Rogeliano “Rogge” Solís was a man of small stature with a big voice. Strong and clear in three languages — Spanish, Guna and English — Rogge’s voice commanded an audience on the topics that were his passions, including his Guna indigenous community, indigenous rights and conservation.
Rogge spoke up for what he believed in in a powerful way, sharing his wisdom and knowledge with CI and so many others around the world. In February he passed away after a struggle with cancer, but not without leaving the conservation community with many inspiring lessons.
As delegates to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues have been gathering for their annual meeting in New York City this month, many are reflecting on how to implement the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I have found myself often thinking of Rogge, remembering how he spoke with purpose and conviction for the rights of his community and indigenous peoples everywhere.
Rogge spent much of his life on the narrow strip of coastline and adjacent islands that make up Guna Yala, the community’s traditional lands in northeastern Panama. The indigenous lands he called home are known for their verdant splendor surrounded by brilliant blue Caribbean waters, and also for their distinction as the autonomous territory of the Guna people.
Indigenous peoples around the world continue to struggle, sometimes in vain, for recognition of their land rights. Following the Guna Revolution in 1925, Guna Yala slowly transformed over decades into an autonomous territory recognized by the Panamanian government.
This designation meant that the Guna people were free to govern according to their traditional decision-making structures. It also meant that the Guna could decide how to use their natural resources in the best way for their community — a significant achievement for them and an important example for other indigenous peoples facing similar challenges.
When I first met Rogge back in 2009, he was telling the story of the Guna people to a captive audience at CI. CI had invited Rogge to be part of our Indigenous Advisory Group (IAG) to provide guidance to the organization, particularly related to climate change and indigenous rights. He got to work immediately.
I had never visited Guna Yala, nor Panama for that matter, but after listening to Rogge share the story of the Guna people — their past struggle for land rights and current engagement in climate change projects — the lessons for a conservation organization became obvious.
I accompanied the IAG on several trips over the years, visiting CI field offices and projects in Ecuador, Guyana and Peru to learn about and advise on different conservation strategies relative to indigenous peoples.
Each time I heard Rogge speak to CI colleagues, community members or government officials in the countries we visited, his passion was remarkable. He used these opportunities to convey the importance of respecting indigenous peoples’ rights in all conservation work, especially in addressing climate change. Rogge emphasized how communities need to participate in the development of REDD+ projects that will impact them.
Rogge was the consummate IAG member, sharing his knowledge freely and listening attentively to those who had the pleasure of meeting him. He was proud of his community, and he frequently shared their story at global meetings.
At home, Rogge was also a biologist and science teacher, using his knowledge and experience to ensure that younger Guna generations would understand the natural world around them. His example reminds each of us that conservation solutions are founded on knowledge and information exchange among diverse groups — from indigenous peoples, scientists and NGOs to governments, the private sector and others.
Give it your all
In early 2011, CI and the IAG embarked on an ambitious project. We aimed to create guidelines on free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) for the organization, basing them on case studies developed by each IAG member as well as by our own Conservation Stewards Program. Enshrined in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, FPIC ensures that indigenous communities give their consent to actions that may impact them, their lands, territories or natural resources.
Rogge’s health began to fail during the case study process, and I worried that he might have to abandon his research. But he showed the utmost dedication to the task at hand and gave it his all to successfully finish. His case study, “Free Prior and Informed Consent in Panama: The Guna Case in the Context of its Autonomy” (PDF), is now a written testament to his work to protect indigenous rights.
CI’s recently completed FPIC Guidelines are dedicated to Rogge’s memory, celebrating his strong and passionate voice for indigenous peoples around the world. As a member of the Indigenous Advisory Group, he helped in large and small ways to make us a better conservation organization today. He will be sorely missed.
Theresa Buppert is the director of rights, governance and social policy in CI’s Center for Environment and Peace.