Indigenous Peoples: Rights and Aspirations

from Peacework, March 1996 (pages 10-11)

by Ann Stewart

Generally, the word "indigenous" refers to peoples whose cultural traditions, spiritual practices, economies, and languages are usually (but not always) associated with distinct lands or regions they have inhabited for thousands of years These days, an estimated 300 million indigenous people across the world face varying degrees of cultural extinction. This is mostly due to wars and displacement, but also to the rapacity of multinational corporations and industrialized societies which crave the lands indigenous peoples occupy, as well as their water, timber, and minerals.

On December 9, 1994, the United Nations' General Assembly announced a Decade of the World s Indigenous Peoples. The theme is "Indigenous Peoples: A New Relationship - Partnership in Action." The UN's own objectives for the decade include the adoption by the General Assembly of a declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples, creation of a permanent indigenous forum, and increased employment opportunities. The UN is also encouraging its members to give indigenous peoples "greater responsibility for their own affairs and an effective voice in decisions on matters which affect them." While small numbers of indigenous representatives have appeared regularly at UN meetings in New York City and Geneva since 1977, overall few gains have been achieved in self-determination and recognition of indigenous rights at international levels.

This is because indigenous peoples are learning that "the real economic decisions are being made by the banking and trade institutions in Washington, DC and elsewhere," says Professor Russel Barsh, an advisor to the UN's Working Group on Indigenous Peoples' Rights. Recently, Barsh, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, an Igorot, and Delphine Redshirt, an Ogala [sic] Lakota, spoke at a Harvard [University] forum about indigenous peoples' hopes and aspirations for the decade.

According to Barsh, "much of our work (at the UN) has been focused on a human rights discourse and criticizing states for failing to take action" when governmental misconduct is exposed But, he contends, "it's corporate actors" who must be held accountable.

Barsh says, "Privatizing state lands that encroach upon indigenous peoples' territories and collecting, processing, and redistributing for profit traditional cultural and medical knowledge" - especially indigenous peoples genetic resources - "are crimes against humanity." He adds, "We must devise mechanisms to address the major new abuses of peoples' collective rights."

Tauli-Corpuz speaks from long experience about these abuses. In the mid- 1970s the Igorot opposed a dam project in the Philippines, a struggle some current history texts describe as "pre-industrial tribal peoples against the World Bank." In 1986 the Philippine Constitution was rewritten to include indigenous peoples. Such law represents progress for cultures elsewhere who cannot make the nation-states that surround them recognize their concerns. However, the Philippine government wants to achieve complete industrialization by the year 2000. "Does national law prevent forests from being clear-cut or give you a better deal?" she asks.

A world which is "globalizing and harmonizing everything as much as possible" troubles her. In a discussion about non-negotiable intellectual property rights - "an alien concept" to those who put the needs of the community before any individual, she was told - "You have no choice but to become part of the market."

Tauli-Corpuz says indigenous peoples are not a "target community from which to gather genetic materials." Although some preliminary exchanges between indigenous representatives and the scientific community have occurred, "it gets out of scientists' hands into the corporations'." Because indigenous peoples lack even the resources to translate documents into their languages, what is the likelihood that more dialogue with human geneticists will produce solutions?

Delphine Redshirt is the new chair of the non-governmental organizations' subcommittee on the international Decade, based in New York City. Her observations about the UN are trenchant. For example, the language of international diplomacy does not include Lakota. "I feel like I am in a foreign country. I had trouble learning English. The UN is located on the graves of our ancestors." Few American Indians have official status at the UN. Even the non-governmental organizations which are sympathetic to indigenous concerns, such as Oxfam, do not employ indigenous peoples as advocates.

Redshirt also points out that the US government has claimed for years that "no real American Indians come to Geneva," where the majority of human rights meetings are held. There is a "constant barrage that challenges the legitimacy of the people who are coming." Elected tribal governments have stayed away from the international arena. But in 1995 the Navajo participated in UN technical meetings to discuss the forcible relocation of their families. Redshirt considers the UN a "viable forum for Indian issues," especially those from the United States.

When Ted Moses, the United Nations ambassador for the James Bay Crees in Quebec, was once asked to define self-determination in his language, he replied, "Creeness." If self-determination is to become "just enjoying the possibilities of who you are," as Barsh puts it, then it is crucial that the UN General Assembly adopt the declaration of the rights of indigenous peoples during their International Decade. For Barsh, what's so important about the declaration is that indigenous people themselves wrote it. "It's the first international document that incorporates the consensus of what they really want."

Its fate now rests with the Committee on Human Rights. composed of representatives and legal experts from the UN's member-states. This committee will determine its final format and when the declaration will come before the entire General Assembly

Barsh described what is already happening. "We're seeing the dream of a shared vision and aspiration being politically dismantled. Indigenous representatives are being told, 'Your dreams are too expensive, too stupid.'"

Tauli-Corpuz believes that if the world can recognize the importance of preserving biological diversity, it can do the same for cultural diversity. "We want to maintain our cultures," she says. "Our sub-economies are still viable for us. We think our own political systems are workable for us. Indigenous peoples can contribute to changing the world."

Barsh concurs: "Indigenous peoples are a tremendous reservoir of the cultural possibilities of the human species, of the organizations of human beings and human species. They have a reservoir of knowledge of how the rest of the planet - the non-humans - works."

But without massive public pressure at every level of government the indigenous draft will die. "Around the world we are being challenged to assemble enough solidarity. We have only a short time to convince governments not to tinker with the declaration."

Sadly, the US and Canada, two of the UN's wealthiest cultural and biological member-states, continue to oppose the dream of this decade.

Peacework is published by the New England Regional Office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)