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Sacred Natural Sites Should Be 'No Go Zones' for Developers

Insights + Opinion

A first round of motions was passed Tuesday by the 1,300 government and civil society members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) at its World Conservation Congress taking place in Hawaii. These include a ban on gillnet fishing in Mexico that threatens the vaquita porpoise and also restrictions on the illegal trade of pangolins.


Among the 85 motions like these that are up for a vote this week are some involving the direct and urgent needs of people too, including indigenous people whose sacred sites and lands face destructive forces. One need only look at the Dakota Access Pipeline battle here in the U.S., which would disturb sacred sites as well as water sources of the Standing Rock Sioux, to imagine that this sort of injustice happens to indigenous groups everywhere.

That's why many representatives from such groups are in Hawaii lobbying IUCN delegates to support Motion 26, which would declare their sacred natural sites to be "no go zones" for developers. As a resolution, it would be non-binding on governments, but would be one more tool for groups to use in pushing for policy changes at a local and national level. It is due for a vote by the delegates, probably on the last day of the Congress, which ends Sept. 10.

From left to right: Leila Salazar-López, Paty Gualinga, Osprey Orielle Lake, Aura Tegría, Sônia Bone Guajajara and Atossa Soltani.

NGOs have also lined up strongly in support of the motion (the progress of which can be followed on Twitter via the hashtags #Motion26 and #VoteForIUCNMotion26), including Women's Earth and Climate Action Network and also Amazon Watch, whose Andrew Miller, when asked why, said:

"Motion 26 reflects a call that indigenous peoples the world over have been making for decades. Colombia's U'wa kicked Occidental Petroleum out in 2002. In the Ecuadorian Amazon, Sarayaku similarly fought and beat Argentinian oil company CGC in the mid 2000s. Look at the inspiring No Dakota Access Pipeline actions happening right now. Indigenous peoples are going to vigorously defend their sacred territories from extraction whether or not Motion 26 passes. But adoption of the measure would blow wind into the sails of indigenous campaigns for territorial defense and would offer a tool to help strengthen national level protected area norms to include sacred natural sites."

One of the indigenous representatives here in Hawaii is Aura Tegria, a member of the U'wa in Colombia who acts as her group's legal advisor. She was a panelist for a high level discussion of these issues on Sept. 3 alongside other experts including the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz.

Aura Tegrias speaking at the high level discussion on Sept. 3. Amazon Watch

This was Ms. Tegria's powerful statement:

The U'wa Nation is found between five Colombian departments: Boyacá, Santander, Norte de Santander, Arauca and Casanare, along the eastern mountain range near the border with Venezuela.

From our ancestral and cultural worldview, we maintain a relationship in harmony with our territory (called Kajka-Ika), who is conceived as our mother through ancestral wisdom. From her we human beings receive everything necessary to survive and to her we should reciprocate with respect and care. This is how the father creator—Sira (God) established the world, as a mandate written in the hearts of our wise Werjayas, for us to maintain the natural and spiritual balance.

Within the cosmovision U'wa, it is said that Mt. Zizuma (within the El Cocuy National Natural Park) is home to our existential beings, a site of knowledge that is in permanent communication with other indigenous peoples who have snow-capped mountains, a communication that is controlled by our traditional authorities, the Werjayas. The snow-capped peak is a biological, spiritual and natural corridor that guarantees human existence and permanence.

Our sacred Mt. Zizuma is threatened by ecotourism, which brings serious consequences like contamination of our sources of freshwater, pollution of our sacred areas with solid waste trash, deforestation, cultural and spiritual impacts which break our relationship with our spiritual beings, disrespect and indignation within our People because of acts like the soccer game that was played up on Zizuma's peak.

It is also threatened by the presence of energy mining projects within U'wa territory, which accelerate climate change and violate our mandate to protect, take care of and safeguard our Mother Earth, carrying us toward a physical and cultural extermination as was expressed by the Colombian Constitutional Court in their Decision 004.

Over the last 6 months our indigenous Nation alongside our Riowa (non-indigenous people) through the Masas Political Movement of Central-Eastern Colombia have carried out a Collective Nonviolent Action, exercising control of our territory through the U'wa Indigenous Guard and demanding respect for our sacred sites and compliance with agreements signed between the U'wa and national government in 2014, as the only guarantee for our ancestral people. This action ultimately led to the establishment of a Dialogue Table and new negotiations between the U'wa Nation and Colombian Government. As an indigenous nation we demanded that the National Parks Service as an environmental authority suspend eco-tourism in the El Cocuy Park and up on Mt. Zizuma while an impact study is carried out, which will allow the U'wa Nation to inform others as to our cosmovision and to offer elements that permit the true protection of Mt. Zizuma. However, this progress is currently being threatened by the recent declarations of Colombia's Environment Minister, who never participated in the negotiations but is now saying that El Cocuy will be reopened to tourism via presidential order. This would be a clear lack of compliance with the agreements by the Government and would run over the rights of our people. Faced with this, the U'wa Nation makes clear that we would continue in our peaceful grassroots mobilization.

We appreciate the fundamental role of international observation of the processes of dialogue with the Colombian State, such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and their representative Todd Howland. Additionally, we appreciate the report of the Special Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, who has brought forth an issue that is currently very relevant, in which they included the issue of Mt. Zizuma. As the U'wa Nation, we say that it is necessary to coexist in harmony and balance with our Mother Earth and this only happens when we recognize and respect the existence of all beings, both material and spiritual.

I would underscore the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur to the governments, such as guaranteeing the recognition and respect for ancestral knowledge. In the case of the Colombian government, they should guarantee full participation for indigenous peoples and adopt all normative, judicial and administrative norms necessary to recognize our rights over our ancestral territories and indigenous reserves.

Through autonomous spaces amongst indigenous peoples in Colombia, we have analyzed our concerns around the imposition of protected areas within our territories, ignoring the spiritual significance of such. Responding to this dynamic, we would like to offer some additional elements:

1. Recognize that prior to the establishment of protected areas, we have our spiritual relationship with our sacred areas, as guardians and protectors of these lands because this is our mandate handed down from our Original Law, the law of Sira, which is immutable.

2. Recognize that from time immemorial we have conserved our territories through our traditional uses and customs, maintaining the harmony between the spiritual and material worlds. In the Colombian case the government still has not recognized this fundamental role of our indigenous traditional authorities as legitimate environmental authorities.

Follow the progress of Motion 26 on Twitter via the hashtags #Motion26 or #VoteForIUCNMotion26.

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