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Defending land and lives: Indigenous peoples fighting back against discriminatory corruption

For too long, discrimination has enabled the exploitation of Indigenous land. But that is changing, thanks to Indigenous peoples’ own activism

Illustration showing symbols of Xinka people in Guatemala

Photo: Transparency International, photo courtesy of NISGUA, illustrations courtesy of Andrea Fonseca

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From the Amazon rainforest to ancient Aboriginal sites in Australia, successful legal cases mounted by Indigenous communities have secured landmark rulings. On International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, we highlight two communities who have waged long and committed battles against dubious land deals – a fight which has meant tackling both corruption and discrimination simultaneously.

Threatening the custodians of natural treasures

Many governments ignore the rights of Indigenous people, despite a raft of national laws and a dedicated UN Declaration. Corruption often fuels this discrimination: officials are paid kickbacks in return for mining rights, or bribed to ignore illegal pollution and land grabbing.

The results are devastating. Communities have been forced from land they have lived on for centuries. Sites of enormous cultural importance have been destroyed. Land has been ravaged by illicit pollution, illegal logging or exploitative mining deals, representing an incalculable loss to the Indigenous people who have established deep links with these territories over generations. It is also a loss for all of humanity – complex ecosystems, rainforests, clean rivers and unspoiled highlands are essential for the survival of the planet.

But the tide is changing.

Peru: Three million hectares and 100 letters

In 2003, three million hectares of Peruvian forest changed hands. This enormous deal put 80 per cent of the Alto Tamaya-Saweto territory under the control of private companies.

For centuries, the Alto Tamaya-Saweto and other Indigenous communities have cared for the Amazon ecosystem. They have also spent decades fighting for recognition of their traditional territories. Instead, the government has distributed land to outsiders who make millions from illegal logging, agribusiness and drug trafficking.

The Alto Tamaya-Saweto stepped up their ongoing campaign for recognition of their lands and sent more than 100 letters reporting environmental crimes and persecution to the authorities, as illegal logging began to take root and vast plantations scarred their once-forested ancestral land.

Then in 2014, four community leaders were murdered. Jorge Ríos Pérez was among them, joining over 300 people, many of them members of Indigenous groups, who Human Rights Watch and the Pastoral Land Commission have identified as being killed for standing in the way of criminal and corrupt violations of land rights.

His daughter Diana took up the cause.

On the heels of these cases, Transparency International in Peru, Proética, partnered with investigative journalists to uncover the role of corruption in land allocation. Together, they pieced together how powerful agro-industrial companies bribed former local officials to obtain land titles for palm oil and cacao plantations. Corrupt government officials allegedly helped big business by invalidating existing property rights, and profited from illegal logging and land grabbing thanks to complex webs of corruption. All of this contravenes Peru’s national and international obligations to Indigenous communities.

These cases are not isolated events, but rather illustrate the workings of a network of environmental crimes in which the Peruvian state and its officials play a decisive and determining role.
Magaly Avila Director of the Environmental Governance Programme at Proética

In October last year, Proética helped to bring four emblematic cases to the Inter-American Council on Human Rights (IACHR). It was the first time an American regional body had ever heard how corruption affects Indigenous people’s rights.

The IACHR urged the Peruvian government to investigate and apply appropriate sanctions. The decision drew widespread media attention, prompting government authorities to meet with Indigenous leaders and Proética. They have also agreed to work with the IACHR.

It's a step forward, but the logging operations continue, as do the threats. Proética are providing ongoing legal advice, assisting the Environmental Prosecutor’s Office to develop a clear complaints mechanism and a website documenting all environmental crimes, and contributing to new laws that would protect human rights defenders like Diana.

“Born corrupt”: The San Rafael mine and the Xinka people

Elsewhere in the Americas, the Minera San Rafael company has been challenged by another Indigenous community. Xinka people in the area stated that the Guatemalan government had not consulted them before granting a mining licence, as required by law.

“I believe that the project was born corrupt,” explains Ever Benito, President of the Xinka Indigenous Communities of Guatemala. According to him, while the company applied for the licence through appropriate channels, they omitted any mention of the Xinka people living there. The Guatemalan government, who knew of the presence of the Xinka, still went ahead and granted the mining rights.

Ever’s community was never even informed of the project. “We found out because some community members noticed the company’s movements on the ground. They hid it from us, which means that the company had to bribe government authorities.”

We were looked down on, made invisible and denied our rights... There was institutional discrimination by the state and corporate discrimination by the company.
Ever Benito President of the Xinka Indigenous Communities of Guatemala

The community’s challenge was successful. In 2018, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court suspended the exploitation licence, ruling in favour of the Xinka.

Ever Benito points out that discrimination lies at the heart of this case. He says that the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources signed off on the environmental impact study for the San Rafael mine “record time”, whereas the same ministry has not approved an Indigenous community’s proposal for a rainwater irrigation project – now pending for almost twenty years.

Ending the cycle of discriminatory corruption

Indigenous peoples can be targeted by corrupt actors because of their strong links to land rich in natural resources. At the same time, ongoing discrimination means that their complaints and concerns are often ignored by authorities, leaving these communities doubly exposed to corruption.

It’s a cycle that has been confronted with courage, organisation and determination by the Xinka and Alto Tamaya-Saweto peoples, and countless other Indigenous communities around the globe, from the Americas to Indonesia and Australia. The ground-breaking new Escazú Agreement for Latin America and the Caribbean is set to protect environmental defenders like Diana and Ever, a model we are pushing to have rolled out in other parts of the world. It’s one crucial step towards ending this form of discriminatory corruption, forever.

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