The Multinational Monitor



Indigenous People vs Multinationals

They call themselves Indians, Natives, Aborigines, Indigenous peoples.

For hundreds of years, they have fought the encroachments of Western society. Today, they do battle with multinational corporations, which systematically invade their lands, take their resources, ruin their environment and disrupt their culture.

These are the people who have experienced first-hand the great Western lie that industrial development brings social progress and economic betterment. Increasingly, they are setting out to challenge this prevailing ideology and its modern bearers, the giant energy and mineral companies.

Multinational Monitor this month devotes its feature section (pp. 11-21) to the issue of indigenous rights and multinational corporate intrusions. We have been fortunate to have as co-sponsor of this special edition the Anthropology Resource Center, based in Boston. Multinational Monitor wishes to welcome the members of ARC and readers of the ARC newsletter.

On October 12-15, a group of 74 native leaders and aboriginal rights supporters from 15 different countries and more than 35 indigenous nations gathered in Washington, D.C. to discuss "Native Resource Control and the Multinational Corporate Challenge: Aboriginal Rights in International Perspective." The conference was co-sponsored by Multinational Monitor, the Anthropology Resource Center, Cultural Survival, and the Indian Law Resource Center. Much of the material in this month's Monitor is derived from the conference proceeding and from personal interviews with the native delegates.

To place the issue of indigenous people's rights in context, Shelton Davis, director of the Anthropology Resource Center, offers the following guest editorial.

Multinational corporations are causing ecological, social and cultural disruptions on a worldwide scale. No one experiences these damaging effects more strongly than indigenous people, be they at the North Slope of Alaska or in the tropical lowlands of South America.

Today, most indigenous groups possess less real control over their resources than they did a decade or two ago. While there are major differences among countries, aboriginal rights - if they are recognized at all - are usually sacrificed to powerful corporate interests or state development plans.

In countries such as Brazil and the Philippines, indigenous groups are arbitrarily relocated when they occupy lands containing valuable mineral deposits or energy resources. In Canada and the United States, governments force Indians to relinquish their native land claims in return for monetary compensations. And in Guatemala, Mayan Indians are being massacred by the thousands because they have the audacity to defend their cultures and ancestral lands.

Met by hostile governments, indigenous peoples have turned to international forums to defend their political, economic and cultural claims. Indigenous peoples have organized themselves into supranational bodies such as the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and the International Indian Treaty Council. And they have pressed their rights before the United Nations.

"All peoples have the right of self-determination" and "in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence," states article I of the international covenant on economic, social, and cultural rights, adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in 1966.

Eleven years later, representatives of 60 indigenous nations met at a U.N. conference in Geneva and drafted a special "Declaration of Principles for the Defense of the Indigenous Nations and the People of the Western Hemisphere." Another U.N. conference in 1981 urged official U.N. agencies to show more concern for native land rights and recommended drafting an international code of conduct to regulate the activities of multinational corporations operating in indigenous areas.

The Washington conference on "Native Resource Control and the Multinational Corporate Challenge" this October occurred in the wake of these important U.N. actions, at a time when indigenous peoples are increasingly recognizing that legal systems based on Western notions of property and sovereignty provide minimal, if any, protection for aboriginal rights.

The conference also took place at a time when the Western industrial system is in deep trouble. Today, with the world bogged down in the worst recession since the 1940's, there is a growing perception that industrial economies can't deliver the goods even to their own people.

Amidst the general skepticism, indigenous peoples are examining their economic dilemmas. They are increasingly seeking to redevelop their traditional economies based on self-sufficiency and local control; in the process, a growing number of indigenous groups are abandoning the reliance on nominal royalties and ephemeral jobs from the multinationals. Moreover, indigenous peoples are contending that their values and ways of life hold out the promise of a better, healthier, more sustainable society.

If we are open enough culturally to listen to the voices of indigenous people, we will hear more of their ideas about these vital issues in the years ahead.

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