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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 December 2004, 11:22 GMT
Mixed views on UN indigenous decade
By Sarah Shenker and Elinor Shields
BBC News

Yanomami girls, Demini, Brazil. Copyright: Survival International
Indigenous groups face their own very particular problems

After 10 years of hard work, the UN's decade for indigenous people ended this month without a bang.

In 1994, hopes were high that the agency could fight their cause and secure a declaration on the rights of indigenous people, to stand alongside the universal declaration on human rights.

But the declaration lies unsigned, and the UN's own test - a measurable improvement in the lives of some 250m indigenous people in around 70 countries - seems unlikely to have been met.

Many indigenous campaigners say they are frustrated at the failure of diplomatic moves to improve life for some of the world's most disadvantaged people.

But most have welcomed stronger links between their indigenous groups and interested organisations, and a sense of growing political power.

"It is important to recognise the realities," says the UN human rights co-ordinator for indigenous affairs, Julian Burger.

"Indigenous peoples are the third-class citizens of the second-class citizens in virtually every country they live in.

"But they are not sitting around waiting for doomsday."

'Indian power'

Ten years on, Indian groups in South America play an important part in the political life of their respective countries.

Asmat woman and child, Beriten village, Papua, Indonesia. Copyright: Jeanne Herbert
People need to realise that there are different ways of living and these people shouldn't be seen as backwards
Stephen Corry
Survival International

Protests by Indian groups last year ousted former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada. Earlier this year an indigenous political party took part in efforts to impeach Ecuador's President Lucio Gutierrez.

"Since 2000, we have seen an enormous, continual uprising of indigenous people, with a strong element of Indian nationalism," a university professor in Bolivia, Alvaro Garcia Linera, told the Los Angeles Times. "In many places, the institutions of the Republic of Bolivia have begun to fade away."

And indigenous politicians have been rising to the fore. Since 2001, Peru has had its first president of indigenous descent in Andean Indian Alejandro Toledo.

Bolivian left-wing opposition leader Evo Morales, a native Aymara who played a key role in the 2003 protests, also harbours presidential ambitions.

Poverty and prejudice

Despite this progress, indigenous people as a group are still among the most marginalised and dispossessed sectors of society, says Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the UN's representative for human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people - a post created during the decade.

Their land has been taken away, their sustainable use of land dismissed, and their cultures have been denigrated, he says.

"People need to realise that there are different ways of living and these people shouldn't be seen as backwards," says Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, a charity that campaigns for tribal people.

Innu man and boy. Copyright: Survival International
Traditional ways of life are under threat

Many observers believe land rights lie at the heart of the problem.

"The reason they are poor is because they have been displaced from their land and resources, and disenfranchised," says Navin Rai, a World Bank co-ordinator for indigenous peoples.

For societies that survive on hunting, gathering and fishing, the loss of legal rights over land they may have lived on for centuries is particularly hard.

"There is a sense of hopelessness about the ability to control our own destiny that leads to social ills so common in indigenous communities, such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence," says Dalee Sambo Dorough, a human rights adviser for the Inuit Circumpolar Conference (ICC), which represents Inuit people in the US, Canada, Greenland and Russia.

And the loss of land can affect living conditions, Mr Stavenhagen says. Many people must migrate for jobs, mostly from rural areas to the margins of cities and shanty towns.

"They get disconnected from their communities and the environment and many eventually get completely detached from their own indigenous identity," says Jannie Lasimbang, General Secretary of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) Foundation, in Chiang Mai, Thailand.


Many see the UN draft declaration as a potential solution.

"The declaration remains very important in establishing more clearly the standards according to which communities should be treated, and in affirming the distinct status of indigenous peoples in the countries in which they live," says Tom Calma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner from Australia's human rights commission.

We need to sign the draft, and for governments to implement the legislation
Rodolfo Stavenhagen
United Nations rapporteur

But there has been a stiff diplomatic resistance to the idea indigenous groups have collective rights as distinct peoples - a main sticking point on the draft declaration.

Hope remains that a second UN decade will be declared, which could help to ensure the draft remains high on the UN's agenda.

"It's an uphill struggle," admits Mr Stavenhagen. "We need to sign the draft, and for governments to implement the legislation. Then indigenous people can become empowered."

In pictures: Indigenous lives
22 Dec 04 |  In Pictures
New forces dominate Bolivia poll
06 Dec 04 |  Americas
Drive to impeach Ecuador leader
05 Nov 04 |  Americas
Profile: Evo Morales
18 Oct 03 |  Americas

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