A native renaissance

  • 14/06/1996

A native renaissance AT THE latest meeting of the Conference of Parties to theConvention on Biodiversity (CBD) at Jakarta (Indonesia) inNovember 1995one of the issues that held the centrestage wasthe"rights of indigenous peoples. The focus on this issue hadfollowed the Rio Earth Summit agreement (1992) that indigenous peoples were a "major group"who should participate inall future processes aimed at sustainable development.

Yetonly three decades agothe received wisdom of intergovernmental organisations was that indigenous peoples wereprimitive and backward societiesleft-overs from previousstages of human evolution. "Our contemporary ancestors"asthey were knownwere considered to be doomed to extinctionand the best that could be done was to record their curiouscustoms for the benefit of science.
A colonial legacy Such attitudes fitted well with the prevailing post-colonialviews on development. The "50s and "60s were a time of rapidnation-building and modernisation. The newly emergednation states were engaged in consolidating their domainsand steps were taken to assimilateand assert control over"minorities" and "tribal" groups.

In Africathe artificial frontiers created by colonialismfarfrom being rejected for arbitrarily cutting across traditionalhomelandswere reasserted as boundaries of the newly independent states. For instancein French Equatorial Africa andTanzaniathe state embarked on a programme of resettlingtraditionally dispersed homesteads into large villages understate controlwith the explicit aim of doing away with triballoyalties and old chieftaincies.

It soon became clear that independence from colonialcontrol did not automatically mean a liberation for oppressedethnic groups within the new states. This was particularlyobvious in the older ind6pendent countries of Latin America;in Central Americathe takeover of Indian lands for cash cropproduction on large estates accelerated after independence.The shocking condition of the indigenous peoples of theAmazon basin did not become internationally known until the"60swhen journalist Norman Lewis exposed the genocidalpolicies of the Brazilian government"s agencies. Internationaloutcry led to official investigations and clear evidence thatgovernment agents had used machine-guns to wipe out inconveniently placed communities and sowed smallpox in Indianvillages by distributing infected blanketsthus clearing the wayfor ranchers and miners. The uproar spurred the emergence ofinternational indigenous rights support organisations such asthe Survival International in London.

In their earliest pronouncementssuch groups followedthe lead provided by the Aborigines" Protection Society (nowcalled Anti-Slavery InternationalLondon) which argued for aprotectionist approach to native peoples. The effects of accelerated contact on isolated Amazonian peopleswho lackedimmunity to introduced diseasesstrengthened the argumentfor policies that protected such peoples from contact andcultural change. "Indigenists" thus divided into two camps:"integrationists" and "protectionists".
Cry freedom Indigenous peoples themselves developed a different line ofargument. Rejecting both state-assisted "integration" andstate-imposed "protection"indigenous peoplesnotably thosein North Americaasserted that they had the same right toself-determinationas was enshrined in the UN human rightscovenant. The new indigenous rights support organizations were quick to back such claims.

In North America the first British settlements were economically reliant on trade with the native peoples who werewilling to exchange food for industrial goods. Initially outnumbered by the nativesthe settlers signed internationaltreaties with the indigenous "nations"formalising theirmutual obligations. By a curious legal subterfugethe Britishasserted rights over the majority of the continent on thegrounds that they had signed treaties with the IroquoisIndians of the Six Nations Confederacywho were bound toBritain by the "Covenant Chain" - a trading alliance of reciprocal obligations. The Six Nationsthe British claimedweretheir subjects and alliesandsince the Six Nations hadaccording to British fictionthemselves conquered andsubjected most other indigenous nationsthe British had sovereign rights to the continent.

For its partthe Six Nations Confederacyinsisting onindependenceclaimed that these treaties were internationalagreements between equals and that it had never ceded sovereignty to the BritishFrench or Americans. During thc-270sNorth American Indians made repeated attempts to be formally admitted to the uN Decolonization Committee andonbeing rebuffedin 1977 they took their case to the UN HumanRights Commission and its Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities. Theresult was a report by special rapporteur Martinez de Cobopresented in 1982-83.

The Cobo report detailed how the rights of indigenous andtribal peoples throughout the world were being squashed.Persecutionforced resettlementthe denial of legal assistanceand land rights and the imposition of culturally destructiveand genocidal policies were commonplace worldwidetherepogi said. On its recommendationa working group onindigenous populationscharged with reviewing developments in the indigenous situation and elaborating international standards for the recognition of rights of these peopleswas set up in 1983.

