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UN Forum Highlights Strife of Indigenous Peoples


The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has been meeting for the past 10 days in New York City and is scheduled to end Friday. Attending the conference are representatives of the world’s indigenous peoples and experts on their needs. Also on hand are a number of government officials and representatives of UN agencies.

The delegates are working on ways to help highlight the plight of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples, often called the poorest of the poor. The meeting is also discussing how the needs of indigenous communities are being served by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals – which include lower rates of HIV/AIDS, curbing poverty and hunger, promoting health care and ensuring universal primary education by 2015.

The UN Permanent Forum is a 16-member subcommittee of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the UN, the body that guides the implementation of all UN programming.

Nigel Crawhall is a technical expert supporting the African Caucus. He works in the Secretariat of IPACC, the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee. The Capetown-based NGOsupports a network of 120 indigenous groups in 21 African countries.

Crawhall says among those attending the two-week forum are nomads like the Tuaregs and the Fulani, who are concerned about the lack of sufficient international support for them and their cattle in the face of relentless drought. A group representing the San peoples has come from Angola to see how they can form a partnership with the international community and government that will recognize their hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

The San of Angola, says Crawhall, “were victimized during the 20-year [civil war] in Angola. They were used as trackers by the old South African (apartheid) army and by other various groups fighting in the area…. [They’ve] often been used as slaves by surrounding Bantu-speaking peoples and abused in various ways. So, their concern is to secure land rights in southern Angola. There is hardly any governance in southern Angola and the question is: what is going to be the future of southern Angola? What type of development will take place? Will indigenous people be able to have their own land rights protected and be able to continue with their own language, culture and identities within the Angolan state to be able to engage with government and have the same kinds of benefits and others can get?”

Crawhall says last Thursday the forum devoted an entire meeting to the plight of Africa’s indigenous peoples.

Many delegates explained their grievances and asked for more support from African governments. Vital Bambanze of the Burundi-based Union for the Promotion of the Batwa told the conference most of his people lack access to land and therefore money to pay for education and health care. He said many of his people work other people’s land in exchange for food. He called it a condition similar to virtual slavery: entire Batwa families can be “inherited” or transferred along with their land when the landowner dies. Others make pottery, carry luggage or do odd jobs in the cities. Traditionally, they’ve been shunned by the country’s two major ethnic groups, the Hutu and the Tutsi.

He says their situation has been made worse by their reluctance to take sides in the conflict between the two in wars that have encroached on their lifestyle as hunters and gatherers: “Most of the forests are occupied by people fighting, so when the Batwa go to hunt or gather they [come across] mines. Sometimes when they [return from the forest], they are considered to be enemies and shot by regular forces. So Batwa [no longer] have access to forests.”

He says the Batwa, or Twa, want to have their rights protected and to have affirmative action in government institutions – but without getting involved in political parties. He says they’re dominated by Hutu or Tutsi and in recent years have antagonized the Batwa by placing Batwa candidates on party lists but removing them once they’ve won an election. Bambanze says most of the progress made by Burundi’s Batwa has come from guarantees in recent peace agreements, which have allotted three Batwa to the Senate and three for the National Assembly. He wants the help of the international community in securing government promises for more Batwa representation in national institutions and in all sectors of development including education.

The UN Permanent Forum’s delegates have urged a review of the implementation of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals and how they affect the development of Africa’s indigenous peoples. For example, the Baka communities of Cameroon fear that the goals calling for road construction and the building of settlements may actually restrict their access to the forests.

Nigel Crawhall of IPACC says the meetings are also emphasizing the important of traditional knowledge and the impact it could also have on modern societies:

“Indigenous cultures need to be advising the rest of the planet on natural resource management and how humans need to treat each other. The pattern is that as humans invented agriculture and industrial societies, they also created hierarchies and issues of war and conflict. Whereas in indigenous cultures, like hunter gathering or nomadic cultures, there is a lot of emphasis placed on human dignity and autonomy; so if you are not getting on well with your neighbors, and you’ve put a lot of energy into dialogue, healing, and mutual bonding and if it’s really not going to work, you get up and move away from them. In Africa, indigenous cultures put emphasis on finding a solution, doing it in a community process, talking to each other, using your ancestors and spiritual context to help find a resolution. If it still does not work, don’t create harm but move away from each other.

The Tuareg (nomads) say in French, ‘Eloignez vos tentes et rapprochez vos coeurs,’ which means,’ Keep your tents apart, but your hearts close to each other.’ In English (it translates as), ‘The way to respect your neighbor is to respect their independence and autonomy, but be in solidarity with them and work closely with them.’”

Crawhall says those are among the things that Africa’s indigenous peoples can contribute to their societies. How well their call for closer cooperation and respect by the governments has been heard is hard to say: Crawhall notes that during the lively one-day session devoted to Africa’s indigenous peoples (last Thursday), the only government representatives in attendance were from countries in the Southern Africa Development Community.

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