After waiting 27 years, the indigenous governments of non-municipalized areas of the Amazon finally will be able to manage the money from their national government transfers without intermediaries.
In 1988, a perspiring president Virgilio Barco, dressed in a linen suit, stood in front of hundreds of shirtless Indians in the midst of the torpor of La Chorrera, in Amazonas. From a platform that once was a school of the Casa Arana, the Peruvian rubber company that exterminated 80,000 Indians between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, he pronounced in perfect Uitoto: “These lands are yours.” This gave the indigenous peoples of the Amazon control over 5,500 hectares. In that moment, he recognized that what is now known as the Predio Putumayo was a thousand-year indigenous territory: inalienable, imprescriptible, and unseizable.
As Luis Alberto Friagama, an indigenous Uitoto from the Puerto Zábalo – Los Monos indigenous reserve (between Caquetá and Putumayo) recalls, when he returned to his maloca (traditional roundhouse) to report the good news, the question from the traditional authorities was: “Now what? How do we manage everything we have?”
30 years and 20.5 million hectares of indigenous reserves later, this question seems to have an answer. In Leticia, the Presidency, the Ministries of the Interior, Finance and Agriculture, DANE (the Colombian national statistics agency and the Colombian National Planning Department recognized the governments of 36 indigenous reserves that occupy 26 million hectares of practically intact territory and that had existed in a state of legal limbo with respect to territorial zoning that prevented them, in effect, from governing what is theirs by law. “This is the most important thing that has happened to the indigenous Amazonians in 30 years,” says Martin von Hildebrand, founder of Gaia Amazonas.
The document, which has been essentially ready for eight years, but has passed from ministry to ministry, temporarily solves the problem of non-municipalized areas. These territories only exist in the departments of Amazonas, Guainía and Vaupés and are known as departmental corregimientos.
To untangle this legal muddle, you have to go back to colonial times. According to Von Hildebrand, these areas were once “commissarial corregimientos”.
With the 1991 Constitution, which recognizes Colombia as a multiethnic and multicultural nation, this ceased. Departments, municipalities and indigenous territories were recognized, as well as authorities such as governors and mayors, but these 18,186,058 hectares of non-municipalized areas remained in limbo—all under the category of indigenous territory. This means that 37.6% of the Colombian Amazon did not have governance, or at least not a formally recognized one. It was thus for 27 years until today, when the national government has recognized the indigenous governance of those territories.
According to Juan Carlos Preciado, legal advisor to Gaia Amazonas, in 2002, the nation’s Constitutional Court gave the Colombian Congress a period of eight years to legislate on the fate of this immense portion of the country, and while that was resolved, the national government was the one that administered those territories. There were obstacles, exactly 22, in the way of drafting a law to formalize these governments. Why? Because there were 36 indigenous reserves that could neither be converted overnight into municipalities—which would be the most obvious form of local government—or pass into non-indigenous hands. In 2008, the Congress followed through and determined that the departmental corregimientos would cease to exist, but the Presidency objected, and the project to choose the type of local government that would represent 77% of the Amazon, 93% of Vaupés and 47% of Guainia went dormant for 10 years.
“These are very large territories with very few people, literally excluded from the country because they have indigenous forms of government that are not regulated. If there is no full recognition of these forms of government, it is difficult for the State to act on those forms,” says Jaime Escrucería, who worked in the Ministry of the Interior on the development of the decree.
Today, these territories, which were already recognized as indigenous, become part of the territorial framework of Colombia as they have been in their de facto form: local governments.
The signing of the decree is good news because, in addition, it eliminates a step that has proven to be a source of corruption with regard to indigenous resources: the departmental governments.
As the non-municipalized areas do not have a local government—that is, they are not recognized as indigenous municipalities or territorial entities—the indigenous communities, representing most of the population of these areas, must go to the municipal governmental office once a year with a budget plan according to their needs, which the governor in turn must approve. In accordance with what the Colombian General Participations System assigns to the reserves of the non-municipalized areas (which in 2018, according to the Colombian National Planning Department, amount to CP$5,893,584,375), and the budget presented by each community, the government decides whether to turn over the entire amount or to purchase what the communities have requested, and use a portion to pay salaries.
