Implementing the UNDRIP will save lives

by Armstrong Wiggins*

Speaking out against illegal logging in indigenous territories is a death sentence in Peru. 

This past September, in Peru’s remote Amazon region of Ucayali, four Ashéninka leaders were on their way to speak out against logging in their territories and never made it to their destination.  Days later their bodies were found, shot dead by loggers. 

This story was told to me first-hand by Robert Guimaraes Vasquez, an Ashéninka leader who has been working with the Indian Law Resource Center to bring attention and urge the United Nations to address indigenous land rights violations.  Robert told me that had the Center not arranged for him to be in New York to attend the UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, he would have been alongside the other leaders on the trek through the Amazon; he would have shared their tragic fate.

In the name of his heroes, Robert asked me to help.  The answer for so many indigenous leaders dealing with the same challenges begins with implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. 

The Declaration provides provisions to help process indigenous land claims, and it gives major emphasis to seeking justice and improving protection for indigenous rights. Peru has the dubious distinction of being the fourth deadliest for environmental and land defenders according to a Global Witness report, and many of the killings in Peru stem from conflicts over the ownership and use of land.  The Peruvian government must be held accountable for past actions that have led to land disputes and they must be forced to change unfair procedures, policies, and laws that weaken environmental protection  and indigenous rights.

As world leaders are currently gathered in Lima, Peru, for the UN’s annual climate change conference (the Conference of Parties), now is the time to urge the world community to put pressure on the Peruvian government to bring the killers of the four slain Ashéninka leaders to justice.  And to also demand that Peru begin to recognize the rights of indigenous communities.

The Ashéninka, like all indigenous communities, have a right to exist as distinct peoples and cultures, a right to be free from discrimination and forced assimilation, and the right of self-determination. These rights are being violently violated with no punishment by the government. 

This must end.  How many more indigenous leaders — seeking only to protect their communities and families —  have to die to make this issue big enough for the international community to care? One more is one too many.

* Armstrong Wiggins directs the Washington Office of the Indian Law Resource Center, a non-profit law and advocacy organization that provides legal assistance to indigenous peoples throughout the Americas who are working to protect their lands, resources, human rights, environment, and cultural heritage.