Thursday, August 9, 2012

Indigenous Peoples Are Being Pushed to the End of Their World

"Indigenous peoples are paying a huge human cost of activities sanctioned by the state and ranging from commercial exploitation to unsustainable development."
As the United Nations observes the “International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” today, the fight to uphold the rights of some of the most marginalized and discriminated populations on the planet is fast becoming a lost cause.

The 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries are rapidly losing control of their land and natural resources as states continue to issue orders and amend laws leading to systematic dispossession and displacement of indigenous populations.

The indigenous Mangyan people in the dense rainforests of Occidental Mindoro in the Philippines are desperately battling to save their ancestral land from transnational mining corporations and other commercial interests, Some 40,000 hectares of land, including vast swathes of forest, is claimed by Mangyans as their ancestral domain.

The land potentially holds reserves of gold, natural gas and minerals worth many millions of dollars. Physically and socially isolated from the rest of the Filipino population and among the poorest in the country, Mangyans are up against all odds as they must legally prove their ownership of the land they have traditionally inhabited for generations.

Globally, although the indigenous peoples represent only about 5 percent of the world’s population, they occupy one-fifth of entire earth’s territory from the Arctic to the South Pacific. Despite their hold over vast swathes of land, indigenous peoples make up 15 percent of the world’s poor and one-third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people.

They are over-represented on all indicators of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. Indigenous peoples face systemic racism, violence and abuse in their daily lives. An indigenous woman is more likely to be raped, with some estimates showing that more than one in three indigenous women are raped during their lifetime.

The social and economic exclusion of indigenous peoples is not restricted to developing countries alone. Even in developed countries, indigenous peoples consistently lag behind the non-indigenous population in terms of most indicators of well-being. They live shorter lives, have poorer health care and education and endure higher unemployment rates.

According to the United Nations, a native Aboriginal child born in Australia today can expect to die almost 20 years earlier than his or her non-native compatriot. In countries where indigenous peoples are in sizeable numbers, they still fare poorly as compared to dominant societies. Chronic malnutrition, for example, affects eight in 10 indigenous children in Guatemala.

At the heart of indigenous peoples issues lies the inherent discrimination of one of the most vulnerable groups in the world. Only a few countries recognize indigenous peoples’ land rights. In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, making it the most comprehensive statement of the rights of indigenous peoples ever developed. The declaration upholds the collective rights to a degree unprecedented in international human rights law, but it is not legally binding.

The International Labor Organization’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention is the only international law that protects indigenous peoples’ land ownership rights and sets minimum UN standards regarding consultation and consent. More than two decades after this treaty came into force, only 22 countries have ratified it so far, denying a vast majority of indigenous peoples their basic rights to their assets and natural resources.

In the few places where indigenous peoples have legal title deeds to their lands, these lands are often leased out by the state as mining or logging concessions without consultation of indigenous peoples. In the ruthless appropriation of their assets, free and prior informed consent of affected indigenous peoples is almost always ignored. Still suffering from the consequences of historic injustice, including colonization and dispossession, indigenous peoples are finding themselves trapped in an overwhelming morass of poverty, illiteracy and lack of political representation, all of which is resulting in their loss of control over their way of life.

Development organizations and civil society can only play a limited role. The scale and geographical spread of the indigenous peoples’ issues requires an effort on a global scale. According to a UN report, around 60 million indigenous people around the world depend almost entirely on forests for their survival.

The deteriorating situation of indigenous peoples figured prominently in the recent discussions at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues — the United Nations expert advisory body dealing with the human, economic and social rights of indigenous peoples. The forum, in its recently concluded session, approved landmark draft recommendations on the “Doctrine of Discovery” — the key argument used by colonizers throughout the world as legal and political justification for the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands, their disenfranchisement and the abrogation of their rights. The forum has called upon the states to repudiate such doctrines as the basis for denying indigenous peoples’ human rights.

The UN forum noted that dispossession doctrines had led to a situation where states had allegedly “extinguished” the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources, their right to self-determination, their languages, religions and even their identities.

It therefore does not come as a surprise that worldwide the indigenous peoples are paying a huge human cost of activities sanctioned by the state and ranging from commercial exploitation to unsustainable development.

According to a UN report, in Indonesia, of more than 140 million hectares of indigenous territories that are classified as state forest lands, almost 58 million are with timber companies. Concerns remain about the prospect of more forest land being diverted for plantations. About 30 million indigenous people depend on these forests for their livelihood.

Wanton dispossession and displacement of indigenous peoples has brought them in direct conflict with the authorities and their agents all across the world. When indigenous peoples have reacted and tried to assert their rights, in most instances they have suffered physical abuse, imprisonment, torture and even death.

As the debate progresses in the larger framework of human rights, the states face a call to redefine their relationship with indigenous peoples. It will be a test case for states’ commitment to peace, justice and human rights. It may also be the last hope for indigenous peoples before they are systematically extinguished.

By Davinder Kumar development journalist and Chevening Human Rights Scholar. He is global press officer for the child rights and community development organization Plan International.

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