Declaration on indigenous peoples long overdue

by Thalif Deen

United Nations, Aug 11 (IPS) - The United Nations admits it is dragging its feet on issuing a declaration that would legitimise the rights of some 300 million indigenous peoples worldwide.

Bacre Waly Ndiaye, director of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, concedes that the adoption of the 10-page declaration, which has been under discussion by member states since 1994, was "slow in coming."

The delay is all the more critical, he says, considering the fact that violations of indigenous people's rights have been on the UN agenda since 1972.

The only consolation is that there has been some progress in the growing acceptance of the view that sustainable development was impossible without giving recognition to the rights of indigenous peoples living in more than 70 countries, Ndiaye says.

One of the disputed articles in the declaration gives indigenous peoples the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs, including culture, religion, education, information, economic activities, health and land and resources management.

Additionally, according to Article 10, "indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories."

"No relocation shall take place without the free and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned and after agreement on just and fair compensation and, where possible, with the option of return."

Several member states, including Canada, the US, Australia and New Zealand, say the issue of national sovereignty takes precedence over the right to self-determination as spelled out in Article 31 of the declaration.

Ndiaye says that governmental positions on issues such as land and self-determination are "short-sighted." Many governments consider it important to prospect for oil and gold in land that is "sacred" to various indigenous groups - numbering about 5,000 worldwide.

A 75-page UN report released in June says that, in every part of the globe, indigenous peoples are being impeded from proceeding with their own forms of development consistent with their own values, perspectives and interests.

"The concentration of extensive legal, political and economic power in the State has contributed to the problem of development and indigenous peoples' rights to lands, territories and resources," the report says.

In Belize, for example, 17 logging concessions were recently granted to foreign companies to cut timber in forests where Maya people have always lived and have relied on the forest for their subsistence.

The San or Bushmen in certain African countries face, among other land problems, grave difficulties because of the lack of national legislation safeguarding their land use and tenure.

In West Papua New Guinea (West Irian), the Indonesian government has encouraged transmigration and settlement on land where indigenous peoples have lived.

"This process has reportedly caused widespread dislocation of indigenous peoples, practically forcing them to live in other countries," the UN study says.

Since the government of the Philippines owns about 62% of the country's territory, the indigenous peoples have been considered squatters on their own lands, according to the Worldwatch Institute.

The UN study said that similar situations are reported in Indonesia, Thailand and India, while most African nations are reported to claim all forest lands.

In Nicaragua, the government planned an environmental park in complete disregard of the indigenous population living on that land.

The study also points out that certain specific economic activities - including oil and gas exploration, geothermal energy development, mining, dam construction, logging, agriculture and ranching - have had an adverse impact on indigenous peoples.

"Often, development takes place without indigenous peoples' consent, consultation, participation or benefit," the report notes.

At a press conference Monday, Alfredo Steir-Younis of the World Bank said that not only are many indigenous peoples poor, they also are the most excluded in the development process, suffering from discrimination in terms of rights, property, culture, citizenship and lack of access to services.

Many countries are pursuing sustainable development, but there will be no sustainable development until there is cultural sustainability, Steir-Younis says.

"Bringing indigenous peoples into sustainable development is fundamental at this stage because otherwise it's like building a library and burning the books before you read them."

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South- North Development Monitor (SUNS) .