The congressional commission dealing with indigenous and environmental matters is to begin discussion of legislation that would establish a framework for indigenous peoples to play a greater role in monitoring activities, such as those of extractive industries within their territories. This is a significant change.

Over the last twenty years there have been frequent discussions and proposals for a legal framework that would legitimate and regulate indigenous participation in environmental monitoring and surveillance. The Congress’s indigenous peoples and environmental commission has now decided to take the bull by the horns and has begun discussion of two proposed laws (Nos. 336/2026-CR and 389/2016-CR) that would form the basis for this framework.

Indigenous efforts at environmental monitoring, especially for extractive projects within or in neighbouring territories, have had a chequered history. Companies and the state have generally resisted such attempts, belittling their contribution as both non-scientific and anti-technical and for ignoring the evidence presented and the issues raised. Even when indigenous monitoring has been included in environmental monitoring by either companies or the state, the indigenous voice and perspectives have often been ignored. Sometimes such independent indigenous monitoring has been associated with conflicts between communities, companies and the state.

With training and support from NGOs and a few sympathetic companies, indigenous communities and their monitors have improved their skills in recognising and measuring environmental damages and risks. They have learned how to manage the technical issues and methodologies and to convey their concerns on the basis of their own traditional knowledge and practices. Some companies and even the state have come round to valuing and incorporating such contributions in their efforts to prevent and mitigate negative environmental impacts and to remedy past damage.

For indigenous peoples the opportunity to play an effective role in environmental monitoring and surveillance is important because, in the words of Congressman Daniel Olivares, “indigenous surveillance is a form of control of their territory”. It is also an opportunity to promote a dialogue between indigenous views based on ancestral knowledge and official views with their scientific and technological bent.

Companies and even the state are now beginning to realise that permanent and recurrent conflicts over environmental impacts and their causes and remedies – with both sides talking past each other and deploying contrasting and incompatible evidence and arguments – might be better replaced by mechanisms to promote participation and dialogue grounded on increased intercultural understanding.

So, it is in this context that the congressional commission is attempting to define a legal framework for environmental monitoring and surveillance with indigenous participation. The proposed legislation aims to institutionalise and link up with the environmental monitoring and surveillance already exercised by civil society and indigenous peoples. This would involve dedicated social and environmental monitoring and surveillance organisations becoming integrated in to the state’s national environmental management system.

Anthropologist Mario Zúñiga argues that such legislation “will strengthen participative and technical-scientific democracy, lead to the recognition of identities and already existing local organisational systems, and finally empower marginalised citizens in the defence of their environmental, social and cultural rights”.