Although the diversity of indigenous peoples is an important element and allows for an unparalleled cultural and linguistic variety, in many cases this richness does not translate into large communities. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, its English acronym), in 2010, the country with the most diversity in terms of indigenous peoples was Brazil, followed by Colombia, Mexico and Peru.
However, some of the Latin American countries which have less of a multiplicity of peoples have an exceptionally large indigenous and Afro-descendant percentage within their total populations. According to data published by the report “El Mundo Indígena 2019”El Mundo Indígena 2019” of the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs, this would be the case of Bolivia, where 48% of the population is of indigenous origin; Guatemala (45%), Mexico (21.5%), Peru (12.5), Chile (9%), Ecuador (6.4%) and Colombia where 3.4% of the population is of indigenous origin. A paradigmatic case is Brazil, which has the largest number of indigenous peoples but whose representation as a percentage of the country’s total population is only 0.6%.
Even so, although in many countries the percentage of indigenous populations is very significant, it can be said that globally and transversally these communities, their ancestral customs and the specific needs they may have, both socially and in terms of security, are to a certain extent invisible. In many cases there is a shortage of specific indicators that measure the level of crime suffered by indigenous peoples, which encourages action/infiltration on the part of transnational organised crime.
In addition, in many cases the lands where most of the indigenous communities are located, whether demarcated or pending demarcation, are extremely wealthy in terms of biodiversity and mineral resources which means they attract a lot of attention from transnational organised crime.
It is important to bear in mind that, on many occasions, indigenous populations, due to the way they live, carry out functions which preserve nature, protect biodiversity, look after ecosystems and pass on ancestral cultural aspects which other communities sometimes destroy. However, the intangible value of their culture, knowledge and know-how may gradually be lost due to the constant reduction in their numbers and communities.
The protection of indigenous communities, an essential component
The progressive and apparently unstoppable disappearance of indigenous peoples is a problem faced by most Latin American countries where these peoples are present. From 2010 to 2018, the comparison between the data reported by National Geographic and ECLAC shows that 84 indigenous communities have disappeared in Brazil, 19 in Colombia, 11 in Mexico and 42 in Peru.
The loss of peoples is directly linked to both the absence and reduction of their ancestral lands, as well as the impact of organised crime, drug trafficking and environmental crime in the region. The impact of organised crime in the region is such that 37% of all homicides occurring worldwide took place in Latin America (2020).
It is for this reason that the European Union, in cooperation with our Latin American partner countries and within the framework of the European EL PAcCTO Programme, has launched a “ Study on the impact of organised crime on indigenous communities in Latin America”. This study focused on three specific cases: Brazil, Colombia and Mexico; and is currently being expanded to Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. The main objective is to identify the problems that affect indigenous, autochthonous and Afro-descendant communities, to coordinate a set of common actions and responses that enable the protection of these communities, so that their customs, culture and traditional ways of life flourish.
We must not forget that Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 – Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, approved by the United Nations in 2015, explicitly mentions the importance of “promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies” by “promoting access to universal justice and the construction of responsible and effective institutions at all levels. In this regard, the European Union has a strong commitment to Latin America and its indigenous peoples, upholding human rights, promoting access to justice and fighting organised transnational crime.
The inseparable binomial: indigenous communities and the protection of biodiversity
According to the study published by the European Programme EL PAcCTO on the impact of organised crime on indigenous communities in Latin America, natural resources on indigenous peoples’ land have led to increasing violence on the part of transnational criminal organisations in recent years for the control and use of these areas, leading to an increase in violence, forced displacement, coercion, exploitation (labour, sexual) and the number of homicides, among others.
In this regard, in recent years, many regions of Latin America have become a vector of conflicts due to the boom in mining activity, illegal extraction of wood, which is often followed by the occupation of the area with livestock, exploitation of hydrocarbons, pollution of ecosystems, etc. These crimes directly affect the lives of indigenous populations, who are deprived of access to their traditional way of life and resources, suffering two-fold victimisation as victims of crimes that affect them directly and indirectly.
Data from open sources show a worrying trend where these criminal groups increasingly try to gain control of indigenous and publicly owned land, due to its plentiful resources, forcing these same communities to move out in order to guarantee their safety and prosperity.
Examples of the security problems suffered by many indigenous communities are the high number of defenders of the land and the environment murdered every year in Latin America and worldwide due to the expansion of the illegal mining industry, deforestation and agriculture and to illegal livestock farming that requires an ever-increasing amount of land. The 2020 Global Witness report records that in 2019 there were 212 officially declared homicides in the world, almost half in Latin America. Furthermore, Global Witness highlights a worrying trend: violence against defenders of the environment is increasing year after year.
The European Union believes that the protection of indigenous communities means protecting nature and biodiversity. This is a binomial that cannot be separated or divided due to the close connection between the two. It is for this reason that we celebrate the entry into force of the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement).
However, it is essential to make the Escazú Agreement operational and to assist in implementing the European EL PAcCTO Programme study work recommendations to protect and strengthen the role of indigenous communities in the fight against organised crime. We cannot stand idly by while ecosystems are destroyed and vulnerable populations disappear due to the actions of organised criminal groups.
The European Union strongly believes in international cooperation and coordination to meet these challenges. Just as we do not have a Planet “B”, we do not have indigenous communities “C” either.
Police cooperation component.