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Poor Communities Struggle to Attend U.N. Indigenous Meet

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 29 2010 (IPS) - “You will never suffer from fatal diseases like cancer and ulcer if you drink mare’s milk,” says Anna Postnikova, who is currently attending a major U.N. meeting on indigenous issues.

To those who rely on modern methods of medical treatment, this assertion might sound superstitious. But Postnikoa, a physician in Siberia, firmly believes that many kinds of ailments of can be easily cured with traditional medicines.

“The traditional methods of treatment can save millions of lives,” she told IPS in an interview conducted towards the end of the 9th session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “Our ancestors lived a healthy life. They didn’t have diseases we have now.”

Sitting next to her, Larionova Varvara, a well-known artist who teaches traditional music to children in Siberia, agreed with her compatriot. However, she held that traditional medicine is not the only way to cure ailment.

“A sick person can be treated with singing and dancing, as well,” she said.

Both Postnikova and Varvara believe people cannot live a healthy life unless they learn how to be in harmony with nature, which is not possible if human life is treated like a commodity or an object.

“My music represents elements of healing,” said Varvara, who plays the humoso, an instrument used for physical and emotional therapy in Siberia. “In my music, all sounds are unique. They are meant to create harmony between human beings and nature.”

Experts on climate change science and biodiversity now widely acknowledge that indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge about plant and animal species is vital to scientific understanding of how to preserve natural resources.

“Nature conservation is at the heart of the cultures and values of traditional societies,” says Ahmed Djoghlaf, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Biodiversity, which recognises the significance of traditional knowledge and calls for actions to promote it.

But are the states that have signed on to the treaty taking measures to promote indigenous knowledge? The answer from dozens of artists, healers, and musicians from different parts of the world who participated in the Forum is a resounding, “No.”

“We paid for this trip on our own,” said Alexandra Grigorieva, president of Yurta Mira, a non-profit organisation trying to promote indigenous culture and traditions in Siberia.

Grigorieva said it was very hard for her people – known as the Yakut – to attend the U.N. meeting on indigenous issues due to lack of funding. The Yakut people in Siberia were given an award from UNESCO in 2005 for their contribution to the world’s heritage.

Indigenous leaders from other parts of the world voiced similar concerns about their inability to exchange views with policy makers and activists at international meetings due to lack of funding.

“It is clear that funding is always a problem for those who want to attend the Forum on Indigenous Issues,” Arthur Manuel, a Native American leader from Canada told IPS.

“It is expensive to travel and to live in New York City,” he said.

A recent informal study released by the World Bank points out that indigenous peoples around the world continue to live in extreme poverty, although their voices are now being heard at numerous international forums.

In a recent statement, U.N. chief Ban Ki-Moon noted that indigenous peoples only represent about five percent of the world population but more than one-third of them are forced to live in poverty.

According to World Bank, some 5,000 different tribes of indigenous peoples are currently living in as many as 70 countries around the world. The Bank’s estimates show that their share of global poverty is no less than 60 percent.

“You see that is why we do not have the money to get to the Permanent Forum,” said Manuel. “The indigenous peoples who live far from New York deserve more to get support.”

“[Our] people need help because they live in an economy that is not centred around money,” said Manuel. “Some people would consider us poor, but if we are poor financially, we are rich culturally and really linked to the land.”

The indigenous leaders called for rich and industrialised nations to put more money in the Forum travel fund.

According to Manuel, indigenous peoples in North America have only recently been able to access the travel fund. “In the past, they [donors] considered us too prosperous. That was not true.”

“The indigenous peoples in North America who struggle to protect their lands and culture do not have a lot of money to attend the Forum,” he said.

Despite financial constraints, Grigorieva, who holds a Ph.D degree in anthropology, has established a museum in Siberia, where she wants people to know what is happening at the U.N. with regard to issues, and to inform native peoples about global efforts to protect their right. But it is an uphill task.

“Talking about funding for our work? It’s zero. It’s zero,” she said.

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