Opinion: Indigenous peoples fight for rights

NEW YORK — A grandmother of seven, Colleen Swan, along with 400 members of her Eskimo community are preparing to leave their homes on the 8-mile barrier reef off the coast of the Chukchi Sea in Alaska.

The sea ice that once protected the Kivalina village melts quickly because of rising temperatures which also cause storms, flooding and changes in the migratory patterns of the animals needed for subsistence hunting.

“We’re angry, we shouldn't have to live like this,” said Swan, when reached by phone in Alaska. “Our impact on the environment is minimal but we live with the reality of climate change.”

The first U.N. report on indigenous peoples described the Arctic as the “barometer” for climate change, and the indigenous peoples who live there as the “mercury in that barometer.”

But climate change isn't the only hazard described in the report entitled "State of the Worlds Indigenous Peoples," out this year. Its researchers find indigenous peoples trapped between the bottom rungs of all the main human development indexes like poverty, heath and education across 90 countries.

The indigenous leaders view this as a historic document as it is solely the work of prominent doctors, academics, scientists and lawyers from their communities.

“This is the first time people are not writing about us. We are writing about the current situation that we are living in different parts of the world,” said Myrna Cunningham, an activist and surgeon from the Miskitu Indian tribe of Nicaragua who contributed the chapter on health.

The startling revelation of the study is that while indigenous peoples make up around 370 million (5 percent) of the world’s population, they constitute around one-third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people.

“This is really a very damning statistic because we live in the richest parts,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, of the Igorot peoples in the Philippines and head of the U.N. forum on indigenous peoples.

“We are not poor. We are impoverished because our access to our lands and our territories and resources have been curtailed very drastically by states and corporations,” she continued.

The report is riddled with alarming statistics including: in Australia and Nepal, an indigenous child can expect to die 20 years earlier than a non-native, and 90 percent of the 4,000 languages spoken by indigenous peoples will be extinct or close to extinction by the end of the century.

The authors of the report expect it to have a far-reaching impact on future policy because never before has the indigenous community been able to present “disaggregated data” to expose their conditions as distinct from national populations.

On the health front, for instance, it highlighted indigenous women as disproportionately suffering from violence. “Indigenous women are the most raped women in America but our tribes cannot prosecute the perpetrators,” said Charon Asetoyer, an activist of the Comanche tribe, working in South Dakota.

The 1978 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Oliphant v. Suquamish bans tribal courts from prosecuting non-Indian U.S. citizens but according to the Justice Department, one in three indigenous women are raped and 86 percent of the perpetrators are non-indigenous men.

Presently, the only international protection available to indigenous peoples is a non-legally binding U.N. declaration on their human rights, passed in 2007. The next big push will be getting countries to actually implement its provisions.

“There are a couple of decades of work that need to be done by governments but these rights act as a reminder to them,” said Tom Goldtooth, a leading indigenous environmentalist in Mississippi.

Bolivia is working the declaration into its national law but countries like United States, Canada and New Zealand have not signed on, expressing reservations about its implications on land rights and claims of self determination.

The most immediate danger, experts warn, is the danger of extinction faced by the “indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation.” In the past, limited contact with outsiders has led to outbreaks of whooping cough, small pox and influenza.

While governments continue to deny their existence, the report describes these “uncontacted tribes” as being on the brink of “genocide” due to oil production, timber extraction, drug trafficking and tourism in the Amazonian rainforests.

Plagued by epidemics, the Matsiguenka people living in the south of Peruvian Amazon, had to break their isolation to find help, according Beatriz Huertas, an anthropologist based in Lima who has been working on the problem for two decades.

While recognizing these groups to be in imminent dangers of extinction, the U.N. has failed to provide them with any real protection.

“This agency has not adopted an effective mechanism needed to guarantee the physical and cultural integrity of the most vulnerable,” said Huertas.

Despite the gloomy report on their overall condition, the indigenous leaders are asserting their international voice. One small victory came in December at the climate change talks in Copenhagen where they succeeded in getting the U.N. declaration incorporated into the text on preventing deforestation.

This was the first time that any multilateral environmental agreement had made a reference to the indigenous declaration. “We had a very difficult time to get this because several governments like the U.S. did not like it,” said Tauli-Corpuz.

The deforestation text, however, will only be finalized at the next climate meeting in Mexico. Goldtooth said, “the language is still not strong enough but we’re staying positive.”