Posted by Fiona, the Gaia Foundation, 4th February 2014
Three members of the Constitutional Court have made an unprecedented trip to the heart of the Amazon forest, to settle a three-year legal battle on the future of Colombia’s third largest National Park, which was established to protect indigenous territories from gold mining. Our partner, Gaia Amazonas, accompanied the judges for a public hearing with the indigenous communities on the future of the Yaigojé-Apaporis National Park.
Back in 2010, Gaia reported on how the floodgates had opened for mining concessions in the Colombian Amazon. We were especially concerned about Yaigojé Apaporis, an indigenous resguardo (legally-recognised, collectively-owned territory), which was declared a National Natural Park at the request of the indigenous communities living there. We now bring you the latest dramatic twist in this story of indigenous communities and the National Parks authority joining forces to defend Amazon indigenous territory and sacred natural sites.
Yaigojé-Apaporis, a breath-taking area of tropical forest in the lower Apaporis River, eastern Colombian Amazon, is home to some of Colombia’s most traditional indigenous groups, the Makuna, Tanimuka, Tuyuca, Cabiyari, Letuama, Yauna and Yujup-Maku, among others. From around 2007, their resguardo, including the sacred natural site known as Yuisi (or “La Libertad” rapids), came under threat from mining companies. Gaia circulated a special report by Gaia Amazonas detailing the concern of the indigenous communities to protect Yuisi, the forest and their very existence.
The local indigenous organization, ACIYA, representing the indigenous communities of the resguardo, requested the Colombian National Parks authority to establish a national park, but under a special agreement respecting their autonomy and traditional practices for safeguarding the forest. Yaigojé-Apaporis became Colombia’s 55th national park, and one of the country’s largest national protected areas, in October 2009.
“We have collective ownership [of our ancestral territory]… but that only protects a metre below the ground – what we use to grow – and not deep underground. And when the disease comes from the white world, as with mining, medicine is to be found right there. So we sought an alliance that could safeguard the territory, and that was how the national park was born”, says the leader Gerardo Macuna, Centro Providencia.
Just days afterwards, the Canadian company Cosigo Resources received permission for a mining consession to extract gold. Their only obstacle was that protected area status effectively meant that mining could not take place. This did not deter them, and Gaia highlighted the case in its report “Yaigoje-Apaporis, threatened by gold mining“. Things took a turn for the worse some months later, when leaders from 5 of the indigenous communities placed a legal challenge to the establishment of the National Park, claiming that due process and consultation had not taken place. For three years the case has sat with the Constitutional Court as to whether or not the Yaigojé-Apaporis does have protected area status – the only obstacle to Cosigo Resources’s plans for gold mining. For three years, the indigenous orgaisation ACIYA, the Colombian National Parks authority under the leadership of Julia Miranda Londoño, and Gaia Amazonas have requested that the mining concession for Cosigo Resources be revoked.
It is not often that judges travel to the home of those who have put forward a legal challenge, and even less so when this means travelling deep into the Amazon. But last Friday, 31st January, three judges from the Consitutional Court – Gabriel Mendoza, Nilson Pinilla and Jorge Iván Palacio – travelled to the Makuna maloca (community longhouse) of Centro Providencia. They were accompanyed by Paul Vieira (Deputy Minister from the Environment), Julia Miranda Londoño (Director, National Parks), representatives of the Presidency, the Attorney, the Ministry of Interior and the Public Ombudsman, in addition to Gaia Amazonas Foundation and the Natural Heritage Fund. The logistics were complex – judges and government officials traveled by military plane to the village of La Pedrera and there caught a Black Hawk helicopter to Centro Providencia (after flying over the territory and an aerial view of the sacred falls at Yuisi), while others made the six-hour canoe trip and two hours walk. Hundreds of indigenous inhabitants from small communities that are scattered alongside the Apaporis region, also travelled to witness the hearing. The decision that is taken may change their lives for ever.
“We decided to go there because there is no justice unless we know what they think the communities”, said the president of the Court, Jorge Iván Palacio. Palacio explained that the Constituional Court tries not to decide from a desk in Bogota when it comes to ethnic communities in Colombia.
And in the midst of the public hearing something unexpected happened, something that was suspected but no one had been able to prove. The indigenous community leader who was main signatory to the legal challenge, publicly admitted that his legal strategy was organized and paid for by the Canadian company Cosigo Resources, which cannot exploit its mining permit while the area remains protected. For many, it was nothing new to hear about the pressure from Cosigo Resources in the region – they had tried to sabotage the process of consultation that preceded the declaration of the Park, and tried to place their own legal challenge to the creation of the protected area. There were rumours that the mining company had invited several indigenous community leaders and their families to Bogotá, and convinced them that they should challenge the declaration of the park. But these were just rumors, until this spontaneous confession in front of the Constitutional Court judges.
It gave a dramatic twist to the case, which the Court still has to decide on. It could be seen as an acid test of mining policy in the Amazon.
38 titles were awarded for mining in national parks in Colombia under President Alvaro Uribe.
Yaigojé-Apaprois is in the so-called Taraira Golden Belt in the Colombian Amazon, described by Cosigo as “potentially one of the largest unexplored gold districts in the world”, comparing it to the Witwatersrand that punctuated the development of South Africa in the late nineteenth century.
Between 2007 and 2009 pre-consultation on creating the park was carried out with the local indigenous communities – from Makuna, Tanimuka, Tuyuca, Cabiyari, Letuama, Yauna and Yujup-Maku ethnic groups – thanks to funding from the Moore Foundation and Gaia Amazonas led by anthropologist Martin von Hildebrand.
The Canadian explorer Wade Davis, who wrote the book “The River” on his journey through the Amazon, said: “A mine in Apaporis is like a well of oil in the Sistine Chapel”.