By Chris Lang
Last week, Forest Peoples Programme put out a series of reports looking at the following question:
To what extent have government in the world’s five most forested tropical countries rolled back on social and environmental safeguards and what are the consequences of this for Indigenous Peoples and their territories?
The reports look at the situation in Brazil, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, and Peru. The reports were produced by a partnership of Forest Peoples Programme, the Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic of Yale Law School, Middlesex University London School of Law, and in-country researchers.
This post looks at the Colombia country report, based on a discussion paper that summarises the findings. The Colombia country report was written by Camilo Martinez and Maria Arango Zambrano of Forest Peoples Programme, together with July Milena Calderón Segura, Coordinator of the Observatory of Indigenous lands rights of the Indigenous Secretariat of the National Commission of Indigenous Territories (SI-CNTI).
The discussion paper summarises the impacts of the pandemic on Indigenous Peoples and Afro-descendant communities in Colombia as follows:
- Rights-denying land-use policies: The government’s strategy for economic reactivation has accelerated changes to land access, appropriation, tenure, and regulations for the use of territories, most of which are areas where indigenous peoples have customary land rights. The government is handing over these lands to corporations through the creation of business development zones.
- Weakened consultation processes: A presidential directive signed in September 2020 weakened already-flawed guidelines for consultation on development projects. The directive, among other changes, limits development projects’ “area of influence” — the geographic areas affected by projects and on which indigenous peoples likely affected by the projects must be consulted. Mining and agro-industry also continue to expand undeterred.
- Continued expansion of mining and agro-industry in indigenous lands: In September 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, La Federación Nacional de Cultivadores de Palma de Aceite (Federation of Palm Growers, Fedepalma) announced that Colombian palm oil production was set to increase 10 per cent in 2020 — a concerning announcement as the presence of oil palm plantations often correlates with homicides, land grabbing, deforestation and other environmental impacts, and forced displacement of Afro-descendant and indigenous communities.
- Increased violence against indigenous leaders: During the pandemic, mining, agro-industry and illegal resource exploitation and trade have correlated closely with increased violence and threats to social and indigenous leaders. In 2020, 110 murders of indigenous leaders and human rights defenders were recorded by Indepaz, a non-government organisation that is part of the national network of peacebuilding organisations. This was 26 more killings of indigenous leaders than Indepaz recorded in 2019.
- Deforestation has worsened during the pandemic: During the first half of 2020, deforestation increased by 83 per cent compared to the first half of the previous year.
Covid Rollback: Coal, gold, fracking, and oil palm
Before the pandemic, Colombia was the leading producer of coal in Latin America, and fifth worldwide. Coal prices collapsed during the pandemic with Colombian coal falling to its lowest price since 2004. Colombia promoted other extractive sectors, including a presidential decree authorising pilot fracking projects – without adequate impact studies.
Gold prices rose by more than 30% during the pandemic. Colombia’s Minister of Mines and Energy announced “a gold opportunity for the country”. Much of Colombia’s gold deposits are in Indigenous Peoples’ territories.
The discussion paper notes that,
These territories also have high levels of criminal activity and concentrated presence of armed groups. Before the pandemic, armed groups involved in illegal gold mining frequently violated the rights of indigenous peoples and ethnic communities. The rise in gold production risks provoking further land invasions, dispossession and violent environmental conflicts in Colombia and other countries.
While the government has promoted large-scale mining investments and operations aimed at “economic recovery”, it has not supported artisanal mining. Yet 63% of Colombia’s more than 14,000 mining sites are conducted informally. The government treats mining without formal state permits as a criminal activity.
As Rutilio Vargas, of the civil society organisation Programa de Desarrollo y Paz del Chocó, points out,
“Ancestral mining has allowed communities to secure their livelihoods. The government has put illegal mining and ancestral mining in the same package. To control illegal mining, we have to do an analysis within the communities, to provide them the necessary tools so that it is a good and fair mining practice.”
In 2020, Colombia produced more than 1.6 million tons of palm oil. While this is only 2% of global production, it is one-third of the total production in Latin America. For more than a decade, palm oil plantations have expanded into the territories of Indigenous Peoples and black communities in Colombia. Land grabbing, forced evictions, and violence are associated with the spread of oil palm monocultures.
