UN Evaluators Recognize Right of Panama’s Indigenous Peoples to Reject Forestry Projects

13 June 2013 | News story

PANAMA CITY, PANAMA (12 June 2013)—In a preliminary report released this week, an independent team—assigned by the United Nations to investigate complaints by indigenous people against a highly-contested global climate change program in Panama—upholds the Panamanians’ right to reject the implementation of any UN-funded forestry projects in their country.

“This recognition of the right of indigenous authorities to refuse to execute a project that indigenous people consider to be harmful to their interests is without precedent,” said Levi Sucre, coordinator of the Alliance Mesoamerican Peoples and Forests (AMPB), which includes the National Coordination of Indigenous People in Panama (COONAPIP) among its members. “The observers’ conclusions must be respected by all parties.”

In February, COONAPIP announced its withdrawal from a United Nations-led climate change program known as REDD, which is designed to protect the world’s vulnerable forests. The Panamanian organization that represents all 12 leaders of Panama’s Indigenous groups protested the program’s lack of guarantees for the respect of indigenous rights and for the full and effective participation of indigenous leaders in the different stages of REDD projects.

COONAPIP’s action represents the first major challenge to the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the United Nations (UN DRIP), a non-binding agreement that explicitly upholds the right of indigenous people to block projects on their lands that could potentially endanger both their lives and livelihoods.

“We welcome the report of the UN observers, and request that the UN close the UN REDD program in Panama, as COONAPIP requested, a decision that is now justified by the report,” Sucre said.

The final version of the report, which the two evaluators—anthropologist Birgitte Feiring and attorney Eduardo Abbott, a former Executive Secretary of the World Bank’s Inspection Panel—will be presented at a UN REDD policy board meeting in late June in Indonesia. This meeting will decide the future of the program in Panama.

Some of the key highlights of the report are:

  1. The UN-REDD program in Panama includes an explicit commitment to uphold the rights of indigenous people to grant—or withhold—their free, prior and informed consent to the adoption of legislative or administrative measures that may affect them.
  2. In response to COONAPIP’s decision to withdraw from UN-REDD Panama (February 25, 2013), the agency has halted all pending and new activities with indigenous people, in a clear sign of respect for their rights to withhold their consent. (P 25)

The report takes stock of methodological deficiencies and errors in the implementation of the Program in Panama, and points out that the program can be carried out, only if “COONAPIP expresses an interest in restarting a dialogue with UN and UN-REDD.”

Sucre said that his organization, the Executive Committee of the Alliance Mesoamerican Peoples and Forests, would continue to support COONAPIP’s struggle to assert the right of its leaders to object to projects that undermine the true interests of the people they represent.

About the Alliance Mesoamerican Peoples and Forests (AMPB)

The Mesoamerican Alliance of Peoples and Forests (AMPB) is the coordinating body of the group of territorial authorities that administer or influence major forested areas of Mesoamerica. It consists of indigenous governments and community forestry organizations seeking to strengthen their own dialogue, focusing on community management of natural resources, and seeking to influence governments and international cooperation to embrace conservation strategies that encourage biodiversity and address climate concerns, while appropriately integrating the rights and benefits of traditional and local communities

For further information

Fabio Víquez
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