Indigenous Declaration Seeks to Enshrine Environmental Rights

WASHINGTON, DC, February 9, 2005 (ENS) - The right to environmental protection is at the core of negotiations this week as indigenous and governmental delegates from across the Western Hemisphere draft an "Inter-American Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples," in talks at the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington. Some of the tough issues in the current negotiations are lands, justice, sovereignty and self-determination.

Indigenous representatives at the conference say their peoples are caught in the struggle to maintain their traditional lands in the face of development and the imposition of conservation areas against their will.

Speaking on behalf of indigenous peoples, Jorge Fredick of Nicaragua said, "Indigenous peoples continue to be gravely threatened by the imposition of supposed development projects and the creation of conservation areas in indigenous territories, against their will, which constitute systematic genocide and ethnocide, causing loss of life, identity and the means to sustain our peoples."

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Jorge Fredick of Nicaragua addresses the Working Group to Prepare the Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on Monday. (Photo by Roberto Ribeiro courtesy OAS)
As a starting point, the conference is negotiating from a Draft Declaration prepared by the chair of the working group in 2003.

It specifically recognizes "the respect the indigenous peoples of the Americas have for the environment and ecology."

The document recognizes "the value of the cultures, knowledge, and practices of the indigenous peoples for maintaining sustainable development and for living in harmony with nature."

It also recognizes "the special relationship that the indigenous peoples maintain with their lands, territories, and resources, and takes note of the importance of "traditional collective forms of ownership and use of lands, territories, resources, waters, and coastal zones" as "necessary conditions" for the survival, social organization, development, spirituality, and individual and collective well-being of native people.

Indigenous peoples have the right to legal recognition of their forms of property, possession, and ownership of lands and territories, the draft declaration states. Governments shall establish the special regimes appropriate for such recognition, and for their effective demarcation or titling.

The draft declaration provides that governments "may not transfer or relocate indigenous peoples without their free, genuine, public, and informed consent, unless there are causes involving a national emergency or other exceptional circumstance of public interest that makes it necessary; and, in all cases, with the immediate replacement by adequate lands of equal or better quality and legal status, guaranteeing the right to return if the causes that gave rise to the displacement cease to exist."

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Two members of a tribe in Peru that chooses to live in isolation endure a meeting in an attempt to protect their tribe from unwanted contact with the outside world. (Photo courtesy Amazon Alliance)
Today, when it seems that no corner of the Earth is unexplored, the indigenous declaration seeks to protect the right of peoples in "voluntary isolation" to remain uncontacted.

Indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation have the right to remain in that condition and to live freely and in accordance with their ancestral traditions, the draft declaration says.

"The States shall adopt adequate measures to protect the territories, environment, and cultures of the indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation, as well as the personal integrity of their members. These measures shall include those necessary to prevent intrusion into their territories," the draft provides.

As a general principle, the draft Declaration declares, "The States shall guarantee the full enjoyment of the fundamental civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights and spirituality of the indigenous peoples, and shall adopt the legislative and other necessary measures to enforce the rights recognized in this Declaration."

U.S. Permanent Representative to the OAS John Maisto said the United States "strongly supports efforts to forge the draft declaration," and has been a major financial contributor to the OAS's specific fund that supports the negotiations.

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Dalia Herminia Yánez represents the indigenous peoples of Venezuela at the OAS talks. (Photo by Roberto Ribeiro courtesy OAS)
"The simple fact that this comprehensive, productive and cooperative dialogue is occurring between countries and indigenous peoples and populations from throughout the Western Hemisphere is a major milestone," he said.

Maisto acknowledged that the United States' history with indigenous people "involves great injustice against native peoples, as well as great contributions by native peoples."

He said governments have an obligation "to work effectively with indigenous populations toward reconciliation and honoring their freedoms and control over their own futures."

Maisto pointed out that on November 4, 2004, President George W. Bush signed an executive memorandum reaffirming his administration's adherence to a national policy of self-determination for Indian tribes - a policy that began under President Richard Nixon.

"The U.S. is proud of its longstanding commitment to tribal sovereignty [and] self-determination, and government-to-government relationships with federally recognized tribes," Maisto said.

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Painting of a Navaho child by Ray Swanson titled "Hosteen Yellow's Grandbaby," 1991. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)
"A policy of self-determination for American Indians is one of the most positive aspects of the U.S. experience, and may potentially serve as a model for better relations between other countries and indigenous peoples and populations."

The U.S. ambassador to the OAS expressed optimism that a consensus on a draft declaration will be reached during the current negotiations.

Discussions on the draft declaration began in 1996. In 1999, the OAS General Assembly mandated the creation of the declaration and a working group was established to this end. Formal negotiations began in October 2003.

President of the OAS Permanent Council, Ambassador Manuel María Cáceres of Paraguay, said he hoped talks this week - undertaken in a positive and conciliatory spirit - would lead to concrete progress on issues related to economic, social and property rights in the draft.

The meeting, which will continue through Friday, is presided over by the OAS Alternate Representative of Guatemala, Ambassador Juan Leon, who also chairs the working group of the Permanent Council charged with the elaboration of the draft Declaration.

In the opening session on Monday, Leon said that the objective of the declaration is a "search for the full realization of millions of human beings that they are not marginalized by political, economic, social, cultural, educational, and judicial development."

The growing strength of indigenous environmental rights was demonstrated January 20 when a landmark agreement was signed between six indigenous communities from Peru and the International Potato Center that recognized the rights of indigenous communities over locally-developed potato strains and associated traditional knowledge.

Using a new model that could provide the template for similar initiatives globally, the agreement is expected to attract attention at the third meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Working Group on access to genetic resources and benefit sharing, to be held in Bangkok next week.