Yet in April 2020, Colombia’s Federation of Palm Growers argued for “extraordinary measures” to increase the production of palm oil, “to allow the agro-industry to confront the economic situation and the national health situation caused by Covid-19 in Colombia”.
Re-zoning uncultivated land for agribusiness
Under Colombian law (Law 160, passed in 1994), vulnerable rural populations must be given priority to “uncultivated” territories. But on 2 September 2020, the National Land Agency published a draft agreement for the creation of business development zones that would distribute vast areas of uncultivated and so-called vacant lands.
Indigenous Peoples or other ethnic and rural communities have customary land rights or tenure rights over these lands. Yet the government describes these lands as an underutilised resource.
Diana Sanchez, Director of the Minga Association, a human rights organisation, says that,
“The territories considered ‘agricultural frontier’ zones, such as those that the ZDE [business development zones] intends to intervene in, are the very epicentres of conflict due to the already incessant extraction of wood, minerals, coal and oil, even in times of the pandemic.”
Limiting free, prior and informed consent
The Colombian government is also limiting free, prior and informed consent procedures. In March 2020, President Ivan Duque allowed the use of online consultations for development projects. He did so without consulting Indigenous People or Afro-descendent communities and organisations, despite requirements to do so under Colombian law, and international human rights instruments ratified by Colombia.
In July 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, José Francisco Calí Tzay, recommended that,
States should refrain from introducing legislation or approving extractive or similar projects in the territories of indigenous peoples in any circumstance where measures against COVID-19 prevent proper consultation and consent.
The first virtual consultation took place in September 2020, regarding a solar-energy development.
On 9 September 2020, President Duque signed a Directive that sets new guidelines for managing prior consultation for new development projects. Instead of allowing more flexibility to respect customary collective decision-making, the directive make the timelines for consultation more rigid.
The directive also gives more power to the National Directorate on Prior Consultation of the Ministry of the Interior to decide the impacts that projects would have on communities – without the participation of the communities themselves.
In October 2020, an administrative judge in the city of Pasto allowed the licensing process for aerial spraying of illicit crops with glyphosate to resume, after the Ministy of the Interior held that the project would not affect Indigenous and Afro-descendent Peoples, and ethnic communities. Yet a report by the Technical Secretary of the National Indigenous Territories Commission found that one million hectares of ancestral Indigenous territories would be affected by the spraying.
Recently, Colombia’s Defense Minister, Diego Molano, said that glyphosate spraying would start again in April 2021.
Failing to protect human rights defenders
Global Witness reports that Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for human rights defenders.
Indepaz, the Instituto de Estudios para el Desarrollo y la Paz (Institute for Study of Development and Peace) documented the killing of 84 Indigenous leaders and human rights activists.
In 2020, the UN Office for Human Rights in Colombia has received information on the murder of 120 human rights defenders. In December 2020, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, called on the Colombian authorities “to take stronger and much more effective measures to protect the population from this horrendous violence.”
Danelly Estupiñan, human rights defender, Proceso de Comunidades Negras, says,
“We continue to be killed very easily during the pandemic because we are all at home complying with the mandatory quarantine and no one can move. But it turns out that the people who want to silence us are moving without a problem …. I have received messages threatening that … they were going to burn me and my family so that I would not come to spread the virus.”
Covid Rollback: Increasing deforestation
During the pandemic, deforestation has increased in Colombia. The main causes are the same as before the pandemic and include land grab, illicit crops, infrastructure development, forest fires, cattle ranching, and mining. Much of the deforestation in 2020 was in the Amazon region, where 64,000 hectares were cleared. Deforestation in the Colombian Amazon is concentrated in the departments of Guaviare, Caquetá, Putumayo, Meta and Vichada. This is where the agribusiness and extractive frontier is advancing.
The discussion paper notes that,
The increase in deforestation is, in part, due to the lack of state capacity to counteract logging, which is regulated by private armed groups instead of the state. According to Rodrigo Botero, Director of the Foundation for Conservation and Sustainable Development, outsiders have taken advantage of the pandemic to clear more forest in the Amazon and further their deforestation and land-grabbing agenda. Outsiders seeking to exploit the forest have threatened national park officials during the emergency and forced indigenous communities to leave or abandon their lands, leaving the forest unprotected.
This post is part of a series of posts on REDD-Monitor looking at REDD and environmental injustice in the Andes Amazon.