What are the major threats to the lives and land of indigenous peoples living in the remotest parts of the world, in what is commonly termed “isolation” and “initial contact”? A report presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council during its September session highlights some of them: oil exploration in Bolivia, mining in Venezuela, oil and logging in Ecuador, and “cattle-ranching, agro-industry, mining, the timber and wildlife trades, road construction and oil exploration” in Paraguay. Next door in Brazil it is the “continuous advance of hydroelectric dams, road construction, mining, narco-trafficking, and other legal and illegal activities.” 

The report lists various advances made in some of these countries to protect indigenous peoples in “isolation” and “initial contact”, yet acknowledges the ongoing problems with them. Take your pick as to which is the most egregious: Bolivia approving a law in 2013 to protect “indigenous peoples or nations at high risk” but never implementing it, or Ecuador establishing an “intangible zone” which isn’t big enough, or Peru creating reserves which are supposedly “intangible” too but - because of a legal loophole - are actually anything but. 

The report makes numerous recommendations to governments and civil society. Operating on the principle of “self-determination and no contact”, these include taking concrete steps to protect the territories of indigenous peoples in “isolation” and “initial contact”, and updating national laws to reflect the much higher standards in international law and instruments, including the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169, the American Convention on Human Rights and related jurisprudence, and the Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation of American States.

The report was written by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In her statement to the Council during the September session, the UN’s Rapporteur, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, described the report as highlighting “the need to redouble efforts to improve protection for the territories and environment of indigenous peoples in isolation and initial contact, in line with international standards.”

David Hill