Land Rights (Tribal and Indigenous Peoples) (Extractive Industries)

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR, Court) are the two principal and autonomous organs of the Organization of American States, whose mission is to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere.

IACHR document (30 December 2009) – Indigenous and Tribal Peoples’ Rights over their Ancestral Lands and Natural Resources, norms and jurisprudence of the Inter-American Human Rights System is here.

The IACtHR press release of its decision (2012) in Sarayaku v Ecuador is here.

The IACtHR, Court decision (2007) in Saramaka v Suriname is here.

These judgements address the rights of indigenous peoples when faced with commercial projects on their ancestral lands.

In summary, the Inter-American human rights system addresses the rights of indigenous communities in the following manner.

The Inter- American Commission decides petitions on the merits, issues precautionary measures, holds thematic hearings, and publishes reports concerning indigenous peoples throughout the hemisphere.

It has also refers various matters to the Inter-American Court for binding resolution. In response, the Court issues provisional measures and judgments with respect to indigenous rights.

There is no Court derived definitive and exhaustive definition of indigenous peoples, although self-identification is stressed, and the Court identifies as significant (for the purposes of determining who if any will have rights): peoples who own “social, cultural and economic traditions different from other sections of the national community,” who “[identify] themselves with their ancestral territories,” and who “[regulate] themselves, at least partially, by their own norms, customs, and traditions.” (Saramaka related to tribal peoples)

Saramaka’s interpretations permit commercial projects that do not “fully extinguish” a way of life, or that do not endanger the “very survival” of a people. But observers identify this is at variance with the Court’s radical affirmation of Article 21 (American Convention) as a self- determination principle “calling for [a people’s right] to freely determine and enjoy their own social, cultural and economic development.” They also conflict with earlier case law, which, inter alia, required special measures of protection to achieve a vida digna for indigenous populations.

In Sarayaku the State had granted a communal property title to the Sarayaku (Kichwa indigenous people of Sarayaku, Ecuadorean Amazon), but it had reserved a number of rights, including rights to subsurface natural resources. Ecuador then signed a contract with a foreign company to initiate oil exploration.

In this case, the Court found the State responsible for violating rights of the community of Sarayaku, their ancestral lands and cultural identity, for not granting effective legal protection, and for having placed their life and personal integrity in danger in the presence of seismic explosives within their territory.

The Sarayaku judgment key elements:

– Article 21 protects rights to communal property
– the indigenous community itself suffered the collective property violation
– the Sarayaku, as a group, experienced other rights violations as well.

NB: In previous judgments, the Court had only found violations “to the detriment of the [individual] members” of a community, even if the right to communal property was breached. Such a formulation recognized the Convention’s Article 1, the central provision that obligates States Parties to respect and ensure the treaty’s rights to “all persons subject to their jurisdiction”—”person” defined as “every human being.”

In this sharp break with the past, the Sarayaku Court has apparently adopted a wider definition of “person,” following the views of bodies such as the U.N. Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

– Article 1 of the ICCPR and ICESCR (international treaties in the area) no longer serves as a reference point, despite the fact that Ecuador had already ratified both treaties. NB: the Court avoided the term ‘self-determination’ altogether.

– The judgment acknowledged Saramaka’s three safeguards: effective participation, reasonable benefits, and the impact assessment.

NB: it did not examine the concept of benefits, also the Court’s standard on consent was ignored. Saramaka had held that, in specific circumstances, the “effective participation” of the indigenous community actually required the group’s consent for a project to move forward.

Sarayaku devoted a great deal of attention to the baseline of effective participation: the state obligation to consult indigenous populations before projects begin. Saramaka had already asserted that this constituted a “right to consultation” for communities whose traditional lands were threatened. The Court in Sarayaku noted that Ecuadorian law “fully recognized this right.” Sarayaku then surveyed regional law on this subject, and recognized its status in international instruments such as the ILO No. 169. The Court’s assessment sought to establish the right to consultation not only as a norm protected in the American Convention, but also as a “general principle of international law.”

The above text is informed by analysis found here.

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