Indigenous Territory & Resource Rights


chiapas arco iris

With the world’s supply of natural resources increasingly depleted or polluted, the carefully protected repository on indigenous lands is now a target of big business.  Globalization has increased the risks for indigenous peoples living on lands that contain such strategic resources as water, oil, gas, forests, minerals, and biodiversity.  All this - not to mention knowledge, plants, animals, and human genetic information - are subject to privatization by government and to sale on the stock market.  Results include increased environmental deterioration, loss of autonomy and rights, and poverty.  With good reason do many indigenous people call globalization “the second coming of Columbus.”  

In response, indigenous peoples are organizing and asserting themselves.  Countless indigenous nations, organizations, and movements are looking for, and sometimes finding, ways to defend their sovereignty, first of all, and to defend their right to their lands and resources.  Protecting something that’s already yours may not sound at first like an alternative, but it constitutes one against the dominant trends of theft of so much that belongs to the collective and destruction of so much that is Native.

Strategies to reclaim indigenous territory and resource rights, and a few victories those strategies have wrought in Latin America, include:

  • Forcing national legal and constitutional changes which can be deployed to stop resource extraction.  In Nicaragua in the 1980s, the Miskito Indians succeeded in changing the constitution to allow broad exercise of their right to self-government, including free election of indigenous authorities, communal forms of land ownership, and communal use of water and forests on these lands.  In addition, the government cannot authorize concessions or contracts for the exploitation of natural resources in the autonomous regions of the Atlantic Coast without the approval of indigenous councils.  In Colombia, indigenous peoples forced into the 1991 constitution social guarantees and rights for indigenous peoples, which - among other things - guaranteed them legal recognition of their territory.  Here as in most places, however, the constitutional protections have been repeatedly violated by the government, though they remain an important foundation for claiming land and resource rights.  
  • Using international law, as when the Awas Tingnis in Nicaragua got the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the Organization of American States to declare the government in violation for not recognizing their right to their own ancestral lands.  The court also ordered the government to pay damages. 
  • Using political mobilization and pressure to resist corporate piracy of their resources.  The U’wa people of Colombia, who threatened to commit mass suicide if their lands were drilled for oil.  Occidental Petroleum was force to quit U’wa lands and return its oil concession to the government-owned Ecopetrol.  In another case, the Mapuche people of Chile have occupied plantations and other lands which they claim belongs to them.  Stating that they are defending their legitimate right to defend their property, the Mapuche have led more than 1,000 actions in their campaign to recover their usurped lands.  
  • Employing a popular referendum, known in Spanish as consulta.  Perhaps the most successful use of a consulta was in the community of Tambogrande, Peru.  In 1989 the Fujimori government granted a concession for an open pit gold mine that would have displaced more than 16,000 residents and polluted the water in an already arid region.  Community members held a referendum in 2002 in which more than 90% of the town's residents voted against the mine.  Boosted by this pressure, in 2003 the Peruvian government found that the mining company had failed to meet the criteria for proceeding with the mine.  More than 30 consultas across Guatemala have rejected mining projects and dams. Although they haven't yet resulted in closing any mines, they are a powerful tool in coalescing popular consensus and in exposing the lie that the international financial institutions consult local populations about development projects.

Given the profits some stand to make off of natural resources, indigenous peoples' battles to preserve the earth under their stewardship are guaranteed to be long and hard and to extract a heavy toll.  Regardless, with everything hanging in the balance, the movement is growing in number and strength.  To quote what Gustavo Castro Soto of Otros Mundos in Mexico once told us, “From here comes the greatest hope that another world is possible.”