It has been less than ten years since indigenous peoples’ rights were formally recognized by the international community. Even though the declaration is non-binding, a few countries including the United States and Canada and and Colombia initially refused to sign the declaration, worried about the implications it might have, especially for land rights.
Yet the declaration, which was more than 25 years in the making is a true human rights victory and in the years that followed every country that voted against the declaration has reversed their vote to support the declaration.
It can be easy to be disillusioned by the lack of enforcement of these declarations and doubt the efficacy of non-binding resolutions and international statements but without these declarations indigenous communities frequently have little recourse to protest government actions.
One great example is in Panama:
Panama, is a multicultural and diverse country with indigenous communities that have made significant cultural and economic contributions to the state. These communities are also the rainforest’s best defense against destruction. Panama was once almost completely covered in rainforest, today just half of it remains. Almost all of Panama’s remaining rainforest is in indigenous lands— the rest has long been cleared away to make way for highways, ranching or cut down for its valuable rosewood and mahogany, Spanish cedar and Panamanian walnut. Despite, or perhaps because of their consistent protection of the rainforest Panamanian governments have frequently refused to acknowledge indigenous communities right to their ancestral lands.
However, after years of pressuring the government to ratify the UN convention requiring Free Prior and Informed Consent of Indigenous Communities for any development projects on their lands (known as FPIC). FPIC is actually quite simple: it means that a community can decide whether or not it allows projects on their lands.
Panama recently passed Law 81, which requires much of what is set out both in the ILO convention and in Article 32 of the Declaration. While far from perfect, if this law had been on the books a couple of years ago, the just completed Barro Blanco dam, which is set to flood indigenous lands, would probably not have been built.
Law 81 should help Indigenous Communities protect the rainforests they inhabit. Without the added international pressure it is possible that the country would have continued to refuse to acknowledge indigenous rights. By approving this law Panama is joining the international community acknowledging indigenous people’s right to have a say on what happens on their land.