Fighting for land rights

A recent ruling in Peru may set an important precedent for indigenous land rights disputes, as Ben Whitford finds

Deep in the Peruvian Amazon lies the village of Saweto, a tiny indigenous community consisting of a few dozen Ashéninka families. The 150 or so people who live in Saweto don’t have much: thatched wooden huts, plots of land to grow yuca and plantains, a river to fish in. But there’s one thing they do have: a carefully laminated piece of paper, which they proudly carry wherever they go, assigning the villagers legal title to 80,000 hectares of near-pristine rainforest surrounding their homes.

This prized document, which the Saweto villagers received from the Peruvian government last year, is the fruit of a decade-long struggle by the community to assert legal ownership of its traditional territory – a key first step, the villagers believe, towards ending incursions by illegal and sometimes violent logging interests and drug traffickers.

For years, officials in Lima had brushed off the villagers’ applications for legal title, arguing that their claim conflicted with concessions made to logging companies. That finally changed in 2014, when four Saweto villagers, including charismatic community leader Edwin Chota, were ambushed and brutally murdered, allegedly by loggers. Amid international uproar over the killings, Peruvian officials relented and finally granted the community title to its traditional land.

“They thought they could treat us badly forever. But no! We are human beings!” said Diana Rios, a community leader and the daughter of one of the murdered villagers, after hearing of the decision.

We’re part of the land and the land is part of us

While it’s tragic that it took bloodshed to spark government action, the Saweto case sets a vital precedent for the roughly 1,600 other indigenous Peruvian communities now waging similar battles to secure title to their traditional lands. “A lot of communities are inspired by Saweto’s title,” says Tom Bewick, a Lima-based programme manager for the Rainforest Foundation, who has worked closely with the Saweto villagers. “It’s invigorated the push for titling across Peru.”

The past year has seen a string of similar victories across the Americas, and indeed the world. Last summer, a Guatemalan community of 300 Poqomchi’ Maya families won formal title to approximately 800 hectares of land previously claimed by a logging corporation that had accused the villagers of squatting on its property. In southern Belize, the Caribbean Court of Justice upheld the legal right of the Maya people to their traditional land, and ordered the national government to register and protect 38 Maya villages’ ownership of their customary land, and to pay reparations for past abuses. And in Malaysia, the Semai people of Kampung Senta last October successfully fended off corporate encroachments on their land, with a court accepting past indigenous land rights victories as binding precedents and giving the community legal title to 2,209 hectares of tribal territory.

There is a growing sense that land rights campaigners have both the law and the arc of history on their side, says James Anaya, a professor of human rights law at the University of Arizona and a former United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. “It’s definitely a trend,” he tells Positive News. “There’s increasing recognition of indigenous rights in international policy and legal instruments, as well as in domestic laws.”

Globally, according to the World Bank, indigenous peoples have legal title to only about 11 per cent of their traditional lands. Still, the tide is slowly turning, in part because the communities themselves have emerged as passionate defenders of their rights, says Marco Simons, a lawyer who heads the Americas programme at EarthRights International.

“We’re no longer in an era where indigenous peoples can be seduced by the promises of governments and corporations who tell them that this or that project will be good for them,” he says. “They’ve seen what has happened to indigenous communities who did acquiesce to development projects and extractive projects, and it hasn’t been pretty.”

A social movement

This development has given rise to a ‘second wave’ of wellinformed and well-organised indigenous activists, many of whom are adept at using tools such as social media to get their stories out, and to marshal local and international public opinion in support of their campaigns.

Indeed, the recent legal victories, though important, are part of a broader struggle that has been going on for decades, and that has unified previously scattered indigenous communities, says Cristina Coc, a K’ekchi Mayan activist who lives with her husband and children in one of the Belizean communities that has been fighting for recognition.

“The lawsuit is only a tool,” Coc concludes. “What makes these efforts more sustainable and important and significant is really the organising – building a social movement that will stand against injustice.”

Photo credit: Reuters/Enrique Castro-Mendivil