Multinational Monitor

JUL/AUG 2005
VOL 26 No. 7


Merger Mania and Its Disontents: The Price of Corporate Consolidation
by James Brock

Indigenous People's Power: Global Mobilization Scores Dramatic Gains - With Many Challenges Ahead
by Marcus Colchester

Crisis of Credibility: the Declining Power of the International Monetary Fund
by Walden Bello and Shalmali Guttal

Programmed to Fail: The World Bank Clings to a Bankrupt Development Model
by Walden Bello and Shalmali Guttal

Heartache and Hope in Africa: The Failures of Market
Fundamentalism and Hope for an Alternative
by Soren Ambrose and Njoki Njoroge Njehu

Victories! Justice! The People's Triumphs Over Corporate Power
by Robert Weissman


Offshore: Tax Havens, Secrecy, Financial Manipulation, and the Offshore Economy
An Interview with William Brittain-Catlin


Letter to the Editor

Behind the Lines

The Global Justice Movement

The Front
Bolivia Insurrection -
ICSID Bleeds Argentina

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Indigenous People's Power: Global Mobilization Scores Dramatic Gains - With Many Challenges Ahead

Pak Nazarius looked old but determined in the flickering torch light. Hunkered down against the wall of a Dayak longhouse in the Upper Mahakam river of east Kalimantan in the heart of Indonesian Borneo, he was explaining his ideas to a community workshop.

“In my community, our understanding is that we have rights to our land and the natural resources both above and below the land,” he explained. “Everything up to sky belongs to us. Several laws and policies have classified our forests as State forests and the minerals as property of the State. We don’t see it like that. I have hair on my arm, on my skin. Both are mine. I also own the flesh and bones beneath. They are also mine. No one has the right to take me apart. But the policy has cut these things apart and thus has cut us into pieces. We want the land back whole.”

The community, whose lands had been taken over by a plantation company, was exploring how to regain control of what they saw as rightfully theirs, but which the national government had handed out to an Indonesian multinational corporation, Lonsum. The discussion is just one example of a worldwide movement of indigenous peoples seeking to reclaim their rights to ancestral lands and jurisdictions.

Facilitated by international communications, networks and supportive nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), indigenous peoples in Central Siberia, the Amazon Basin, the Congo, British Colombia and the Pacific can now learn about each other’s gains and setbacks within hours or days. What started out as a plethora of local movements for justice by peoples dispossessed by colonialism, national development and corporate penetration, has now developed into a global movement for the recognition and restitution of collective rights.

Considering the continuing wave of expropriations and denial of rights associated with the inexorable spread into indigenous peoples’ lands of dams, mines, logging, plantations, colonization schemes and agribusiness, it is easy to overlook how much progress indigenous peoples have made over the last 40 years. Yet, in the 1960s it took several years before the world learned of the machine-gunning of Amazonian Indians by land grabbers acting in connivance with the inaptly named Indian Protection Service in Brazil. The prevailing wisdom of the time was still that these “backwards” peoples were doomed to extinction, hangovers of a previous age that must inevitably give way to progress.

The international mobilization to counter this myth can be dated to the mid-1970s, when indigenous peoples from North America came for the first time to the United Nations to demand recognition of their right to self-determination. They were soon joined by Aboriginal peoples from Australia, Maori from New Zealand, Saami from Scandinavia and Indians from Central and South America. Today, annual meetings on indigenous peoples at the United Nations bring together representatives of marginalized “native” peoples from all over the world. Their presence is not only testimony to the spread of ideas but evidence of innumerable local and national mobilizations, as communities have organized, created new representative institutions, federated into regional bodies and joined into national and international umbrella groups.

This mobilization has not only helped raise international awareness about indigenous peoples’ situation, it has also helped to curb local processes of expropriation of indigenous lands. As political solidarity has grown and both the extent and underlying causes of dispossession have become clearer, national policies and laws have begun to change. Some countries have reformed national courts, and national laws and constitutions have been reformed.

Since the 1980s, most Latin American countries have either overhauled their constitutions or passed new “organic” (framing) laws to recognize the multi-ethnic and pluricultural nature of national societies and the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and natural resources. Millions of hectares of indigenous lands have been restored to indigenous control as a consequence, though the process is far from complete or uncontested.

In Asia too, the same process is underway. The Philippines constitution recognizes indigenous rights, Nepal has recognized that the country is home to some 60 indigenous peoples and the new land laws of Cambodia provide for indigenous land rights. The High Courts in Malaysia have recognized “Aboriginal Title.” Legal reforms are underway in Indonesia that promise — but have yet to effectively secure — recognition of customary rights.

In Africa, the same process has got underway more recently. Hunter gatherer and pastoral groups, whose rights are so often disregarded by national laws and policies, and other peoples pushed aside by major development projects, have begun to take their concerns to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Commission has itself just established a Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities to ensure a fair consideration of their grievances on the continent.

Asserting collective rights

The process in the newly invigorated African Union follows the lead set over the past two decades at the United Nations Human Rights Commission. As appreciation of the circumstances of indigenous peoples has grown, UN human rights committees have handed down a series of judgments and recommendations recognizing the collective rights of indigenous peoples: to be considered subjects of international law as “peoples;” to self-determination; to exercise their customary law; to maintain their own representative institutions; and to control their lands and territories, and activities proposed for their lands.

These gains have echoed, and been consolidated in, a series of international documents. In 1989, the International Labor Organization (ILO) issued a revised Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples which articulated a policy based on participation and the maintenance of identity to replace its previous policy encouraging the integration of indigenous peoples into the national mainstream. In 1993, after 10 years of intense study, the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations completed a draft United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Shortly after, the Organization of American States (OAS) began a parallel process reviewing a proposed Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas.

