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LATIN AMERICA: Native Leaders Half-Heartedly Embrace ‘Historic’ Declaration

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Sep 14 2007 (IPS) - While governments and the representatives of international agencies celebrated the approval of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples after more than two decades of negotiations, some native leaders and experts in Latin America were less enthusiastic.

In their criticism of the document, indigenous leaders Manuel Castro of Ecuador and Luis Andrade of Colombia, as well as the former director of the Inter-American Indigenous Institute, José del Val, pointed out to IPS that it is non-binding, and that parts of it were negotiated with little participation by the representatives of its presumptive beneficiaries.

A slightly different stance was taken by the spokesman for the Rigoberto Menchú Foundation, Elmer Erazo, who said the Declaration could be considered a stride forward “to the extent that indigenous people make use of it.”

But, he told IPS, “it’s nothing to jump up and down about.”

The Declaration was adopted Thursday by majority vote in the United Nations General Assembly. Only four countries – the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – voted against it, while Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Nigeria, Russia, Samoa and Ukraine abstained.

The 12-page Declaration states that indigenous peoples have the right “to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs”.

It also says native peoples have the right to maintain their cultures and to not be displaced from their land, and urges states to indemnify them when their land or resources are used or damaged without their consent.

Bolivian President Evo Morales, who is himself an Aymara Indian, said he was pleased with the approval of the Declaration, and added that “These standards will help ensure that everyone has the same rights and that we will stop being marginalised.”

Morales called on his indigenous sisters and brothers to take part in a world summit on Oct. 10-11 to celebrate and analyse the implications and repercussions of the Declaration.

Others, however, see less reason to celebrate.

“Twenty years of debate to produce this document, and we end up with a non-binding declaration that does not force governments to do anything; this is a disgrace,” said Castro, spokesman for the influential Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE).

For his part, Andrade, president of the National Indigenous Organisation of Colombia (ONIC), said the new instrument “is like saying yes, but no,” since it is non-binding. In his view, many governments signed the document “just for the sake of image.”

With respect to the fact that Colombia abstained from voting – the only Latin American country to do so – Andrade said “it showed that the administration (of right-wing President Álvaro Uribe) threatens the right of indigenous people and is their enemy.”

Del Val, the former director of the Inter-American Indigenous Institute, said the Declaration should be taken “as an ethical and moral reference point for indigenous peoples, but nothing more than that.”

“It is a non-binding, very general declaration full of vague terms and tricky wording,” said del Val, who is the head of the Mexico Multicultural Nation University Programme (PUMC) at the Autonomous National University of Mexico.

“Many governments signed it as a formality, just to get it out of the way,” he said.

Erazo, of the Menchú Foundation, which is headed by Guatemalan indigenous leader and Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú, agrees that the Declaration has no teeth.

He recommended, however, seeing it “as a weapon to be used by the people.”

According to signatory governments and U.N. authorities, including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Declaration is a triumph for the world’s 270 million aboriginal people. “This marks a historic moment when member states and indigenous peoples reconciled with their painful histories,” said Ban.

But CONAIE’s Castro saw such reactions as overblown. “In our view, there is no significant gain, if we also take into account that we were not well-represented in the negotiations and that very few indigenous people are even aware of the existence of this document.”

“There are a number of laws and agreements that talk about our rights; this is just one more that is on its way to becoming dead letter,” he said.

Native leaders from the region, some of whom were not widely accepted or considered highly representative, took part in the negotiations at different points.

“We participated in some debates, but we have to say truthfully that the level of representation of most indigenous peoples was extremely low,” said Andrade.

According to government statistics, there are 38.5 million indigenous people in the Americas. However, that figure is seen by many experts as too low.

What there is no discrepancy over is the fact that indigenous people are the most vulnerable social group in the region, suffering the highest levels of poverty, and the most limited access to health care, education, decent housing and an adequate diet.

But in recent years, some indigenous groups in Latin America have become more organised and gained influence and political power, especially in countries like Ecuador and Bolivia.

Indigenous movements played a key role, for example, in toppling presidents Jamil Mahuad, in January 2000 in Ecuador, and Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, in October 2003 in Bolivia. In addition, Bolivia now has its first-ever indigenous president, who took office in early 2006.

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