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Indigenous people and the crisis over land and resources

Do indigenous groups need saving from poverty? And why do they come into conflict with conservationists seeking to protect their land?

As governments agree to bring indigenous peoples into the global family of rights holders, the death of Edwin Chota and his colleagues in Peru highlights the continuing gap between rhetoric and reality in the struggle between resource miners and conservationists. A struggle that continues to leave the ancient stewards of the land being fought over on the margins of the conflict.

Indigenous groups are now represented globally by a range of international organisations – the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the Assembly of First Nations, Survival International, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Environmental Network and by many national organisations, along with a host of declarations on indigenous issues by UN agencies and international groups.

Acceptance in Latin American nation states of a multicultural citizenship which is inclusive of indigenous groups has become standard practice on the statute books. A range of rights has been accorded by Central American governments to their indigenous populations. In most cases the recognition is only on paper. The Honduran government, for instance, sidesteps its legal obligations to indigenous populations and their communal land rights by legislating in favour of individual ownership, which directly undermines the principle of communal ownership in indigenous territories.

It is clear that indigenous peoples have been recognised; but it is also clear that legal recognition does not mean that the rights, territories, resources and cultures of indigenous peoples are respected. Governments, corporations, loggers, campesino farmers, cattle-ranching companies and many others still covet their land and resources, and continue to find ways to acquire them.

The resurgence of indigenous self-esteem which has accompanied these developments has coincided with the global financial crisis. The crisis has reinforced "a battle [that] is taking place for natural resources everywhere". As Victoria Tauli-Corpus (an indigenous Filipino and UNPFII chair) says: "There are more and more arrests, killings and abuses. This is happening in Russia, Canada, the Philippines, Cambodia, Mongolia, Nigeria, the Amazon, all over Latin America, Papua New Guinea and Africa. It is global. We are seeing a human rights emergency... Much of the world's natural capital – oil, gas, timber, minerals – lies on or beneath lands occupied by indigenous people."

The emergency takes the form of land evictions, displacements, forced relocations, and state and corporate violence against indigenous groups. Such conflicts in Central America are frequent and violent, but are rarely covered in the international press. Behind the protests there generally lurk concerns over natural resources or contamination from the activities of mining, oil, energy, logging and agribusiness.

It is this battle, this crisis over land and natural resources, which principally explains why indigenous issues are also environmental and development issues.

Poverty is a development and environmental issue, but the definition of poverty with respect to indigenous peoples is contentious. By the widely used UN standards, indigenous peoples suffer a consistently higher degree of financial poverty than the rest of society. Jason Paiement describes indigenous peoples as:

"Among the poorest and most excluded populations in the world. They have almost universally suffered injustices and discrimination in terms of their basic rights to life, property, languages, culture and citizenship. Many continue to be denied access to essential services such as healthcare and education, and the material conditions for living a satisfying life."

Yet indigenous peoples have expressed that "they do not like to be labelled as poor because of its negative and discriminatory connotations highlighting instead the process of impoverishment caused by dispossession of their ancestral lands, loss of control over their natural resources and indigenous knowledge, and their forced assimilation into mainstream society and integration in the market economy," according to Joji Cariño.

Vandana Shiva distinguishes between poverty as subsistence and misery through scarcity and want:

"It is helpful to distinguish between a cultural concept of a simple and sustainable life, understood as poverty, from the material experience of poverty as a result of dispossession and scarcity ... [S]ubsistence economies which satisfy basic needs by means of self-supply are not poor in the sense that they are wanting. The ideology of development, however, declares them to be poor for not participating significantly in the market economy and for not consuming goods produced in the global economy."

Many indigenous groups and representatives are keen to improve the state's and society's acceptance of indigenous peoples and issues, but are clear that this does not mean that they wish to join what a NACLA report describes as "the misplaced social and economic priorities of neoliberal capitalism". This echoes many groups representing indigenous peoples that, while they want recognition of their cultures by the dominant society, they do not wish to participate in an economic model which is likely to exploit their labour, land and resources for the benefit of a small powerful group. It is of course relatively easy to find individual exceptions to this general feeling, particularly among the young, some of whom see exciting chances to make money.

An issue of contention is the coincidence and conflict between conservation strategies and indigenous peoples. The fact that areas inhabited by indigenous peoples are often also deemed crucial for conservation has been the focus of long-standing conflict and debate. It is estimated that 85% of designated protected areas in Central America are inhabited by indigenous peoples. That the subsistence lifestyles of indigenous peoples are less destructive to the environment than the agro-industrialised economies of non-indigenous peoples should not surprise anyone.

It is often noted that indigenous peoples have an intuitive relationship with nature, a wealth of traditional knowledge, and have used natural resource management practices for centuries to preserve their lands. The stewardship role of indigenous peoples strongly supports the possibility of collaboration with conservation organisations for maintaining biodiversity. Mark Dowie contends that for both parties, maintaining a "healthy and diverse biosphere" is key. Furthermore, the land and ecosystems that both conservationists and indigenous peoples are so keen to defend are seriously threatened by multiple demands, including intensive agriculture, industrial forestry and large-scale development projects such as dams and mines.

