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Green Economy Needs Respect for Indigenous Rights

Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS, May 21 2011 (IPS) - Nations must pay more than lip service to the idea of indigenous rights if they hope to seriously address problems like species loss and climate change, say delegates at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a U.N. body created to safeguard the rights of the world’s 370 million indigenous people.

“They present very good studies and information, but not for us,” said Marcos Terena, a prominent leader of the Brazil’s indigenous people, about the officials running U.N. projects on environment and development across the world.

“They talk to Sao Paulo, New York, and the World Bank, not us,” he told IPS at the 10th session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York.

Reflecting upon how the U.N. and its member states are tackling indigenous issues, he added: “Their ideas are all about how much they want from the rivers and how much they want from the air.”

“For us,” said Terena, “that has no money value. All the people must have the right to water and the air.”

In his view, the transition to a so-called “green economy” will not work as long as humanity doesn’t respect the rights of Mother Earth.

“The meanings of green economy are different to us than that which comes from the white man,” he said.

Several other delegates to the forum, which concludes May 27, expressed similar views.

Amongst them, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who led the U.N. Forum on Indigenous Issues for five years, noted that most governments still lacked the political will to enforce indigenous people’s rights.

“They are still resisting the indigenous movements,” she told IPS. “But they should understand it is in their own self-interest to support native peoples’ rights.”

In her opinion, “it’s time for the former colonial powers to learn from the indigenous people because they live in closeness with nature and abide by the laws of nature.”

Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge has been widely acknowledged as vital to conservation and efforts to fight climate change.

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

But are the states that have signed on to the treaties on climate change and biodiversity taking measures to promote indigenous knowledge? The answer from artists, healers, and musicians from different parts of the world who participated in the Forum is a resounding, ‘No.’

U.N. researchers note that one-third of the world’s 370 million indigenous people are condemned to live in poverty in as many as 70 countries around the world. World Bank estimates put their share of global poverty at 60 percent.

Since 2007, when the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly, there have been a flurry of complaints by native communities around the world about abuses of their rights by state authorities as well as private firms.

In many cases, indigenous activists also faced abusive treatment at the hands of law-enforcement agencies while resisting illegal occupation of their lands by companies doing business in mining, logging and oil exploration.

“While progress has been made in recognising indigenous rights at the international level, the standards maintained in the declaration still remain the biggest challenge,” said Dalee Sambo Dorough, a forum member from the United States.

In reflecting upon the U.N. efforts to enhance the understanding between indigenous communities and the outside world to fight climate change and reverse the loss of biological diversity, Terena said his people didn’t think it was working in a meaningful way.

“I hope the U.N. will understand and listen to the indigenous people, and not only produce papers,” he said about the U.N. Environmental Programme-led session at the forum meeting. “The paper is no good. It is bureaucracy. It is no good for the indigenous men, women and children. I hope the U.N. in the future would understand the voice of Mother Earth.”

The 10th session of the Forum will conclude by the end of next week.

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