The law"s in support
Indigenous peoples claim that their rights derive not from anyact of the state which may have asserted control over thembutfrom their existence as peoples who have lived in their areasprior to such annexation. The concept is referred to as"aboriginal rights" in legal parlance.

Indeedin some circumstancescolonial powers did recognise such peoples as sovereign nations. Some colonial powersalso recognised that native people"s property rights remainedeven after cessation of sovereignty. For examplethe Treaty ofWiitangiby which some of the Maori peoples ceded power tothe Britishexplicitly recognised the Maori"s continued rightsin land.

Such concepts have passed into international law. TheInternational Labour Organization"s (ILO) convention 107recognises the rights of indigenous and tribal populations tothe individual or communal ownership of their traditionallands. Unfortunatelyfew countries have found it politicallyexpedient to recognise indigenous land rights. Normallygovernments have encouraged indigenous peoples to registertheir lands as indiviaual land titles whichas one Masai pastoralist from Kenya saysare little more than licences to parcel out and sell land. The resultinevitablyhas been the piecemealbreakup of once communal domains and the fragmentation ofidentity and political power.

In response to this problemsome indigenous peopleshave rejected Western notions of property rightsinsisting onthe "We do not own the land; the land owns us" line ofthought. But others have recognised that seeking internationalrecognition of their rights requires some kind of acknowledgement of outsiders" legal concepts. To bridge the gapbetween indigenous and Western notions of relations to landindigenous peoples qualify their "ownership" rights in threeimportant ways:
By insisting that they own their domains collectively

By preferring to talk of their "territories"- for the purposeof giving expression to this collective relationship to theirlands and to the fact that for them the concept of land is allembracing

By asserting that their territories are "inalienable": theycannot bisold or leased by the state or by the indigenous peoples themselves

These legal concepts have begun to take root in somecountries. In Australiafor examplethe aborigines" reassertion of their rights to their territories led up to a landmark casein 1992where a Queensland court found that aboriginal peoples may indeed rightfully assert native title to areas to whichthey can show ancestral ties where the Crown (or state) hasnot expressly extinguished their traditional rightsThe rulinghas radical implications for the whole of Australia and formany other countries with indigenous inhabitants that haveadopted British law.

Collective is the cue
"Unlike the highly individualistic rights acknowledged in themajority of the UN"s human rights instrumentsthe rightsbeing asserted by indigenous peoples are group rights: to self-determinationto territoriesto the exercise of customary lawto self-identification of the group as an indigenous people andto collective representation through their own institutions.

In 1993the UN"S working group finalised a draftDeclaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peopleswhich is nowbeing discussed in the Human Rights Commission.Indigenous peoples" organisations have almost unanimouslyagreed that the Declaration should be accepted as it stands.

Some governments1howeverare resistant to this notionof collective rights and have insisted that there should be notalk of "indigenous peoples"but only "indigenous people".This is because under international lawall peoples have the right to self-determinationand the Declaration unambiguously asserts that indigenous peoples also have such a right. Nation states fear that adding the"s" to "people" will open a Pandora"s box of political disputes. At the recent Human Rights CommIssIonmeeting in Geneva (March 1996)representatives of ArgentinaBangladeshBrazilFranceIndiaJapan and the us expressed very strongreservations to the recognition of indigenous renegotiate peoples" rights to self-determination.

The assumption may be invalid. Many indigenous peoples are not seeking secession at all but only want to renegotiate their relations with the state in order to give themselvesmore control over their territories and decisions about their future. It is unlikely that the opposition to collective rights can be sustained for long. International lawin the form of the ILO convention 169- subject to certain provisos -already recognises the collective rights of indigenous peoples. The only question ishow much further will the UN Human Rights Commission be able to develop these conceptsand how long will it take?

At the grassroot level
None of the progress that has been made at the international level could ever have been achieved without a powerful grass- roots movement of organised indigenous peoples. Bolstered by the example of the Nor):h American IndiansInuit (Eskimo) peoples in GreenlandAlaska and Canada set up local and national bodies to represent themselves in their negotiations with the government. In the "80stheyestablished the Inuit Circumpolar Conference to link up internationallyand even before the end of the Cold Warwere establishing ties with Siberian Inuit groups.

