This month (6-10/12), 600 indigenous leaders gathered in the far north of Norway. They produced a document that called for an end to discrimination and exploitation of their people. The Alta Declaration will be used as the basis for the U.N. World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in September 2014.
Inuit, Maasai, Maya, Nasa, Tao, Komi, Berber -- these are just a small fraction of the world’s indigenous peoples.
Their leaders met in Alta, Norway, the traditional territories and lands of the Sami people. The declaration they wrote there calls for a binding commitment to indigenous rights and the appointment of a U.N. envoy to help defend those rights.
“Generally, we can still say that the majority of indigenous peoples are still in very poor condition. You know, indigenous peoples compose five-percent of the world’s population, but they compose 15 percent of the world’s poor. They are still suffering from discrimination and also from a lot of human rights violations,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz of the Philippines, who chaired the meeting.
Tauli-Corpuz is executive-director of Tebtebba, the Indigenous Peoples International Center for Policy Research and Education. She cited examples of discrimination.
“They are usually looked down [upon] as backward peoples, as primitive peoples. In some places, like in India, they are called primitive tribal groups. And, of course, our practices or our customary governance systems are also not considered modern enough. So these are systems that need to be destroyed and replaced by modern governance systems, for instance, or modern laws.”
What’s more, she said, many are forbidden from speaking their own languages or using their own names. Some may not even be considered citizens of a country even though they have lived on the same land for many generations.
“Our lands, our resources are usually not protected. We are easily displaced from our own communities. And also whenever there is [a] so-called development project the government can just displace us from our communities if they want to develop a big mining corporation or a hydroelectric dam. We have lots of cases,” she said.
Indigenous peoples also have a spiritual connection to their lands – lands often rich in oil, natural gas or minerals.
She said, “This is where our cultures and traditional religions are also based. We have sacred sites. We have sacred groves. We have sacred waters. And so these are the kinds of harmonious relationships that we maintain and sustain with our lands.”
When climate change or pollution cause environmental degradation, Tauli-Corpuz said that indigenous people bear most of the burden.
“We bear the heavier brunt when, in fact, we haven’t really caused this problem. But we are the ones carrying the heavier brunt of having to adapt to it and having to contribute to its mitigation.”
When the world conference convenes next year in New York, one recommendation will be to create a new U.N. position – Undersecretary-General for Indigenous Peoples.
“We are also calling on states to stop displacing indigenous peoples from their communities and to get their prior and informed consent when they bring in development projects into the indigenous territories,” said Tauli-Corpuz.
The Alta Declaration also calls for a human rights approach when implementing climate change initiatives.
She said, “Giving indigenous peoples the right to continue to manage sustainably their ecosystems, their lands and their territories – if we are given that right – then we can really contribute in addressing this crisis. It’s something that’s not just going to benefit us, but it’s also going to benefit the rest of the world.”
She admitted that achieving all their goals won’t be easy because there’s so much money involved in commercial development. However she added that indigenous people have the power “to protect and preserve the forests, the mountains, the oceans, the waters and other resources that the world needs to survive.”