The decree that recognizes indigenous governance of the Colombian Amazon

As a follow-up to the news we shared back in April of the groundbreaking decree that has brought recognition to indigenous governance in the Colombian Amazon, we share with you here an English translation of an interview with Juan Carlos Preciado, a lawyer for our long-time Colombian partner Gaia Amazonas. The original article was written by Nicolás Sánchez A. and published in Spanish by El Espectador on the 25th of May.

Juan Carlos Preciado, lawyer for Gaia Amazonas, helped in the preparation of Decree 632 of 2018, a crucial recognition of indigenous governance in the Amazon. We talked with him about the importance of that norm, its effects on indigenous communities and the recognition of diversity.

A decree signed by President Juan Manuel Santos, on April 10, went unnoticed by the great majority of the country. However, for the indigenous communities that inhabit the Colombian Amazon, the norm is the product of more than 14 years of work. The decree recognises indigenous authority over more than 18 million hectares of territory in which there had been no formally recognised local authorities. Since 2004, indigenous peoples and civil society organizations began to develop a document [so that the] State would recognize the right to govern their territories. [Even] the governor of the department of Amazonas signed a letter addressed to the National government to promote the initiative.

Carlos Preciado, advisor to Gaia Amazonas, counts 22 bills which failed to pass in Congress, that addressed issues of indigenous territorial governance. After this series of disappointments, the indigenous peoples asked President Santos to sit down and design a decree recognizing their governance over extensive territories in the departments of Vaupés, Guainía and Amazonas.

Indigenous communities, civil society organizations and the Government had been working hand-in-hand since 2013 on this decree. In 2017, after community leaders sought consultation with their communities on what had thus far been achieved, the parties officially registered the text of the decree. They waited until April 10, 2018 for Santos to stamp his signature on the decree.

Preciado, who is a lawyer and has been working on Amazonian issues for the past 24 years, was involved throughout the decree’s development. He explains the importance of the norm for the future of the Amazon, the challenges it faces and the risks that surround it.

What’s the significance of the decree?
It establishes the mechanism for traditional associations of indigenous governance to register as formally recognised local governments, they are no longer seen as simple associations. The decree also sets out the procedure to demarcate these indigenous-governed territories. The Ministry of the Interior has thus far recognised 104 indigenous local governments, in 64 of which are in the Amazon, there are more or less 47 different languages spoken in those 64 communities alone. In the non-municipalised territories there are around 50 different indigenous peoples and linguistic and cultural systems in these territories are very much alive.

Does the decree only apply for those three departments?
Yes. They are the only departments in the country where there are non-municipalised areas. And with this decree, non-municipalised areas will not become municipalities, but rather recognised as indigenous territories. Finally the country has the possibility of developing indigenous territorial entities and apply the principle of diversity within its policies of territorial planning and governance.

What is a non-municipalised territory?
Every part of the country must have a local government entity and it is assumed that there were municipalities throughout the country. When the constitution of 1991 was ratified there were places that were not departments but rather intendencias and comisarias. The constitution of 1991 elevated these areas to the status of departments. Within those departments there were places that had not been municipalised: referred to as corregimientos. The decree that elevated the intendencias and comisarias to the category of department, turned those corregimientos into departmental corregimientos, but such a territorial entity does not exist in the Constitution. The Constitutional Court declared in 2001 that the figure of departmental corregimiento does not exist in the Constitution and that it is unconstitutional. So there is a vacuum there in terms of local governance, there is no municipality. In addition, the calling of some places is not to be a municipality, but rather an indigenous territory under the figure of an indigenous territorial entity.

What problems did that cause?
That there was no local government entity. Local governments are those that are closest to the people, those who carry out territorial planning. In the constitution, local governments are responsible for the provision of services and direct dialogue with their residents. That gap is important because when the state is going to carry out actions in that place, it acts through others, not through a local governance structure. The state did not exist locally, despite the presence of the indigenous people and their forms of government.

How will the decree impact the daily life of the communities?
For many years now indigenous peoples have been developing different proposals vis-a-vis the state, but this lack of recognition has meant that the state’s responses to these proposals were not clear, forceful, appropriate and timely. Now we have much better chances to receive clear responses from the state.

It has been said that Virgilio Barco recognised the territory of indigenous peoples and Juan Manuel Santos recognized their government. What does that mean?
When Barco came to power in 1986 there was only one large reservation in the Amazon with one and a half million hectares. That year, Martín Von Hildebrand presented a panorama of the Amazonian peoples to Barco and told him that where they lived was a forest reserve and considered a national wasteland, and that the rightful owners of these territories were not recognized. Barco recognized their right through the conformation of the great Amazonian reservations: Predio Puyumayo, the Great Reserve of Vaupés, and the reserves of the zone of connection between Amazonas and Caquetá.

How many millions of hectares do the indigenous peoples of the Amazon have today?
Around 25 or 26 million.

Have indigenous people demonstrated the ability to govern themselves?
Those who have inhabited and built the Amazon as we know it today are the indigenous peoples. The conserved part that we have of the Amazon should give us the peace of mind to speak with those who know how it is governed there. Those who have lived there and have preserved it are the indigenous peoples. When non-indigenous economic and cultural models arrived in the Amazonian territory, degradation and deforestation began. Where indigenous people exercise their government is where it is conserved. Of course they know how to do it, they are ancient cultures, they have the knowledge to live in the Amazon and allow us to have a space that is ecologically very well conserved.

What implications does the decree have for a country that is seeking to build peace?
It has fundamental implications because to achieve peace we need to recognize ourselves. The Constitution took a notable step in recognizing that we are different and that our coexistence, our possibility of peace lies in recognizing difference and in being able to turn difference into potential. That decree has a lot to do with this. We have great potential, an enormous vital force in our cultural diversity, in our natural and environmental diversity. This decree is a fundamental contribution to peace insofar as it takes a step for indigenous peoples to exercise a fundamental right that aims at strengthening sustainability and their cultural, territorial and physical survival.

Can the decree have effects in other indigenous territories of the country?
There could be, because everything you learn in one process can help us to all understand as Colombians how we can really build the diverse state that is spoken of in the Constitution.

What is missing in terms of recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples?
We Colombians need to build a diverse country. Cultural diversity is valuable and an objective in and of itself.

What does that mean?
It is said that this is an intercultural, multicultural state. What we have to build is respectful relationships, a recognition of difference and that each person, according to their cultural and historical realities, can develop social and political forms of organization.

Are there risks of wasting the opportunity?
It would be wasted if the state entities were to make the implementation of the decree unreasonably difficult through procedures that would foil this work.”