Recently, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights held its 153rd regular session, during which it hosted 53 thematic hearings on a wide range of regional human rights issues. On Friday, October 31, a delegation of indigenous leaders and human rights defenders from Peru came face-to-face with Peruvian state representatives to discuss the rights of indigenous peoples in Peru to property and legal recognition. Beautifully dressed in traditional garb, the petitioners delivered a compelling account of the Peruvian state’s chronic failure to safeguard indigenous peoples against extractive industries’ encroachment on and degradation of ancestral lands.
Raquel Yrigoyen Fajardo, a Peruvian lawyer at the Instituto Internacional de Derecho y Sociedad (IIDS), began the petitioners’ presentation by providing a history of the Peruvian state’s constantly evolving conceptualization of indigeneity and the legal implications that flow from it. According to Yrigoyen, since the days of conquest and colonization and for some time thereafter, Peru uniformly classified all native populations as indigenous (or, during colonial times, as “savages” and “infidels”), regardless of their geographic origins. During the first half of the 20th century, Peru took a major step forward in the protection of human rights when it officially recognized indigenous peoples’ legal personhood and collective property rights. The 1933 Constitution went as far as to provide that the state shall allocate land, even via expropriation, to indigenous communities whose territories were too small to meet the needs of their populations.
This movement towards a progressive indigenous rights regime, however, was short-lived. In the 1960s and ‘70s, national-level agrarian reform resulted in the Peruvian state reclassifying Andean indigenous groups as “campesinos.” In turn, “indigenous” was redefined to apply solely to lowland, Amazon-based populations, which the state refers to as “nativos.” While “campesinos” usually refers to farmers, the term can carry a negative connotation, . . .