Saturday, August 09, 2008

Rights of the indigenous peoples a far cry


BESIDES THEIR other characteristics, indigenous peoples have contributed the least to world greenhouse gas emissions and have the smallest ecological footprints on earth. Yet they suffer the worst impacts not only of climate change, but also they face hardship in education, employment, health, human rights, social and economic development, and everyday life.

Precise estimates for the total population of the world's indigenous peoples are very difficult to compile but as of the start of the 21st century, there are at least 370 million indigenous people that includes 5000 distinct peoples, spread across 70 countries living relatively neutral or even carbon negative life styles. While not a large number when compared to the world population of 6 billion, it does have a substantial impact in lowering emissions. Compare this to the impact of the United States, with a population of 300 million -only 4% of the world’s population – but responsible for about 25 percent of world greenhouse gas emissions. But the situation of the indigenous peoples in the world is not encouraging.

In order to put an end to their marginalization, their extreme poverty, the expropriation of their traditional lands and the other grave human rights abuses they have faced, and continue to encounter, the UN General Assembly decided to celebrate the International Day of the World's Indigenous People on August 9 every year during the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous people by resolution 49/214 of 23rd December 1994 as this was the date of the first meeting in 1982 of the United Nations Working Group of Indigenous Populations of the Sub commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities of the Commission on Human Rights.

In recognition of indigenous peoples' particular vulnerability to climate change and their important role in responding to it, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in its 2008 session will focus on "Climate change, bio-cultural diversity and livelihoods: the stewardship role of indigenous peoples and new challenges." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has asked member states and indigenously people to come together in a spirit of mutual respect. “Indeed, the suffering of indigenous peoples includes some of the darkest episodes in human history,” he mentioned in his special message on the eve of this year International Day of the World's Indigenous People.

Indigenous peoples have a past, a history, and a culture that will never die. They have a consciousness of culture and peoplehood, on the edge of each country's borders and marginal to each country's citizenship. But they continue to suffer discrimination, marginalization, extreme poverty and conflict. They face dispossession of their traditional lands and livelihoods, displacement, destruction of their belief systems, culture, language and way of life, and even the threat of extinction.

In identifying themselves as indigenous peoples, they do not mean to undermine the rights of anyone else, nor do they mean to undermine the global state system. According to Rebecca Adamson, an American Indian Rights activist, we are all indigenous people on this planet, and we have to reorganize to get along. All humankind is related to each other and each has a purpose, spirit, and sacredness. The rights of the indigenous peoples are the same as the rights of all human beings.

Indigenous Peoples have fought for over 500 years against genocide, displacement, colonization and forced assimilation. Throughout they have succeeded in preserving their cultures and their identities as distinct Peoples. But the ongoing fight over land and power has left Indigenous communities among the poorest and most marginalized in the world, alienated from state politics and under- or un-represented by national governments. Today, Indigenous Peoples, who occupy some of the last pristine environments on Earth, are at the forefront of the struggle against corporate globalization and privatization of natural resources.

They want to be recognized for who they are: distinct groups with their own unique cultures. They want the governments of the countries in which they live to respect their ability to determine for themselves their own destinies. They want to be protected from genocide, arbitrary execution, torture, forced relocation, or assimilation, and they want to enjoy their rights to freedom of expression, association, and religion. They want to be treated equally with respect to opportunities for education, health care, work, and other basic needs. Where such rights conflict with the needs of the state or other peoples, they want to participate as equals in an impartial and transparent process for resolving the conflict in a fair and respectful way.

But they are inevitably going to disappear and some populations are facing extinction sooner than later. 18 of the 28 indigenous groups in Colombia have less than 100 members, "and are suspended between life and death." 50 indigenous people were killed and other forced to move to neighboring villages, caves and mosques by the Ugandan Wildlife Authority in 2004 (UWA). Indigenous peoples in Malaysia and Indonesia have been uprooted by the aggressive expansion of oil palm plantations for biofuel production.

The recent cyclone Nargis that crashed into Myanmar or the earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale that struck Wenchuan County in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, brought the world’s attention on the plight of the indigenous peoples of the South and Central Asia for a brief moment. The Rakia of India, the Peripatetics of South Asia, the Bhil of central western India, the Tharu of Nepal, the Dom of Northern Pakistan, the peoples and cultures of the Kashmir Himalayas, the Hazara of Central Afghanistan, the Wakhi and Kirghiz of the Pamirian Knot, the Badakshani of Tajikistan, the Lezghi of the Caucasus mountain range, the people of Tibet, and the Minhe Mangghuer of China, are remain stubbornly amongst the poorest of the poor. They are rapidly disappearing not only from natural disasters, but also from processes associated with globalization and its sister processes of imperialism and capitalism.

Bangladesh is so culturally vast, that it is easy to lose sight of how many indigenous peoples inhabit the region. Approximately 2.5 million are Indigenous Peoples belonging to 45 different ethnic groups. But according to a study of Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights (BSEHR), 61.44 percent of indigenous people still face discrimination, 41.86 percent are victims of corruptions, and 18.67 percent evicted from their ancestors´ land. Around 1.2 million indigenous people of the country are yet to be recognized as special or indigenous communities constitutionally, they are deprived of enjoying their rights and facing discrimination.

For avoiding the path of armed conflict and finding a political solution to improve the condition of the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh, government set up a special ministry titled “Ministry of Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs” on July 15th, 1998 following a peace accord that was signed between National Committee on Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs and the Parbatya Chattagram Jana-Samhati Samiti on 2nd December 1997. Since the signing of the peace accord, there has been a catastrophic failure to implement the accord’s terms, and human rights violations have increased since Emergency Rule was declared in January last year.

Arrests and intimidation of activists, rape of indigenous women and other human rights abuses remain rife. Land continues to be stolen from the indigenous people by both the some of government agencies and by settlers. There is none to put an end to human rights violations in the region and to ensure that those responsible for these violations are brought to justice.

Today, we have to acknowledge the contributions, which indigenous peoples make to humanity through their rich civilizations. We have to vigilantly uphold the respect for their human rights. They should be integrated in the international development agenda, including the Millennium Development Goals, in policies, programmes, and country-level projects. We have to acknowledge their special stewardship on issues related to the environment and climate change. #

August 07, 2008, New York
Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York. He could reached at: