Rights, Resources and Rhetoric: Indigenous Peoples and the Inter-American Court
In 2012, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights handed down Sarayaku v. Ecuador, a crucial decision on indigenous rights. This article considers how the Sarayaku judgment impacts the Court’s case law on indigenous lands and resources, and evaluates that jurisprudence as a whole. Examining the cases, it becomes evident that the Tribunal now connects a number of key indigenous rights to the right to property, Article 21 of the American Convention on Human Rights. When traditional lands are involved, the right to property has become the Court’s structural basis for indigenous rights. For significant reasons, however, the right to property cannot serve as the conceptual stronghold for indigenous peoples’ survival and development. First, the Court’s approach limits the autonomy of indigenous peoples and their capacity for change. Second, the right to property inherently has difficulty providing even basic protection for ancestral lands because domestic and international law grants states wide latitude to interfere with property. Though the Court has attempted to create special ‘safeguards’ for indigenous lands and resources, they have proven inadequate. In response, this article urges a distinct way for the Court to conceptualize indigenous rights. The right to property must be subsumed by, and anchored to, a stronger configurative principle to defend indigenous peoples’ livelihood. Other human rights regimes offer the right to self-determination or specific minority protections that can safeguard indigenous rights. The relevant Inter-American legal instruments fail to establish such principles. As a result, this article proposes that a broad right-to-life concept, known as vida digna in the Court’s case law, serve as the new structural basis for an array of essential indigenous norms—including cultural integrity, nondiscrimination, lands and resources, social development, and self-government.