Despite systematic repression, powerful enemies, and ongoing discrimination and other challenges, Indigenous communities have achieved important wins in the past year in Latin America.
Here are a few highlights of what tireless struggle has recently achieved for Indigenous communities.
1. Controversial Dam on Indigenous Land
Panama halted the construction of the controversial Barro Blanco dam in February 2015 under the pressure of highway blockades and other resistance by the Ngobe Bugle people, organized against multiple mining and hydroelectric projects in their ancestral territory. Although the administration of President Juan Carlos Varela has suspended the completion of the project until a full agreement with the Ngobe Bugle can be reached, the struggle is not over and traditional authorities continue to negotiate with the government and bring the Indigenous perspective on the impacts of the dam to the table.
2. Warding off Mining Extraction
Colombia gave national park status to the collectively-owned Indigenous territory of Yaigoje Apaporis in October 2015, a move that will help Indigenous peoples protect their traditional lands from mining exploitation in the area. The ruling immediately put a stop to all mining operations within the boundaries of the new park, including a gold mine concession to a Canadian multinational corporation.
3. Historic Sex Slavery Verdict
In a landmark decision, Guatemala sentenced two former military officers to a total of 360 years in prison for systematically raping Indigenous women and keeping them as domestic and sexual slaves at the Sepur Zarco military base during the bloodiest years of civil war in the 1980’s. The case set an important national and international precedent and serves as a symbol for breaking systemic impunity for dictatorship-era crimes in Guatemala, including genocide against Indigenous people.
4. First Autonomous Government
The Wampis people in Peru made history in November 2015 when they declared the first Autonomous Indigenous Government in the history of the country over their over 3 million acre territory. Representing some 100 subsistence Wampis communities, the autonomous government aims to secure Indigenous sovereignty and protect their lands, livelihoods, and local ecosystems from the threat of exploitation by mining, logging, and industrial agriculture.
5. Justice for Slain Leader
One of the accused murderers of the prominent Venezuelan Indigenous leader Sabino Romero was handed down a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison for homicide in August 2015 in a rare landmark move to prosecute the killer of an Indigenous person. Sabino, a leader of the Yukpa indigenous group in Western Venezuela and famed national symbol of Indigenous resistance, was killed in March 2013 after a heated land conflict between Indigenous groups with legal title to the land and large ranchers who wanted to stake their claim to the farmland.
6. Paraguayan Indigenous Group Won Legal Land Title
The Enxet Sur peoples of Paraguay won a major victory after years of struggle when the Yexwase Yet community recuperated in April 2015 nearly 25,000 acres of ancestral territory with legal title. The legal land rights provide a safeguard for Enxet Sur traditional subsistence livelihoods and the natural forest ecosystem against industrial agriculture wreaking environmental havoc in the area.
7. Taking On Monsanto
Mexico’s top court banned the use of genetically-modified soybeans in the Yucatan peninsula in November 2015, demanding that Monsanto consult local Indigenous communities about contested agricultural activities on their lands in order to use GMO soy. The move blocked Monsanto’s plans to plant over 600,000 acres of land with the crop, ruling in favor of thousands of Indigenous campesinos and beekeepers fighting to protect the environment. But the struggle against Monsanto is far from over, as Indigenous and campesino communities continue to fight for a ban on GM corn that threatens biodiversity and dozens of Indigenous mais varieties.
8. Mapuche Leaders Vindicated
Three Mapuche leaders were freed in November 2015 after being found not guilty in a landmark intercultural trial in southwestern Argentina. The land defenders were criminalized for resisting an eviction and handed down charges the Mapuche interpreted as politically motivated. In a first-ever intercultural trial, the leaders were vindicated and the Mapuche set an important precedent for fighting the criminalization of Indigenous resistance.