This is the fourth of seven stories highlighting the recent publication of a special issue of the International Forestry Review focused on CIFOR research.
In 2018, Peruvian Indigenous grassroots organizations, non-governmental organizations, and government groups organized a multi-stakeholder forum (MSF) to address decade-long delays in the creation of five Indigenous Reserves in Loreto, the country’s largest region spanning half the Peruvian Amazon.
The reserves were intended to protect Loreto’s Indigenous Peoples living in isolation whose territories are under threat from the environmental impacts of oil extraction, deforestation and road construction.
Because the MSF—called the PIACI Roundtable (for Indigenous Peoples in Isolation and Initial Contact)—wrestled with one of the most complex human rights and environmental concerns, Daniel Rodriguez and Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti, researchers with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) sought to discover if it effectively mediated both Indigenous rights and development priorities given the challenges. Negotiating the dynamics of power relations, the diversity of interests between stakeholders and the fact that Indigenous Peoples rights are recognized in international treaties but tend to be overlooked at the national and subnational level are all contributing factors.
MSFs have received attention in international development circles as a platform of choice for urgent action on the climate crisis. Donors, governments, and NGOs tend to regard MSFs as a transformational solution to challenges posed by land and forest degradation. Proponents note that the platform has great potential in facilitating effective collaboration between different groups and reaching fair solutions, but their effectiveness in producing concrete outcomes on substantive territorial issues depends on whether participants can hold a shared respect for those recognized rights, the researchers said.
An analysis of the PIACI Roundtable by Rodriguez and Sarmiento Barletti was published recently in the International Forestry Review. MSFs can be productive spaces in which to raise awareness on and coordinate support for the rights of vulnerable people – but their ability to produce effective concrete outcomes regarding substantive territorial issues demands that participants hold a shared respect for those recognized rights, the researchers said.
“If not, MSFs can turn into spaces where powerful actors reduce Indigenous Peoples’ recognized rights to territory, culture and self-determination to mere perspectives or points of view,” said Sarmiento Barletti.
A kind of victory
Some 185 PIACI groups live in the remote forests of South America’s Amazon and Gran Chaco regions. Isolated peoples eschew contact with modern society and actively refuse and avoid the presence of outsiders in their territories. Peoples in initial contact are groups that have recently started relationships and exchanges with modern society, albeit sporadically. Both groups typically lack immunity to common diseases and are highly vulnerable, as a result.
The mere presence of outsiders near or within their territories, regardless of whether they are loggers, miners, missionaries, adventurers, tourists or drug traffickers, threatens the health, security, and way of life of PIACI groups. Several governments in the region— among them Brazil and Peru, the two countries with the highest number of PIACI —and the Inter-American System for the protection of human rights and the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples acknowledge this vulnerability through legal and political frameworks, which adopt a principle of non-contact.
Loreto’s PIACI groups all live in isolation. The Peruvian government recognizes some of these groups. They include the isolated Kakataibo people in the proposed area of the Kakataibo Indigenous Reserve; isolated Matsés, Remo (Isconahua), Marubo and other unknown peoples in the proposed Yavarí Tapiche Indigenous Reserve; isolated Matsés, Matis, Korubo or Kulina-Pano and Flecheiro (Takavina) peoples in the proposed Yavarí Mirim Indigenous Reserve; and isolated Remo (Isconahua), Matsés, and Kapanawa in the proposed area of the Sierra del Divisor Occidental Indigenous Reserve. Recognition of the isolated peoples of the proposed Napo Tigre and Tributaries Indigenous Reserve is ongoing.
As these groups were unable to represent themselves at the PIACI Roundtable, they were represented by two Indigenous rights groups and other civil society groups in the MSF, which was composed of 18 organizations representing government and civil society groups.
“The creation of MSFs to deal with matters affecting isolated peoples was already a kind of victory for civil society groups,” said Rodriguez, who is also an expert on the protection of PIACI groups in Peru.
“To create those spaces, you need cooperation and some degree of interest from national and regional authorities, and it involves their acknowledgement of the existence of these groups and their high vulnerability,” he said.
Human rights are non-negotiable
To analyze the roundtable’s effectiveness and equity during its first year of activity, 35 in-depth interviews were carried out with national, subnational, and local level stakeholders. The researchers also reviewed related reports, legal documents and internal records it produced.
The workplan features a system of alerts and responses in case of sightings and emergencies, a map of stakeholders in the areas proposed as Indigenous Reserves, meetings and activities to raise awareness in areas where PIACI have been recognized and a report on existing projects in the areas that were requested as Indigenous Reserves.
In interviews, participants including Indigenous representatives and government officials regarded the approved work plan as evidence of the MSF’s progress. Organizers also noted the MSF raised awareness about the existence of PIACI in Loreto, legitimizing the claims to protect them.
However, the researchers found that the PIACI Roundtable failed to respect and support the recognition of the rights of vulnerable populations. The MSF’s organizers failed to establish that the rights of isolated peoples were not up for debate and their selection of stakeholders prioritized conflict avoidance rather than conflict transformation.
For instance, the MSF’s organizers included organizations that refused to acknowledge the existence of Loreto’s Indigenous Peoples living in isolation and excluded environmental nongovernment organizations they perceived as radical anti-oil extraction groups.
“The rights of the PIACI have been recognized by national and international frameworks and are non-negotiable; that has to be the premise that everyone should agree to before participating in this MSF,” Rodriguez said.
The study also found that the roundtable was unable to promote a productive and equitable relationship between human rights and development after failing to mediate clashes between groups protecting PIACI rights and those promoting development projects by private stakeholders and government groups.
To support the recognized rights of vulnerable peoples, MSFs must be designed so that their participants collaborate in recognizing the challenges to rights coming from different levels, actors and discourses, learn from the challenges, and tailor solutions and recommendations to deal with them — Sarmiento Barletti
Finally, the roundtable tested the limits of how MSFs can legitimately represent unique stakeholders who cannot participate. As a result, Indigenous groups, NGOs, human rights groups and some government agencies advocate for them and defend policies protecting the PIACI from contact with national society.
Bringing together different sectors to discuss and collaborate on supporting PIACI rights was a positive achievement. That some sectors questioned the very existence of the PIACI brought out kinks in the MSF design.
The researchers also noted that there were no guidelines around which the different groups could collaborate. Nor were there clearly defined roles and responsibilities, and this led to tensions between national and subnational groups. For example, Loreto’s regional government offices perceived PIACI affairs as the responsibility of Peru’s Ministry of Culture, thus failing to recognize their own accountability.
“Our analysis puts forward our reflections on the limits and the usefulness of MSFs in dealing with matters concerning isolated peoples in Peru,” Rodriguez said. The PIACI Roundtable offers important lessons for other MSFs seeking to responsibly engage with the rights of vulnerable populations.