New organisations sprang up in the Amazon too. In Ecuador in the "60sShuar Indiansfaced with the gradual breakup of their landsbegan an organised confrontation. a t t Within 20 yearsthe majority of the Shuar communities held land titles; they established their own radio stationbroadcasting in their languageand developed bilingual and bicultural education programmes.

The Shuar experience has been repeated with numerous variations allover Amazonia. Clusters of communities along the same river valleys have come together to form cultural associationsregional federations and national confederations. Indians also regularly trave.t to the UN and the World Bank (WE) to negotiate for a recognition of their rights. They are involved with UN agencies on plans to halt tropical deforestation. Some of these institutions have even succeeded in getting direct financial assistance from the West.

Similar progress has been made in Asianotably in the Philippines where mobilisation against imposed development escalated in the "70s. The event that fed the fire was the Marcos government"s decision to construct a series of dams (with WB support) on the Chico river in Luzon. The dams threatened to displace some 800Kalinga and Bontoc peoples from their ancestral lands. Todayan alliance of local organisations in the region looks after the educational programmeseconomic developmenthealthwomen"s rightsmarketing and landbesides drawing international attention towards local concerns.

In Africathe Bushmen in the continent"s southern parts began using the term "indigenous" in the late "80s; the termsince been accepted as referring to them by the GovernmenBotswana. In the early"90sthe pygmies of Central Africa 2began to organisethough their foremost group in Rwaisuffered a severe set-back in the genocidal civil war of 1994Nigeriathe mobilisation of the Ogoni people by writer KenSaro-Wiwa culminated in his executionan event whichcaused international outrage and has served to highlightwhole issue of oppression of Africa"s minority tribes.

Since L992all these tropical groups have linked up oninter- continental basis through the creation ofInternational Alliance of Indigenous Tribal Peoples ofTropical Forestswhich has focussed its attention on emerginginternational standards on environment. The Alliance insistson a consonance between these new international environmental laws and human rights standards and has establishedan office in London to press for a recognition of these rights.

In international limelight
Awareness has steadily grown in inter-governmental agenciesof the need to develop new policies towards indigenous peoples. First off the blocks was the wB which in 1982 adopted itspolicy on "tribal peoples"noting that "the Bank will not support projects on tribal lands... unless the tribal society is inagreement with the objectives of the project".

The policy was later modified to targetindigenous peoples. The lead has been followed by the InterAmerican Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

It was nothoweveruntil discussionsabout environment became the subject ofinter- governmental negotiations that indigenous peoples were able to effectively insertthemselves into international debates outsidethe narrow confines of the human rightsprocess. Scope for insisting on their inclusionwas borne out of the realisation that "sustainable development" requiredin the words of the WorldCommission on Environment and Developmenta political syst6m that secures effective participation in decision-making... This is best secured by decentralizing the management of resources upon which local communities depend, and giving these communities an effective say over the use of these resources. It will also require promoting citizen"s initiatives, empowering peoples" organisations" and strengthening local" democracy.

The build-up to the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 thus saw aneffort by indigenous peoplesenvironmental groups andhuman rights advocates to capitalise on these conceptualgains. By linking together the environmental and humanrights agendasthe ground was laid for catapulting indigenousissues to the summit of international concern.

Green warriors
Right through the "80sthe growing global concern aboutenvironmental destruction provided ample scope for drawingattention to the human victims. A case in point is that of theKayapo Indians of Brazilwho suddenly emerged into theglobal limelight in February 1989 as naked and plumeddefenders of nature.

In the "70sthe Brazilian government decided to relocatethe Kayapb from their ancestral lands to an"Indian park" to make way for cattle ranchers.Resisting the movein" AP Amazonian version of the WildWestthe Kayapo repeatedly attacked the rancheskilling over13cowhands over a 15-year period and successfully preventing the takeover of their territory.

Frustrated by the continuing failure of the governmentIndian agency to provide them with legal protectionin March1984the Indians decided on a course of direct confrontationwith the government. Taking care to make the media aware ofwhat was going onthey took hostage the non-Indian directorof Xingu Indian park along with five other members of theIndian agencyrefusing to release their hostages until theirlegal rights were properly recognised. Caught in the full glareof publicitythe government was forced to give way; theIndians got their land.

