It is also the symbol of the Maijunas, a community that has struggled since the time of the Spanish conquest to reclaim its ancestral lands, coveted by loggers and poachers.
Nowadays, there are only 400 hundred Maijunas left, living in four villages of thatched-roof homes (Puerto Huamán, San Pedro de Totoya, Nueva Vida and Sucusari-Orejones), between the Napo and the Putumayo rivers.
The establishment of a large conservation area by the Government of Loreto in 2012 has given the Maijunas the opportunity to make their voices heard for the first time.
The aim was to try to stop hunters from killing the local fauna – especially the tapirs –, loggers from hacking down trees and fishermen from poisoning the rivers.
In an unprecedented consultation process, Maijuna leaders gathered last month in Puerto Huamán (four hours by boat from Iquitos, the capital of Loreto region), to discuss issues related to the conservation area. Representatives from the regional and national governments were present at the event, so was the ILO. More meetings are expected to follow later in the year.
The gathering in Puerto Huamán marked the first time that the national Law on the Right to Consultation was put into practice. This law – passed by the Peruvian Parliament in September 2011 – is based on the ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169).
The right of indigenous people to be consulted and to participate in the decision-making processes that affect them is the cornerstone of ILO Convention 169. It is also at the heart of Peru’s Law on the Right to Consultation.
Leading the way
From now on, the Maijunas will have a saying on the management of the protected area.
Forty years ago, the Maijunas were not even allowed to go to school. It was only in the last decade that they became aware of their fundamental rights. Deprived of their heritage, they have lost part of their identity. Children only speak Spanish, not native Maijuna, and many do not know the traditional stories and songs. Protecting their land is the first step in trying to stop this cultural slide.
Iván Lanegra, university professor and former Vice-Minister of Interculturality, says the consultation process is only the start: “It is a huge challenge for the government because the consultation process alone is not enough. It has to be accompanied by long-term policy-making decisions guaranteeing that the government as a whole will address the needs of the indigenous peoples.”
The ILO’s role
“The ILO, through its Programme to Promote Convention 169, which has been running since 2009 in the region, has been working closely with the Peruvian authorities to introduce the new Law on the Right to Consultation and its regulations. The ILO will continue to work together with the Government to support the implementation of the Law and will provide technical assistance and training to public officials and community leaders,” says Liliam Landeo, the ILO’s South America National Coordinator of the ILO Programme to Promote Convention 169, based in Lima, Peru.
“This year’s theme for the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, which calls for honouring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements, is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of the key role that instruments such as ILO Convention 169 can play, not only in protecting and promoting the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples but also in establishing the legal guarantees for private investment in countries that have ratified them,” she added.
The ILO is responsible for the only international instruments currently in force that deal exclusively with the rights of indigenous people. These instruments set out the principle that their cultures, ways of life, traditions and customary laws are valuable and need to be respected and protected, and that it’s up to these communities to define their own priorities for development.
There are more than 370 million self-identified indigenous peoples in some 70 countries around the world. In Latin America alone there are more than 400 groups, each with a distinct language and culture, although the biggest concentration of indigenous peoples is in Asia and the Pacific – an estimated 70 per cent.