Indigenous Protocols

by Robert Weissman

RIO DE JANEIRO - One of the most positive outcomes of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was the successful effort of indigenous peoples to make environmental activists and policymakers recognize that guarantees of indigenous rights must be a central component of efforts to solve the global environmental crisis.

 Bored by a myriad of speeches, forums, panel discussions and press conferences, the thousands of journalists covering the official Earth Summit and the Global Forum, the non-governmental parallel conference, swarmed around the indigenous representatives in Rio. Photographers and camerapeople yearned for interesting visuals, and indigenous people dressed in their traditional garb fit the bill.

But the fundamental reason for the attention devoted to indigenous people was the level of organization they have achieved in the last several years and displayed at the Earth Summit.

 The week before the Earth Summit, from May 25 to May 31, hundreds of indigenous representatives from all over the world met at Kari-Oca Village, outside of Rio, for a conference on territory, environment and development. Hundreds also participated in the International Indigenous Commission's Indio 92 conference, held as part of the Global Forum, and in other events at the Global Forum.

Muffled voices

 The organizational work that preceded the Kari-Oca and Indio 92 meetings led to the inclusion of a section on indigenous peoples' rights in the Agenda 21 document negotiated at the official Earth Summit. "In view of the interrelationship between the natural environment and its sustainable development and the cultural, social, economic and physical well-being of indigenous people," Agenda 21 states, "national and international efforts to implement sound and sustainable development should recognize, accommodate, promote and strengthen the role of indigenous peoples and their communities." The document calls on national governments to grant greater legal protections to indigenous people, consult with them over resource management, provide guarantees for indigenous intellectual and cultural property and consider ratifying international conventions on indigenous peoples' rights.

Despite this achievement, indigenous leaders expressed frustration and disgust with the official Earth Summit. "Indigenous people should be speaking at UNCED," said one representative from Canada. "Because we don't have a voice there, to me it is not the United Nations."

Government negotiators "are not really talking about what should change," said Ariel Araujo of the Mocovi people in Argentina and coordinator of indigenous negotiations with the United Nations. "Indigenous people have tried during the whole UNCED process to get their voice heard," Araujo told Multinational Monitor, "but we weren't really listened to." He explained that indigenous people wanted specific commitments from governments, especially with regard to demarcating indigenous lands, but that government representatives deleted text concerning demarcation from the drafts of the treaties during negotiations. As a result, he said, "The UNCED process does not mean anything to indigenous peoples; it won't change anything."

 "Our proposals were not accepted, so we have rejected the whole process," said Marcos Terena of the Brazilian Inter-Tribal Committee. "When the government treaties are signed, we'll have nothing to do with them."

Indigenous speak out

 But most indigenous people felt that they did make gains at Rio, through participation in the Kari-Oca meeting and events at the Global Forum.

For many participants, they provided an opportunity to learn of shared problems, experiences and beliefs among indigenous people throughout the world, and to publicize their concerns.

Many denounced the racism they experience and passionately proclaimed their humanity. One indigenous person from Brazil said, "For the white people, the Indians are savages. But we are people - we have a soul, a heart, feelings."

Many others described ongoing assaults on their communities from land invaders, large-scale development projects and resource-extracting multinational corporations. Kanhok of the Kayapó people in Brazil, for example, provided a wrenching account of environmental devastation and health crises brought on by invading gold prospectors. Mercury used to extract gold has polluted the Kayapó's rivers so that their children can no longer drink the river water, he said. The mercury has also killed the rivers' fish, forcing the Kayapó to travel a day from their village in order to procure food. The miners have also brought new diseases. "Our medicine in the forest cures our own diseases," Kanhok said poignantly, "but we have nothing against these diseases." He pleaded for medicine from outside communities.

Some came seeking specific expressions of support. Representatives of the Chamoru Nation in Guam, involved in a land trust case with the U.S. government, asked the Indio '92 meeting to approve a resolution supporting their claims. The resolution, which the Indio 92 participants approved unanimously, accused the United States of violating treaty obligations to the Chamorus, encouraging migration into Guam, building up military installations and nuclear stockpiles on the island and refusing to return Chamoru land even after the U.S. government designated it as excess federal property. Subsequent to the passage of the resolution, according to Rieann Limtiaco of the Chamoru Nation Tribal Council, the Chamorus won a favorable ruling in their land trust case. Limtiaco attributed the victory in part to the international attention garnered at the Indio 92 conference. This "proves what happens when indigenous people unite," she said.

New treaties

 Mindful that treaty making has been a process fraught with disaster for many indigenous peoples, indigenous representatives at Kari-Oca and the Global Forum agreed on three important treaties.

 The Kari-Oca Declaration and the Indigenous Peoples Earth Charter were signed only by indigenous people themselves. The Kari-Oca Declaration broadly asserts indigenous peoples' rights to their land and traditions, and their commitment to protect the resources under their control for future generations. "We, the indigenous peoples, maintain our inherent rights to self determination," it reads. "We maintain our inalienable rights to our lands and territories. To all our resources - above and below - and to our waters, we assert our ongoing responsibility to pass these on to the future generations."

 The 109-point Earth Charter elaborates on the principles of the Kari-Oca Declaration. It condemns specific practices which threaten indigenous societies and cultures, such as population transfer schemes and toxic and nuclear waste dumping on indigenous lands. It demands that indigenous treaties be taken seriously by governments and calls for UN enforcement of them. It also proposes that the United Nations, at the request of affected indigenous peoples, be given the authority to send indigenous representatives, in a peace-keeping capacity, into territories where conflicts arise. The Charter demands that governments demarcate indigenous lands and grant indigenous people autonomy over them. It emphasizes the importance of indigenous people cultivating local crops for local consumption. And it holds that indigenous peoples have a right to maintain their traditional way of life.

Indigenous representatives also negotiated a treaty with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) participating in the Global Forum. The treaty, as Araujo explained, is based on mutual commitments between indigenous people and NGOs. Barbara Bramble, director of the U.S.-based National Wildlife Federation's international program, agrees. "The treaty has mutual promises," she said, "not just support ... going in one direction." In the treaty, NGOs commit themselves to support the demarcation of indigenous territories and to provide financial assistance to indigenous programs. Noting that indigenous peoples "have developed economic, social and cultural models that respect nature without destroying it," the treaty requires indigenous people to agree to maintain and promote their value and economic systems, including communal ownership of land, as a means of protecting biodiversity and other natural resources.

Indigenous representatives put great stock in the indigenous-NGO treaty. "The treaty begins a new kind of work in which indigenous people and white people can work together," said the Inter-Tribal Committee's Terena. The parties take the commitments in the treaty seriously, he added. "We don't want to sign the way the U.S. government signed treaties with indigenous people 50 and 100 years ago."