But it has been suggested that there are inherent and irreconcilable differences in the agendas of indigenous peoples and conservationists. While the former are primarily concerned for their economic well-being and protecting their land for their own use, the latter want to keep nature intact, prioritising protected areas and programmes grounded in biological and ecological science.

Mac Chapin (pdf) provides a damning critique of the three largest and dominant global conservation organisations: World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and Nature Conservancy. He noted that their neglect of indigenous peoples in conservation programmes is partly due to their corporate and government funding and the conditions attached to it. He points out that indigenous resistance is often directed at projects executed by the organisations' funding partners, who are also often perpetrators of environmental degradation.

This is an edited extract from The Violence of Development: Resource Depletion, Environmental Crises and Human Rights Abuses in Central America by Martin Mowforth, published by Pluto Press

Martin Mowforth in The Guardian, Tuesday 23 September 2014.

 Indigenous groups give cautious welcome to deal struck at UN

Governments pledge to consult native groups over projects on indigenous lands and improve access to education and services

Governments have agreed to draw up national plans to protect the rights of indigenous groups in their countries as part of a hard-fought agreement during a two-day conference in New York.

The agreement document was adopted on Monday at the first UN World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, held to focus attention on the patchy implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007.

At the conference, attended by more than 1,000 delegates, leaders reaffirmed their commitment to uphold the UN declaration. Although no great strides were taken to advance the contents of the declaration, the agreement was considered a strong outcome.

The conference has been criticised for not inviting more indigenous groups to the discussion table, and the UN said it was investigating claims that some delegates from Russia and Asia were denied visas to the conference or had their visas delayed.

The outcome document said governments pledged to consult, cooperate and obtain the consent of indigenous groups before any projects that could affect their lands or resources are agreed. They also committed to empower indigenous groups, improve access to appropriate education, health and socio-economic programmes and to make a priority the elimination of violence against indigenous groups, particularly against women.

It also called on the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to appoint a high-level official to consult with indigenous groups and support member states to implement the agreement.

Ivan Šimonović, UN assistant secretary general for human rights, said the outcome document called for celebration and action. “We celebrate the focus on rights of indigenous people being more recognised today than they were in the past, but [it’s] also a call to action to do even more to promote and protect these rights to implementation,” he said.

“Indigenous peoples are too often affected by poverty and discrimination, they are more often in prison than in universities, child mortality rates are higher and life expectancy lower. They pollute less but their livelihoods are more affected by climate change … these trends must be reversed, and can be achieved only if governments work in partnership with indigenous peoples.”

He said he sincerely hoped that governments will follow up on their commitments to create action plans and stressed the important role indigenous groups had to remind their leaders of their promises.

Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sami parliament in Norway, which represents people of Sami heritage, called the staging of the conference a historic moment. She said the outcome document was “action-orientated”, containing concrete commitments to implement the UN declaration. She welcomed the move within the UN human rights council to create a new mechanism to monitor, evaluate and improve member states implementation of the document.

“It has been a long journey for all of us,” she said.

But Patricia Gualinga, from the Sarayaku community in the Ecuador Amazon, who travelled to the conference with Amazon Watch, was more sceptical about what the new document would bring. She doubted the promises would lead to any sudden fundamental change, although it would provide another small weapon to push governments to action.

“Until now what I have seen and heard is that all presidents have beautiful discourses, but where I come from it just stays on paper and in discourses and not in application.

“I don’t think the conference will make major changes, but indigenous peoples can use the conference to show the international commitment … for us it will be a small contribution for advocacy at local level … so when the government commits violations of our rights then we can use this document. In that case, it will be useful.”

She said a major sticking point for governments implementing the UN declaration was the clause to obtain prior consent from indigenous groups before projects are given the green light.

Gualinga said in 2012 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights delivered a historic ruling to prevent an oil company from drilling on their land because the government had failed to get the community’s consent. But it was a long process. The court action began in 2003. Next week, the government is due to issue a formal apology to indigenous communities for their actions.

“They [the government] talk about consultation but don’t go beyond that,” Gualinga said. “Often they justify resource extraction to say this is to reduce poverty, but we don’t believe that.”

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, indigenous people make up 5% of the global population, but represent 15% of the most disadvantaged groups. They account for one-third of the 1 billion people living in extreme poverty and experience regular discrimination, forced evictions from their land and loss of identity.

Ahead of the event, Olvy Octavianita Tumbelaka, from the Dayak Benuaq community and a member of the Indigenous People’s Alliance of the Archipelago, in Indonesia, said palm oil plantations and extractive industries had led to the erosion of local practices traditionally carried out by women in her communities.

“Dayak indigenous women associate themselves with the forest, land, and river. So when we lose access to those three, we are missing the vital part of survival. Women’s knowledge about food and medicinal plants has been undermined. Many used to work in the fields but with the land-clearing and land-diversion into palm oil plantation and extractive industries, many settlers and temporary workers, mostly men, come to indigenous lands.

“The land that used to feed indigenous women is gone … The work that they used to do has no value and they have no place. The traditional medicine that used to be widely available has vanished. Modern medicines are costly and not easily available from their locations. This affects the health quality of indigenous people.”

Liz Ford in The Guardian, 23 September 2014.