Indigenous Activists Tell Cultural Survival What The Decade Meant To Them
Ellen Lutz interviewed Pen John, of the Nele Tribe of Mare, New Caledonia, during July’s session of the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous Populations.
Who makes up the population of New Caledonia?
Most people think the era of colonies is over, but New Caledonia is still a colony of France. There are about 200,000 people living on the islands. Forty-five percent are ethnic Kanak indigenous people; the rest are French, Polynesian, or Indonesian. Since 1950, France has made every effort to ensure that Kanaks are a minority of the total population.
What has the International Decade meant for you and your people?
The Decade has created an opportunity for indigenous people to have a voice—a small voice—but nonetheless a voice. We now get funds to come to meetings like this at the United Nations. But at the same time we have problems similar to those of a decade ago. France is a member of the United Nations, and our situation as Native peoples of a French colony has not changed.
For us, the main problem is nickel. France does not have natural resources like nickel at home. It therefore depends on its colonies for the wealth that results in mining in its colonies [see CSQ 28:1]. Extraction of nickel not only harms our environment, but because France controls us, the benefits go back to France, not to us. If I had my way, France would leave New Caledonia and repair the harm it has caused. I see our problem as parallel to that of the Palestinians vis a vis Israel, except that we don’t get the attention of the Secretary-General or other world figures because we are too small and too remote. To give you an idea of how remote we are, it took me a full three days to travel from New Caledonia to Geneva.
What issues do you think should be raised if the United Nations decides to name a second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People?
I think it would be important to address the unique concerns of island indigenous peoples, especially small, remote islands like ours. I also think it is time to focus more on the duties of states and less on the rights of indigenous peoples. I see indigenous rights as the tip of an iceberg. Everybody focuses on the tip because that is what they see, but the important part, the duty of states to ensure that those rights are fulfilled, is not seen and therefore not addressed. Our cultural rights are important, but duties are the most important.
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