It Is Time Governments Recognize Indigenous Peoples’ Contributions

The following is an excerpt of Indigenous Rights Radio interviews conducted with Indigenous leaders about their reflections on the accomplishments and challenges of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz (Igorot), UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In terms of legal frameworks, after the adoption of the Declaration in 2007, a few governments have adopted national laws that are reflected in the Declaration. There are a few countries in Latin America that have done that, in Africa as well. But it is not enough to adopt a legal framework. What is more important is how this framework should recognize the legal rights of Indigenous Peoples is really being implemented on the ground.

In many countries, lands that Indigenous people traditionally own, a lot of these are being expropriated for other economic activities—mining, establishing huge mono-agricultural plantations, or conservation areas. There is still a continuing situation where rights to lands and territories are not respected, and the right to self-determination is not respected. Criminalization is now a big issue because many Indigenous people who are resisting displacement from their lands are criminalized with trumped up charges filed against them and are spending a lot of time defending themselves in court instead of strengthening movements or their own communities.

New Zealand, Australia, the U.S., and Canada were the four countries that did not vote for the Declaration during its adoption. At that time I was the chair of the Permanent Forum; finally we got them to say that they are adopting it in 2009 and that they are endorsing the Declaration. To a certain extent that kind of recognition and adherence to international standard is a good thing, because those four countries who didn’t vote for it came into the group. In some of these countries, like Australia, even before the Declaration there have been some laws that recognize some aspects of the lands of Indigenous people. In Australia, they have the Native Title Act, which gives Aboriginal Australians the possibility to claim their lands. In the U.S., reservations were established where they put Indigenous Peoples. 

The more significant development is the strengthening of Indigenous People’s movements, which has been supported by this process of having an international standard that regulates their rights. And because of these movements they were able to increase their capacities to claim their lands and their resources and to get the government to put resources to revitalizing Indigenous languages, putting Indigenous status centers in universities. There is much more intellectual ferment related to Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples are taking their destinies into their own hands and they are strengthening their own communities, rights effectively implemented. One example is the Philippines; in my country, even before the Declaration was adopted we had already lobbied the government and they adopted the Indigenous Peoples’ Rights Act, which allows for the titling of ancestral lands and domains. Since the adoption of the Declaration there has been an increase in the lands being given back to Indigenous Peoples and we have titles to these lands.

There needs to be a serious effort to address the key obstacles to the weak implementation of the UN Declaration. One of the obstacles is that the rights of Indigenous Peoples are always at the lowest level of hierarchy of laws. The laws that are most effective support the rights of investors and corporations. The rights of Indigenous people should be consulted whenever projects or measures affect them directly, and their consent should be obtained when such activities are being done in their communities. That needs to be dealt with in most countries. What is happening is still the same thing where the government decides that this is their priority for national development, to extract minerals, to cut the forest, to develop the lands of Indigenous Peoples to become plantations; these are the priorities of the government and they never ask Indigenous Peoples for their views or their participation whenever such decisions are made. The consultation, the dialogue, the Free, Prior and Informed Consent, and their effective participation in decision making should really be in their hands.

Secondly, the historical injustices that have been happening to Indigenous Peoples should be redressed. In my role as the rapporteur, I have seen a lot of favorable decisions by courts that are favorable to Indigenous people, but these are not effectively enforced. As a start, can all these governments where such cases have won, can they enforce and implement those favorable decisions so that the ones who have filed those cases can finally have justice?

Thirdly, it is about time that the governments recognize the contributions of Indigenous Peoples in making this world a safer and more sustainable place. Data shows that forests and ecosystems that are better kept are found in Indigenous territories, which means that the Indigenous Peoples have been practicing sustainable practices for environmental management and development. Therefore, they should be involved in making decisions and practicing these traditional systems, and they should be rewarded for it.

Photo by Broddi Sigurdarson.

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