme nt  and  achieve  zero deforestation in the Amazon region by 2020. Mayra Tenjo, one of the co-authors of the report said:

There is a major disconnect between national commitments to uphold indigenous peoples’ rights, combat deforestation and achieve sustainable development in the Amazon on the one hand, and Colombia’s  existing  National Development  Plan  (PND) on  the other. The PND  promotes  mining, extractive industries, infrastructure development and industrial agriculture. The two different sets of  policies are not coherent. Better  cross-sectoral policy coordination and  more inclusive, rights-based  approaches  are  needed  to  respect  indigenous  peoples  and  achieve  genuine  sustainable development…    

As well as contradictions in national and  sub-national land use and development  policies, the analysis finds that programmes intended to safeguard the forest and deliver development, such as the GEF funded “Heart of the mazon Programme” and  Vision Amazonía 2020  initiative funded by the UK, Norway and Germany, are not properly involving grassroots communities, who know little about these top-down interventions. As Hernando Castro, an indigenous leader from the Middle Caquetá notes:

Forest  projects  to expand  national  parks  like the Heart  of  the  Amazon  Programme are  mostly driven  by  government  technicians,  the  World  Bank  and  NGOs  in  Bogotá  and  Washington  DC without  effective  FPIC and  sufficient  prior  consultation  with  our Resguardos.  We  do  not  know exactly  what  budgets are destined for our  communities and our  demands  for extension  of  our Resguardo titles are not being given enough priority by these programmes…  

A similar issue is now arising with the larger  Visión Amazonía 2020  and related  Sustainable Colombia  initiatives of the Santos government. The same leader adds:

 Now  there  is  a  new  bigger  forest  programme  that  we  understand  is  funded  by  countries  like Germany and the UK, but we know little about it. It is essential that the indigenous component of the Visión 2020  programme is developed with the full involvement of our traditional authorities and Cabildos. This programme must support our systems of self-government and it must build on our  ancestral  knowledge and  our collective  visions for forest management and self-determined development.

In assessing possible future threats, the report highlights that  a successful peace  process  could open up vast areas  of  the  Amazon  forest  and  eastern  plains  to  foreign  investment  in  oil  palm,  maize,  sugar  cane  and soybean monocultures as well as extractive industries. The risk of increasing land grabs, deforestation, rights violations and displacement of  small farmers  to the forest frontier are heightened by the recent adoption of the  controversial  ZIDRES  land  and  rural  development  law.  This  law  risks  facilitating  the  allocation  of concessions to commercial interests, privatisation and the enclosure of so-called vacant State lands (          baldíos ), without adequate protections for the pre-existing customary collective territorial rights of indigenous peoples. Among other consequences, this law could allow companies to obtain legal rights over “baldíos” they had already accumulated through land grabbing in the past.

Given  these  risks,  the  report  concludes  that  effective  interventions  to  uphold  human  rights,  slow deforestation, maintain biodiversity and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the Colombian Amazon must involve reform of the top-down system for land use zoning, concessions and territorial planning that allocates land and minerals  to private commercial interests. Crucially,  the report  emphasises that  more effective  actions  to  protect  and  secure  territorial  rights  are  needed  alongside  reforms  to  ensure  genuine respect  for  free,  prior  and  informed  consent  (FPIC).  Actions  to  strengthen  self-government  of  indigenous peoples, apply traditional knowledge and reinforce indigenous agroforestry systems are identified as essential for achieving effective forest and climate policies in the region.

The full report can be downloaded here:

For further information contact:

Paula Alvarez, DEDISE:  [email protected]

Tom Griffiths, Forest Peoples Programme:  tom

Articles Par : Forest People Programme

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