Four years laterthe Indians raised the stakesdirectly confronting plans to build a huge pair of dams with WB assistancethat would have flooded them off their lands. Following a farcical trial to punish their leadersthe Kayapo invited bankersand ministers of overseas development from various nationsto a meeting in February 1989 to listen to the Amazon peoples"voice. In the internationally televised meetingheld inAltamirahundreds of Indians representing some 20 differentAmazon peoples assembled to demand the halting of damprojects that threatened to flood their lands and the right to be consulted about plans that affected their futures. The eventhad a marked impact on shaping global perceptions about therelationship between indigenous peoples" rights and theenvironment in the run-up to the Earth Summit.

Pressure ofthis kind ensured that indigenous peoples wereaccorded "some real recognition at Rio. An indigenous representative was given space to speak to the plenaryindigenouspeoples were accorded the status of a "major group" anderAgenda 21 andsubject always to national lawprotection oftheir rights was given some attention in the Convention on BD.

No place for humans?
It now remains for indigenous peoples to build on these is unclear whether the rights that indigenous peoples havepartly gained through the human rights process are the samerights that environmental instruments now seek to recognise.Indeedthe danger is that just as indigenous peoples begin tomake gains through the formertheir rights are whittled awayand compromised by the latter.

Many indigenous peoples have suffered severely fromimposed conservation programmes that seek to establish protected areas by excluding all human inhabitants. There is anintensification of this process under the new CBD and theGlobal Environment Facility (GEF). In Thailandfor examplethe "hill tribes" are slated for mass relocation to make way forCEF-funded protected areas and watershed management zones. The indigenous peoples in the Philippines likewisecomplain that the GEF-funded National Integrated ProtectedAreas *tem is undermining their recently secured rights toancestral domain.

As a result of these impositionsindigenous alliances andnetworks insist on adequate observance of their rights by theimplementation of the CBD and on overt adoption of indigenous people"s policies by international conservation organisations. Some groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature-International (WWF-1) have begun to accede to these requests.According to the new WWF-i draft policythe organisation willlook for "partnership" with indigenous peoples where theyexpress a commitment to biodiversity conservation and accept4need to limit human activities to achieve sustainable use.Many environmentalists are also beginning to agree that international acceptance of the Declaration of the Rights ofIndigenous Peoples would be an important step forward in thestruggle for environmental justice andultimatelyreal conservation.

Currents of change
indigenous peoples" organisations are hopeful that the intensifying debate on "sustainable development" will provide aplatform for them to argue for local rightslocal control andlocal management. But other changes in the internationalscene since the ending of the Cold War are not so auspicious.The explosion of ethnic violence in the Balkansthe erstwhileSoviet Union and Rwanda has led to growing mistrust of "ethnic chauvinism" and a tendency to dismiss all assertions of ethnic identity as "tribalism". Many governments have startedfeeling that it is far better to encourage all to integrate asequal citizens of the nation state.

Yetin Europethe nation state itself appears to be indecline. The inexorable pressures of global trade are erodingthe autonomy of national governmentsforcing them intomonetary and political unions. These moves towards a federalsuper-state threaten not only national sovereignties but alsoregional and local differences with the homogenising force ofthe "free" market.

As a reaction to these forcescalls for the revival of locallanguagescustoms and traditions and for "subsidiarity"devolutiondecentralisationregional autonomy and local controlhave seen a resurgence. A newly conscious and active civilsociety has emerged which eschews party politics and isincreasingly mobilised around single-issue pressure groupsand NGOSfacilitated by modern communications technologybroadening middle classes and mass education.

These currents of change provide fertile grounds of support for the indigenous rights movement. Many non-indigenous peoplefinding their own valueslanguagesidentitiesand rights increasingly threatened by market forces and globalisationidentify strongly with the indigenous peoples.Propelled by their own commitments and organisationsandaided by these solitary forcesindigenous peoples have arrivedon the centrestage of inter- governmental debates. They arehere to stay and the sooner their rights to self-determinationand control of their territories are internationally recognisedthe better for all.

The writer is the director of Forest People"s Programmethe World Rainforest Movement

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