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Struggle for Native Rights Making Headway

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 19 2010 (IPS) - International efforts to protect the rights of the world’s aboriginal communities seem to be gaining strength despite opposition from certain powers that continue to abuse native lands and resources in the name of development.

On Monday, as hundreds of indigenous leaders gathered here for the ninth annual session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the government of New Zealand declared it was ready to sign on to the international document that recognises native peoples’ right to self-determination.

“Today, New Zealand changes its position,” said Dr. Pita Sharples, minister of Maori affairs, in a statement pointing out that his country was ready to embrace the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples.

In September 2007, when majority of the U.N. General Assembly voted in favour of the Declaration, New Zealand chose to side with the United States, Canada, and Australia, the only three nations that vehemently opposed the text of that historic document.

The Declaration was opposed by these countries because it calls for states to acknowledge indigenous peoples right to self-determination and demands that private interests must obtain “prior and informed consent” from the natives for use of land for commercial and development purposes.

Recently, Australia not only signed on to the Declaration, but its government also apologised to the indigenous communities for injustices and unfair policies that previous governments had practiced and adopted over the past several decades.

In declaring support for the Declaration, the New Zealand minister acknowledged that native people must have full freedom to use their lands and resources as they wish and that they have a different concept of development from that of private corporations.

“I greet your mountains, your rivers, your lands (the places) where your ancestors originated, including you who are meeting here today,” he told the U.N. Forum on Indigenous Issues in a statement.

Indigenous leaders who are attending the forum described the shift in New Zealand and Australia’s policy as a positive sign for the struggle of indigenous peoples to protect their lands, resources, culture and languages.

“This is a wonderful occasion,” said Tonya Frichner, North American member of the Permanent Forum. She believes there are strong indications that both the United States and Canada would also change their stance on the Declaration and would soon be willing to sign on to it.

In response to a question from IPS about the implementation of the Declaration, which is not a legally binding document, Carlos Mamani Condori, the incoming chairman of the Forum, said despite slow progress, several government are taking positive steps.

In this context, he mentioned Bolivia and Ecuador, which have incorporated several articles of the Declaration text into their constitutions. Condori, a Bolivian national, criticised Western nations for failing to reach an agreement at last December’s climate change summit at Copenhagen, where members of indigenous communities were not allowed to fully participate in the negotiations.

He defended Bolivian President Evo Morales’s initiative to hold an international summit on the rights of Mother Earth, which is being attended by thousands of environmental and rights activists from around the world this week.

“This summit is for quality of human relation with Mother Earth,” he said, challenging the conventional view that climate change can be tackled by means of trading carbon “credits”. “We are suffering the worst consequences of climate change.”

In response to a question about poverty among indigenous communities, he said: “The mining industries are destroying our lands. That is not development. The colonisers came to our lands because we were rich, not poor.”

In January, the U.N. released its first-ever report on the State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, setting out some alarming statistics on poverty, health problems, crimes and human rights facing the indigenous communities.

“In some countries, an indigenous person is 600 times more likely to contract tuberculosis than the general population. In others, an indigenous child can expect to die 20 years earlier than his non-native compatriots,” the report said.

In a statement at the opening of the forum, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described the living conditions of many indigenous peoples as “a tragedy for the whole world”.

Expressing solidarity with native communities, he urged the world community to promote development measures in a way that do not violate indigenous people’s values and traditions.

“We need development that underpinned by the values of reciprocity, solidarity and collectivity,” he said. “We need development that allows people to exercise their right to self-determination through participation in decision-making on an equal level.”

The Permanent Forum will meet until the end of this month. It is due to focus on issues related to the native peoples of North America in particular, and those surrounding the question of indigenous peoples’ rights to their resources.

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