Indigenous communities speak out on business and human rights

By agency reporter
December 11, 2013

At the Second United Nations Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights, human rights defenders from Colombia and Guatemala exposed degrading environmental, ecological, economic and social impacts on indigenous communities.

These impacts are consequences of the projects run by multinational companies in a number of countries, they say.

The forum was held 2 to 4 December 2013 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Supported by the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs (CCIA) of the World Council of Churches (WCC), these human rights defenders included Pablo Ceto and Miguel de Leon from Guatemala’s Ixil ethnic communities, and German Ospina from Colombia.

The group participated in meetings along with representatives of Enel, an Italian multinational company operating hydroelectric plants in Guatemala. In their discussions, the representatives of indigenous communities spoke publically about the human rights violations caused by Enel, holding the company accountable for the adverse impacts of their projects on indigenous communities.

The group also met with representatives of the Guatemala mission. In their talks, they questioned the Guatemalan government’s inability to stop land seizure in Ixil indigenous communities, which has hampered the ownership of indigenous peoples towards their ancestral land.

Speaking on the significance of their participation at the forum, and their meetings with the representatives of multinational companies and government officials, Ceto from Guatemala said, “Our participation at the UN gave us an opportunity to make a case against the systematic harassment of indigenous communities by multinational companies, businesses and the state.”

“Not only that our voices help create awareness on threats faced by the indigenous communities in our countries, but they also encourage support from the international community,” he added.

Ceto shared these views in a meeting at the WCC offices in Geneva, along with the rest of the group, following the conclusion of the forum on Thursday, 5 December.

Ospina, a Colombian lawyer who has engaged in a judicial fight for the rights of indigenous communities for more than twelve years, said that indigenous peoples are underrepresented at the global forums. “When we present our cases at the UN forum, the dialogue gives prominence to our issues, and it becomes difficult for the government and multinational companies to ignore the violation of human rights in our territories,” said Ospina.

Ospina, who represents six thousand Afro-Colombians living in the Anchicayan River in Valle del Cauca, mentioned several cases in which environmental contamination and destruction of natural resources have taken place due to hydroelectric power plants.

He said that on behalf of indigenous peoples they have filed legal suits against companies such as Unión Fenosa and Grupo Empresarial Antioqueño, whose projects are responsible for adversely affecting thousands in Afro-indigenous communities, damaging crops and killing fish.

Ospina explained that most of the legal suits are on-going, and it’s a “huge challenge for the indigenous communities to find evidence against the companies due to the presence of military, paramilitary and guerrillas as well as gang violence, and minimal professional support”.

De Leon of Guatemala’s Ixil ethnic community said that “indigenous communities must represent themselves, not only by the non-governmental organizations”. He said to promote and implement the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, indigenous voices must be heard and companies and governments should be held accountable for their actions.

The WCC has been supporting human rights of indigenous communities through its member churches in Colombia and Guatemala, and in partnership with the Latin American Council of Churches (CLAI).

* See the full Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (*.PDF Adobe Acrobat document): Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights


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