From reservations to recognition

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THE FIRST World has just discovered the relationship between environment and indigenous people. This is the primary reason for putting indigenous people on the environmental agenda. They have realised that if the world's rainforests are in danger so are the forest's inhabitants. "If they go, so do the forests," says pop singer Sting, on behalf of the Rainforest Foundation. The year, 1993, has already been declared by the United Nations as the International Year of the Indigenous People of the World.

For over five centuries, indigenous people have been exploited, dispossessed of their fertile lands, wiped out by diseases brought by white settlers and killed. Their societies have been ravaged. They have been thoroughly marginalised, often succumbing to alcohol and drugs in a world that is far removed from that of their ancestors.

Before the Europeans arrived, there were some five to six million Amerindians in Brazil. Now, 500 years later, there are only 250,000. In North America and Australia, the decimation has been even more thorough. The indigenous people say, "Toxic contamination, hydroelectric projects, dams, deforestation, mining, militarisation and other environmental disasters have abrogated and eroded our cultural and traditional lifestyles." Just before UNCED, the indigenous people of Costa Rica even accused the secretary general of UNCED, Canadian millionaire Maurice Strong, of constructing an expensive tourist resort on their land.

According to Tony Marcury, leader of Canada's Atabana nation, the main problem indigenous people are facing is racial discrimination worldwide, including at the UN. He says, "There are four racial groups in the world -- white, black, yellow and red. But only the first three are represented in the UN."

"We are the real guardians of the earth. How come we do not have a voice at the Earth Summit?" he asks. Several indigenous leaders from the Indian Council of South America, Assembly of First Nations of Canada, Confederation of Amazonian Nations, National Federation of Indigenous Territories and Councils of Australia and the Maori Council of New Zealand raised a rainbow-coloured flag at Riocentro to mark their presence there. They said they wanted an opportunity to sit in the UN and share the secrets of nature which they have.

A sympathiser, French oceanographer Jean Jacques Cousteau, said, "They only want to say that they exist and that we are all human beings." Recognition of their official status in the UN as First Nations will, they feel, guarantee their "real and equal participation in the decision-making process on all issues having a direct or indirect impact on our peoples and territories".

Some 1,000 indigenous people met at Kari-oca village, in the mountains near Rio for a week-long world conference of indigenous peoples on territory, environment and development prior to UNCED. The elders and representatives of the First People on Earth gathered there to create a consensus plan of action for a sustainable and desirable life on earth. They produced the declaration of Kari-oca which represented the views of approximately 500 million indigenous peoples of the world, to be presented to the UN at Riocentro.

During UNCED, over a fortnight, the indigenous people from around the world met with others at the Indio '92 tent in the Global Forum. Here, they listened to their elders, participated in traditional ceremonies and discussed varying themes from indigenous knowledge to the impact of modern education.

Some leaders denounced the tendency to treat indigenous people as oddities to be preserved for future generations. Said chief Jurano, who had shocked northern environmentalists by trying to sell a leopard skin at the Global Forum, "To the First World, we are like the cinema, like clowns, a fantasy." He was far from optimistic about the Earth Summit. "This meeting wouldn't do any good. It's just a carnival and we're the clowns. But the people who treat us like this do not have the spirit of the light."

The Indians also pointed out that there is a great deal of heterogeneity amongst them. Some have integrated into mainstream Brazilian society, and maintain relations with non-Indians, but there are others who live in a half-way state. In northeastern Brazil, there are as many as 20,000 Indians who live in deplorable conditions. Many no longer speak their original languages and are undergoing a process of disintegration, says the Rio-born daughter of Potiguara Indians of Paraiba state, Elaine Potiguara. She says, "These are Indians who are doubly discriminated against. Those who are feathered and beaded receive more attention than those who are less colourful."

Until recently, Brazilian Indians had no civic rights and, in legal terms, their situation was similar to that of a minor, they were wards of the state because they were considered incapable of making decisions independently. The situation changed with the country's new Constitution, but a specific law on Amerindians still has to be drawn up in the Parliament in Brazil. Marcus Terena, a leader of the indigenous people of Brazil, says emphatically, "We don't want to be considered a plaything. Can you not treat us as people? We have blood, we have a heart, we have courage. Whereas you, in spite of your technology, you are losing your spirituality."

Like women and youth, indigenous people have been recognised in Agenda 21 as a special group whose rights and interests must be protected. But development priorities attached are often different from those of the indigenous people themselves. Terena says that, after a week's deliberations, the elders of the tribe said that development is spirituality. "Over the years, humans have lost their sacred relationship with the earth and this is what we have to regain."

He went on to say, "You have technology, but you do not open your hand to share it because technology represents strength and power. But with this technology, you have destroyed the water, the earth and you are realising now that the air is also being infected. We also have our technologies and we have to find a way of joining the two together."

Victor Kaisiero of West Papua, representing the West Papua People's Front, said, "We do not reject all development outright. All that we are asking is that we must be consulted by our governments on development plans for our land."

Major, long-drawn struggles across the world revolve primarily around gaining control over lands which have been ruthlessly ravaged by outsiders (See box). Regaining ownership of their land is the main demand of the 240,000 Amerindians of Brazil. Caiapo chief Raoni says, "Our priorities are land demarcation, health and the forests." Brazilian President Fernando Collor's order to demarcate these lands drew a wave of criticism from business, political and military sectors in the Amazon region. "It's a lot of land for a few Indians," they said.

Agenda 21 is suitably vague and heavily qualified where the control over land is concerned. It says, "Some indigenous people and their communities may require, in accordance with national legislation, greater control over their lands, self-management of their resources, participation in development decisions affecting them, including, where appropriate, participation in the establishment or management of protected areas."

The Amerindians are especially perturbed about the destruction of their forests. Davi Ianomami, leader of a Brazilian tribe, says, "I descend from the first Indians who lived in these lands. The Ianomamis want to live in peace, not to fight. We can think, we can make ourselves clear. The rich people are killing the forest and the Ianomami are suffering, crying. We need new laws. Your laws are worthless."

But UNCED at least helped to focus world attention on their plight. As Potiguara put it, "Though UNCED will not solve our problems, it is important for us to attend both the official conferences as well as those of the indigenous leaders because these are privileged fora to express our demands".

May there be many more UNCEDs for the first nations of the world.