Indigenous peoples hold the master key to a transformative post-COVID-19 recovery based on their knowledge, their collective conscience and their worldview, Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), stated today during a high-level event organized by the Fund for the Development of the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC).
“It is crucial to reaffirm the centrality of indigenous peoples’ rights, the standards of which have been enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other international human rights instruments. Although it is undeniable that progress has been made in recent decades on their recognition and collective rights in all the region’s countries, important gaps still remain,” Alicia Bárcena indicated.
For that reason, she said, “it is critical that recovery policies emphasize the collective rights of these peoples and that their pivotal themes be participation and consultation with a view to obtaining free, prior and informed consent for any measure that would affect them, including the participation of indigenous women and young people.”
The senior United Nations official was one of the main speakers at the High-Level Political Forum entitled “Challenges in times of pandemic: A dialogue for ‘Good Living,’” which was inaugurated by Gabriel Muyuy, Technical Secretary of FILAC. Participating along with Alicia Bárcena were Elisa Loncón, President of the Constitutional Convention of the Republic of Chile (via video); Freddy Mamani, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Plurinational State of Bolivia; Mirna Cunningham, President of the Directive Council of FILAC; Jessica Vega, Chair of the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC); and Gregorio Díaz Mirabal, General Coordinator of COICA.
During her presentation, ECLAC’s highest authority recalled that Latin America and the Caribbean is the region that has been hardest hit by the pandemic, since it represents 8.4% of the global population but accounts for 32.5% of worldwide deaths caused by this disease. She added that the region is facing a profound asymmetry versus the developed world, especially in terms of access to vaccines and the impacts of climate change.
Alicia Bárcena underscored that indigenous peoples experience the structural inequalities, discrimination and racism that characterize our region, creating a scenario of greater vulnerability and risk in the face of COVID-19 and the effects of the crisis.
She noted that, according to the Social Panorama of Latin America report for 2019, the poverty rate of indigenous persons was 46.7% while that of extreme poverty was 17.3%, equivalent to double (2.1 times) and triple (3.1 times) the respective rates for the non-indigenous population in the set of nine countries that had information available.
ECLAC’s Executive Secretary warned that the pandemic has prompted differentiated and intersectional impacts on the fulfillment of indigenous peoples’ right to health and to life, as well as on other dimensions of their economic, social, cultural, territorial and environmental rights, having particular repercussions for indigenous women, children and young people, indigenous older persons, and indigenous persons with disabilities.
In that context, she stressed the need to have better sources of disaggregated data, to understand the pandemic’s true impact on indigenous peoples and to guide public policies.
“The lack of disaggregated information is also a manifestation of discrimination,” she emphasized.
Alicia Bárcena also warned that the tensions and conflicts stemming from the lack of guarantees for indigenous peoples’ territorial rights and external threats have continued to rise.
She specified that even before the pandemic, between 2015 and 2019, ECLAC identified 1,223 conflicts in 13 Latin American countries, arising from impacts on indigenous peoples’ territorial rights that were associated with extractive industries, including mining, hydrocarbons, energy and monocultures. In fact, nearly two-thirds (63.7%) of them stemmed from mining (43.5%) and hydrocarbons (20.2%).
“These are the challenges of ‘Good Living,’ because our societies are returning to the privileges that deny rights, to concentration, to a neoliberal model that we have not managed to get beyond. These historical inequalities are accompanied by the dispossession and plundering of lands, and of the resources of indigenous peoples,” she underlined.
She also stressed the urgency of making visible, and condemning, processes to criminalize indigenous social protest in the face of investment projects that affect their territories.
“The most dramatic expression of the violation of their rights is the murder of defenders of the life and territories of indigenous peoples. Between 2015 and the first half of 2019, 232 indigenous leaders and community members were killed in the context of territorial conflicts, many of which were associated with the extractive industry. This means that on average, 4 indigenous defenders of rights are killed each month in Latin America. This is a grave matter,” she affirmed.
In that regard, she pointed up the relevance of the Escazú Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, “the only treaty that protects the life of environmental defenders,” she stated.
The high-level official asserted that “Good Living” requires recognizing the relevance of territory, the right to culture beyond language – that which provides a conscience and historical memory, spirituality, a vision of life; the right to a pertinent education and to indigenous peoples' development with respect for their identity as rights holders, and to territorial rights.
“As the Vice President of Bolivia, David Choquehuanca, has said to us, the obligation to communicate, to dialogue, is a principle of ‘Good Living,’ but on the basis of parity. Actions and measures are needed. The most important thing is that nothing be done about you, without you. As we often say: nothing about us, without us,” she affirmed.
Finally, Alicia Bárcena expressed her solidarity with the thousands of inhabitants of Latin America and the Caribbean who have had to face the pandemic’s effects in conditions of marginalization and exclusion.
“I send a special greeting to the silent guardians of the land and biodiversity, who in the midst of this crisis have unswervingly continued their work to defend the environmental and social rights of us all,” she concluded.