The Court convened the dialogue after a long legal battle held over 20 years. Gaia Amazonas participated with the intention of promoting the opening of civic space by providing legal advice and helping prepare all the necessary materials for the conversation.
Photo credit: Gaia Amazonas
The North-East Colombian Amazon is known to be one of the best protected areas of rainforest in the world. The heart of this region is inhabited by more than 63 indigenous groups that live along the Pirá Paraná, Yaigojé Apaporis, Mirití Paraná and Tiquié Rivers. Despite having different languages and particularities, these groups share common stories of origin, rituals and cultural principles, which makes them share what has been denominated as the cultural affinity of the “Jaguares del Yuruparí”.
Their shared ancestral knowledge and cosmology have made them immensely successful in preserving their forests. As a proof of this, in 2011 UNESCO declared their knowledge system and shamanic wisdom as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity through the inclusion of the cultural practices of the peoples from the Pirá Paraná River in the cultural heritage list. Also,the Equator Prize was granted to the peoples of the Yaigojé-Apaporis in 2014 as a pioneer example of indigenous-lead conservation through territorial management based on traditional knowledge.
Unfortunately, illegal mining has increasingly become a threat for both the protection of this territory and the wellbeing of the people belonging to the Jaguares of Yuruparí cultural affinity. The pollution of water bodies with mercury, employed for the illegal extraction of gold, is one of the main dangers to their survival and health, and to the health of key ecosystems in the region. In 2018, a study published by the National Natural Parks Office, the Colombian Ministry of Environment and the University of Cartagena, revealed that the mercury concentration in the blood of the inhabitants of this region, these indigenous peoples, is 22,98 μg/g, an amount 45,96 times higher than that recommended as safe by the World Health Organization (0,5 μg/g).
Since 2000, indigenous leaders have been using legal mechanisms to bring attention to this situation, and requesting concrete actions from Colombian authorities in order to regulate it. The “acción popular” (a legal mechanism used to request protection of collective rights) presented in 2005 was answered in 2007 in their favor, stating that illegal mining in the Amazon should be stopped. However, this had no real effects on the local dynamics.
In November of 2019, five of these indigenous governments, accompanied by Gaia Amazonas, presented an action of tutela, a legal mechanism used for reporting the government or a public institution about cases of violation of fundamental rights, such as life, health and education. In this case, the government was the one being sued for failing to prevent and control the contamination of mercury.
This process was long and difficult, and implied perseverance from the indigenous peoples involved. The tutela was declared without merit or inappropriate twice before Colombia’s Constitutional Court selected it for deeper analysis. Once selected, in order to properly understand what was happening without losing sight of the cosmologies and worldviews of the indigenous peoples, the Court convened an intercultural dialogue that took place on December 2nd, 2022.
After sharing their perspectives and stories, and answering to the jury's questions, the indigenous men and women explained how water pollution caused by mercury is affecting them, their health and that of their territory, because for them, these two are not separate, but rather a continuum of flow of vital energy.
They told the magistrates that their food systems are being altered because there are some species of plants and animals that are becoming more scarce, particularly plants eaten by fish and fish themselves. Their diet is highly dependent on fish protein, which is critical because mercury accumulates exponentially in the food chain, meaning that if the plant eaten by a fish has mercury, the amount of mercury will double in the fish and then double again in the other fish or human being who eats it.
Furthermore, diseases that they had never experienced before, such as uterine cancers and skin disorders, are appearing. As one of the leaders expressed, these are foreign diseases, and as such require external cures because elders don’t have the knowledge to treat diseases that are not in essence part of life in the forest. Additionally, informal armed groups' diaspora, who are articulated to the back market of mercury and the illegal gold extraction, create instability in the region, with implications in their daily life such as restricting their movement through the territory and threatening their safety. In this context, young people interested in earning easy money are increasingly abandoning their cultural contexts, which implies that the transmission of knowledge is decreasing. This has large implications in the protection of their cultural affinity in the long term, which is at the same time fundamental for the adequate management of the territory to be exercised, based on their knowledge systems.
The dialogue came to a close with the Indigenous leaders insisting on the importance of being recognized as environmental authorities in their territories and therefore entitled to the land planning according to their cultural laws and knowledge related to territorial management and zonification, and working in coordination with other governmental institutions in order to regulate these illegal dynamics. This, they consider, is the path to ensure a sustainable governance of the forest as well as the full exercise of their territorial and human rights. They also highlighted that they require complementary medical assistance in order to treat the unknown diseases that are now showing up in the population.
The implications of holding this dialogue are of great importance. On the one hand, it implies that the highest judicial institution of the country recognizes the case lacks some perspectives and that the indigenous groups that belong to the cultural affinity of Jaguares del Yuruparí possess valuable knowledge in order to evaluate the implications of these illegal economies, and that without listening and taking their voices into account, they will not be able to understand the magnitude of the threats that they and their territories are facing, and much less generate an adequate response. This makes the heart of the judiciary branch reconsider its position in relation to people whose knowledge systems haven't been sufficiently valued or recognized.
On the other hand, in this dialogue, the Court addressed their spokesmen as political and environmental authorities, what they are entitled to since the constitution of 1991, even though this has not fully become a reality in practice. This set a precedent of what it really implies for them to be recognized as authorities. They shall be able to work and have direct contact with governmental institutions without encountering so much resistance. Hopefully, from this dialogue onward, the civic space will expand so that the participation and direct communication with other organs of the Colombian state can be more fluid in the future.