“Dear friends, I want to thank you for bringing me to this seminar. To learn things I hadn’t learned before. To be able to help my brothers of other indigenous communities. It brings me great joy to gain more knowledge of things I didn’t know. And I feel very happy.” (Alex Rodriguez, Bora Indigenous Peoples, Peru)
When 21 indigenous lawyers, law students, and legal advocates from all over Latin America came together for a 10-day seminar on indigenous legal defense in Lima, Peru, I don’t think anyone knew what to expect.
In a new trend, indigenous peoples are placing their hopes and dreams in one or two members of their community to go to school, study hard, get a law degree, and return home to protect their territories from infringing dangers such as loss of land and livelihoods from extractive industries and careless development projects. Many of them, however, feel isolated, living away from home in cities, not truly belonging with their fellow law students or lawyers, but possibly losing a connections to their homes in the Amazonian rainforest of Peru, the deserts of Chile, the rural forests of Colombia. Yet here, at EarthRights International’s Indigenous Legal Defense seminar, many of them found a home.
The seminar, the first of its kind, featured over a dozen lectures and workshops by leaders in the field. María José Veramendi from Inter-American Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) presented on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Carlos Andrés Baquero, from Dejusticia in Colombia, led a workshop on free, prior and informed consent. Roger Merino, an esteemed professor at the UK’s University of Bath, “Legal Recognition of Prior Consultation, Territory and Indigenous Self-Determination.” The participants engaged with lecturers and each other, and learned many new ways of protecting their communities and land.
Liz Vallejos, a Mapuche law student from Chile, says that she is often mistreated at her school. “Bad lawyers, crazy lawyers, that is what they call us,” she says. But she is not deterred. “The way we are going, we aren’t getting anywhere. I am worried about the next generations . . . my children, my nieces and nephews, they are so small. I don’t want them to live in fear of what we are leaving for them. We are going to be the guilty ones.” And many participants agreed with her conviction.
ERI’s Amazon team, based in Lima, organized the seminar, which drew participants from all over Latin America: Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, Guatemala, Bolivia. Across indigenous groups, the participants found strength and solidarity.
Yaneth Jacanamijoy, an Inga woman from southwest Colombia who speaks a dialect known as Inga Kichwa, told me about the choice she makes every day to continue her work. “Sometimes we doubt ourselves and say what are we even doing . . . but really I think there is still so much for us to do. And so we have to strengthen ourselves. We have to train in academics and in our communities’ methods. When we know both the problems, but also the defense tools, we can move forward, it allows us to go on.”
At the closing ceremony there were many tears in the eyes of both the participants and organizers. I, for one, know that I have 21 new friends who are doing incredible things, every day. Knowing that they are on the front lines of human rights and environmental justice work gives me hope.
One of the first things the participants did after the seminar was start a Facebook group called Seminario Latinoamericano de Defensa Legal Indigena – Latinamerican Seminar on Indigenous Legal Defense. One of the first messages on the board was from Liz, in Chile: “From the green, cold, and rainy southern Auraucano, I write to you that I have just arrived a day ago, and wanted to remind you that we should all stay in touch. It was a wonderful trip, and having met you all has filled my heart with love and friendship. I hope that each and every one of you is well in your homes, and that we can at some point in our lives be able to reconnect. Newen lamgenm, marichiwew (strength my brothers and sisters, we will win ten times).”