The UN and OAS draft declarations have yet to be approved and the ILO Convention has only been ratified by some 17 countries, but the principles they establish have nonetheless been widely accepted and applied. The legal reasoning they embody has already found expression in human rights tribunals, including the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights, which has ruled, for example, that Nicaragua cannot hand out logging concessions on indigenous peoples’ lands without recognizing their land rights and securing their consent.

Norms established by these human rights standard-setting bodies have also begun to be accepted by international development agencies such as the World Bank and United Nations Development Program. Special commissions established to examine specific sectors, like the World Commission on Dams and the World Bank’s Extractive Industries Review, have emphasized that no developments should be imposed on indigenous peoples’ lands without their “free, prior and informed consent” — a minimal expression of indigenous peoples’ right to self-determination, to control affairs in their customary jurisdictions.

Environmentalists’ campaigns and alliances with indigenous peoples have to some degree also succeeded in getting private sector umbrella bodies to accept “best practice” standards that include respect for indigenous peoples’ rights. The Forest Stewardship Council’s Principles and Criteria, which set out standards for logging and plantations, requires companies to recognize indigenous peoples’ rights to their lands; to obtain prior, informed consent for forestry projects; and to respect their sacred indigenous sites if the companies are to qualify for “eco-labeling.” Similar standards are now being evolved by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil for the setting up of oil palm estates — a major cause of deforestation in Southeast Asia, in particular.

Recently too, indigenous peoples have made similar gains in their dealings with conservation organizations. The establishment of “protected areas” like National Parks and Game Reserves, the classical response of conservationists to environmental destruction, has led to the takeover of huge expanses of indigenous peoples’ lands, sometimes leading to their forced removal, collapse of the customary systems of land use, impoverishment, social conflicts and repression. Pressed by indigenous representatives at the recent World Parks Congress (in Durban in 2003) and World Conservation Congress (in Bangkok in 2004), conservationists agreed to a “new paradigm” of protected areas that would respect indigenous rights in future parks and restore their rights in protected areas taken unfairly from them in the past. In principle, these gains have also been endorsed by the countries that are party to the Convention on Biological Diversity.

Challenges ahead

This year has seen the end of the United Nations’ International Decade of Indigenous People, the major goal of which had been acceptance of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This aim was frustrated, however, by a number of governments, notable among them the United Kingdom, which has argued with increasing vehemence but uncertain logic that there are no collective human rights, a view clearly at odds with the rulings of many UN tribunals and the constitutions and laws of many countries where indigenous peoples actually live. Indigenous peoples are now calling for an extension of the decade and the maintenance of the United Nations bodies considering indigenous rights. It is clear that, despite the gains, much needs to be done before discriminatory views, which deny indigenous peoples the same rights as those accorded all other peoples, are overcome.

The success of indigenous peoples’ mobilization and international advocacy has also brought challenges of a different kind to many communities. The emergence of a globally experienced cadre of indigenous spokespersons, organized into coalitions, alliances, national organizations and networks, has strained communications and even mutual comprehension between them and the communities they come from. Horizontal information sharing among indigenous leaders, often from different countries and regions, has not been matched by vertical sharing between leaders and the “grassroots.” The challenge today is to re-knit indigenous structures of representation back down to those who still make their livelihoods on the land, in whose name the struggle is being fought. This is not unique to indigenous peoples’ campaigns; the same tensions in political representation are being experienced by all human societies during this era of globalization.

Getting the gains made at the international level — in terms of recognition of rights — turned into practice at the local level is not just a matter of communication and improved representation. International judgments may be more progressive, national constitutions, laws and policies may have been changed, “best practices” may have been agreed by industry, but at the local level the vested interests that profit from the denial of indigenous rights are often still dominant and contesting change. A myriad of local struggles for land, voice and livelihood remain to be fought before it can be said that indigenous peoples have secured justice.

Indigenous peoples’ recourse to the language of international human rights also presents them with a challenge of another kind. To avoid the accusation of double standards, indigenous peoples have recognized that they also need to overhaul their own customary laws, institutions and values to ensure they do not affront human rights within their own societies. In different parts of the world, indigenous peoples have already begun to question and reform customary norms, such as the subjection of women, caste divisions, slavery-like practices and cruel and unusual punishments. Some indigenous women lawyers have questioned the widespread practice of polygamy in their own societies.

Major challenges also face indigenous communities that manage to re-secure control of their lands and natural resource — their restored “commons.” New values, rising populations, circumscribed territories, access to markets and cash needs mean that many indigenous peoples, like most other people on the planet, are putting greater pressure on their environments. Achieving “sustainability” in the context of change means developing new systems of regulating access to resources, either by invigorating and redefining customary rules and authorities, or by accepting regulation by governmental bodies and national and international environmental laws.

Yet, ironically, one of the most acute difficulties facing indigenous peoples in this era of change comes from the withering away of the state, not its extension. As government’s capacity to regulate is weakened through structural adjustment — the set of market extremist policies including deregulation, privatization and reductions in government spending — and trade liberalization, and the power and penetration of business grows, indigenous peoples increasingly find they are dealing directly with multinational corporations.

Even where principles like “free, prior and informed consent” ostensibly give indigenous peoples a say over what happens on their lands, the practical inequalities between historically marginalized communities and huge companies with annual revenues greater than many developing countries mean that many negotiated agreements get signed despite a widely felt undercurrent in the community of powerlessness, manipulation and fait accomplit. Ensuring that such communities have the capacity and resources they need to secure fair outcomes requires more than goodwill.

Marcus Colchester is director of the Forest Peoples Programme, a UK-based organization that advocates for a vision of forest management and control based on the rights of the peoples who know forests best — forest peoples themselves.


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