Constitutional Court defends right to prior consultation
On January 23, 2008, the Colombian Constitutional Court declared the Forest Law of 2006 to be unconstitutional and therefore, invalid, because lawmakers did not consult with indigenous, afrodescendant, and tribal communities during development of the law as required.
This decision is an advance for these Colombian communities who view many economic development projects and policies as a threat to their traditional territory and cultural identity, as well as the environment. The ruling also establishes a valuable legal precedent that can be used to bolster indigenous and tribal communities’ rights in other legal cases throughout the Americas.
The Colombian government is required by law to consult with indigenous and tribal communities regarding administrative and legislative decisions that may affect them. It is obligated to do so because the Colombian Congress previously adopted into law “Convention 169,” a treaty of the International Labour Organization that protects this right and others.
In this case, the Court decided that indigenous and tribal communities should have been consulted because the Forest Law regulates forest issues in general terms, and contains provisions that “will likely affect areas generally used by the communities, which could impact their lifestyles and their close relationships with the forests”.
The court also declared that the requirement to consult with indigenous and traditional communities cannot be replaced with the general public participation process that the government carried out regarding the Forest bill. Rather, to comply with the law, the government should inform the communities about the proposed law, explain its implications and how it could affect them, and give them opportunities to effectively state their opinions regarding the bill.
As a result of this court ruling and civil society’s call to respect the right to prior and informed consultation, the Colombian government proposed a law to regulate and enforce this fundamental right. The Ministry of Agriculture also began developing a new forest law, this time using a process that complies with prior and informed consent procedures.
The lawsuit was brought by a group of students and professors from the University of Los Andes Law School in Bogota with the support of AIDA. Social organizations including the Proceso de Comunidades Negras, the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC) and CENSAT Agua Viva also supported the group in presenting this case.
This group also filed a second lawsuit against the Forest Law alleging that the law violated Constitutional provisions protecting the environment. However, because of the January court decision, no decision will be made on this second suit.