This has become a problem, and the case of the Association of Traditional Authorities of the Pirá Paraná River (ACAIPI) in Vaupés (which is in a non-municipalized area of Yavaraté) is a good example. In 2016, the association presented to the municipal government of Mitu (Vaupés), the recognized local government, a budget to repair their school and build a health post. In the document, they quoted CP$18,000 for zinc tiles, a pound of nails at CP$2,000, and a 15-horsepower Yamaha engine to travel the Pirá Paraná River at CP$7 million, among other line items. That year, the Mitú government returned a list of expenses in which the tiles cost CP$80,000, the nails CP$14,000, and the motor CP$19 million. Indeed, they gave the association these things, but the rest of the money was embezzled.
This is regrettable, especially if we take into account that ACAIPI embraces indigenous traditional knowledge-keepers who maintain the Hee Yaia Keti Oka, the traditional knowledge of the Yuruparí jaguars, a system of knowledge they use to take care of their territory and the life within it. Since 2003, this system has been recognized by UNESCO in its intangible cultural heritage list. The decree, even if temporary, resolves these problems, because the resources will directly reach the hands of the indigenous groups, which, with technical help from the national government, will administer them and invest them in their territories. After all, the CP$3.886 million that goes to Amazonas, the CP$1.637 million to Guainía and the CP$370 million to Vaupés that are part of the General Participations System are intended for the indigenous people. And now they are the ones who manage their money.
But although it looks like it on paper, for the indigenous groups, this signature is not necessarily a miraculous development. The ghost of corruption hangs over all public resources, and conditions remain that prevent certain funds from reaching beyond the hands of a few. While it is recognized that “the uses and customs of indigenous peoples have provided specific forms of administration for their reserves”, the resources will only be executed through investment projects carried out by the communities through what is known as a “life plan” (plan de vida).
Fabio Valencia, a Macuna indigenous and legal representative of ACAIPI (which assembles 2,000 indigenous people from seven different communities), points out: “We recognize the life plan as the law of origin. The creators gave each people an ancestral territory of their own, and the knowledge to conserve their cultures with education and health programs. This already exists. It’s putting it in other words.”
As a collateral effect, this transitory decree will enable the country to know how many indigenous people are in these non-municipalized areas and to which communities they belong, because it requires DANE, the Colombian national statistics agency, to count up to the last maloca to adjust the amount of money that will arrive in each territory. The 2005 census counted 58,271 people. According to DANE, “This data could be underestimated, given that the census omission in these territories was between 50 and 100% because they are scattered rural areas and there were public order issues during the census year”.
Mateo Estrada, coordinator of Territory and Environment of the Organization of the Indigenous Peoples of the Colombian Amazon, calculates that the census deficit could be 28,000 uncounted people or more. “But the decree could be a double-edged sword if we do not draft a clear administrative plan and if the costs of operations are not calculated now that there are no intermediaries,” he acknowledges. The decree attempts to shield the money from corruption: the legal representatives of each indigenous association will be subject to fiscal control like any other Colombian, and each indigenous association must demonstrate how it has executed at least 60% of its resources in the last three years and show the agreements it has made with public or private entities. It is possible that the National Planning Department will issue a parallel decree containing the stages of what they have termed “the decentralization of the resources of the General Participations System.”
“One thing is that there is no government, and another thing is that it is not recognized. It is one thing to have indigenous territory and another thing is to recognize the indigenous government. This land belongs to no one, and the decree finally recognizes that,” says von Hildebrand.
The recognition of indigenous governance in practically a quarter of the country begins today, this time with a different presidency, declaring that it recognizes the autonomy of the indigenous groups of the Colombian Amazon to manage their homeland according to their perception of needs, according to their worldview and customs—and, along the way, strengthening their capacity to conserve the Amazon, which is what the rest of the planet needs.
Infoamazonia is a journalistic alliance between the Amazon Conservation Team, Dejusticia and El Espectador.
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