Environment | World

Native Sun News: UN leaders cite threats to indigenous peoples

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

NEW YORK –– Mining, timbering and other extractive industry development is counterproductive unless native cultural demands are given priority, U.N. leaders proclaimed during observations Aug. 9 of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People.

“The concept of development with culture and identity, is a process that includes harmony and interaction with our environment, sustainable use of natural resources and respect for the rights and values of indigenous people,” declared Miskita Indian Mirna Cunningham, Chairperson of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Article 11 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples specifically refers to the right to practice and revitalize traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and nurture cultural manifestations, such as archaeological and historical sites, artifacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay cited instances around the world in which millions of people’s cultural heritage and rights are being sacrificed in the name of industry.

“Let us ensure that development for some is not to the detriment of the human rights of others,” said Pillay.

“As we celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People this year, many of the estimated 370 million indigenous peoples around the world have lost, or are under imminent threat of losing, their ancestral lands, territories and natural resources because of unfair and unjust exploitation for the sake of development. On this day, let us ask the crucial question: Who actually benefits from this so-called development, and at what cost is such development taking place?" Pillay said.

“When indigenous communities are alienated from their lands because of development and natural resource extraction projects, they are often left to scrape an existence on the margins of society,” he said. “Many such projects result in human rights violations involving forced evictions, displacement and even loss of life when social unrest and conflict over natural resources erupt. This is certainly not what we mean by development. Natural resource extraction projects such as mining are land-intensive and water-intensive and often directly affect the collective rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and territories."

“All too often we see conflict between corporations, indigenous peoples and the state over development projects which are initiated without consultation or consent of the very people who are dispossessed of their land,” he noted.

Examples Pillay mentioned included Malaysia, where hydroelectric dam projects are planned in Sarawak and Sabah, the Penan people have received threats and reported harassment from logging company employees.

In India, the indigenous Dongria Kondh Adivasis, defending their ancestral lands and community forests, also are subject to threats and harassment from mining and logging, despite the existence of constitutional protections, Supreme Court judgments and progressive national legislation requiring consent of tribal communities, and community rights over forest use.

Recently, José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria de Espirto, both anti-logging activists and defenders of Amazonian indigenous peoples’ rights, were killed in the Brazilian state of Para.

The commissioner’s office has received reports from U.S. tribal members and is monitoring the impact of extractive industries and development projects in a number of other countries, including Bolivia, Cambodia, Guatemala and Mexico.

“In many cases, extractive activities in indigenous territories are pursued by multinational companies headquartered in developed countries. Moreover, extractive industries are often present in the areas inhabited by indigenous peoples in these nations,” Pillay said.

He cited intensive oil and gas development in Alberta, Canada in the areas where long-standing land claims by the Lubicon Lake Nation remain unresolved. In the Nordic countries, the Sami are concerned about the impact of mining, forestry and other natural resource extraction on reindeer husbandry, he said.

“Many States maintain contradictory or antiquated laws on mining and land acquisition for development. These laws must be re-assessed to determine if they are consistent with international human rights standards and principles. Such reviews must be conducted in consultation with indigenous peoples and in good faith,” he said.

“Indeed, proper consultations must be conducted with indigenous peoples at all stages of the development and natural resource extraction cycle. They are entitled to full disclosure of environmental, social and human right impact assessments in a language of their choice. States should also provide financial and technical support to enable indigenous peoples to consult with corporations,” he added.

“When indigenous peoples consent to such projects, they should have a right to a fair share of benefits from activities on their lands. And where projects proceed without consent, mechanisms for redress are required. International and national institutions financing such projects must ensure their operational policies and guidelines are consistent with international human rights standards and principles. On their part, extractive companies have a responsibility to respect human rights,” he concluded.

Cunningham said the U.N. process for responding to climate change is no exception to the rule. The best scenarios for the institution’s project of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) will occur when indigenous peoples become active players in the decision making process. Native stakeholders merit assistance to obtain complete information continued access to forests and their resources, she said.

“We must commit to respect international human rights standards that establish moral and legal obligations to protect and promote rights of indigenous peoples in all matters related to climate change,” she said. “This includes rights to lands, territories and resources, right of traditional knowledge and free, prior and informed consent as enshrined in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

The adoption of the declaration and the recognition of free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) in it are important milestones in securing the rights of indigenous peoples. FPIC refers to the collective right of indigenous and tribal peoples to give or withhold consent regarding decisions that may affect the rights and interests associated with their lands, territories, and resources.

International projects, such as the United Nations Collaborative Programme on REDD+ (UN-REDD Programme), have undertaken global and regional consultations with native ethnicities and other forest dwellers to elaborate on how this right can be functional.

“The adoption of procedures to respect FPIC could be vital for ensuring permanence in REDD+ while respecting the rights of indigenous peoples and forest dependent communities,” said Charles McNeill, coordinator of REDD+ stakeholder engagement at the UN Development Program. The UN is elaborating guidelines for transparency and accountability.

Clarification on representation and consent in decision making is important because the right to FPIC is fundamental to indigenous peoples’ self-determination. Its definition will strengthen the legitimacy, efficacy, ownership, sustainability, and longevity of REDD+ actions, according to McNeill. As REDD+ terms stand right now, many native groups oppose them.

To address the accelerated loss of biodiversity in forests, other international bodies such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) are adopting strategies relevant to indigenous peoples and local forest communities. The CBD has set a target to halve the loss of natural habitats, including forests, by 2020.

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous People is organized by the Secretariat of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the U.N. Department of Public Information and the NGO Committee on the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

The event was celebrated for the first time at the beginning of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People declared by the U.N. General Assembly. Sponsors consider it “an occasion for indigenous peoples and the world to assess where we are in our bid to have our human rights recognized and respected and to plan where we are going in the years to come.”

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is an advisory body to the U.N. Economic and Social Council, with a mandate to discuss indigenous issues related to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. In 2004, the Assembly proclaimed a Second International Decade, from 2005 - 2015, with the theme of “A Decade for Action and Dignity.”

(Talli Nauman is the Health and Environment Editor of Native Sun News. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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