Apr 27, 2015

UNPO Conference Draws Attention to Indigenous Struggles and Visions of Self-Empowerment: Invisible or Invisibilized? Voiceless or Deliberately Not Heard?

On 22 April 2015, UNPO with the kind support of the Nando Peretti Foundation, convened the conference "Indigenous Peoples – Invisible Peoples", hosted by Francisco Assis MEP (S&D) at the European Parliament in Brussels.

On the occasion of world Earth Day, the conference offered glimpses into the lives and stories of the Haratin in Mauritania, Batwa in Rwanda, Mapuche in Chile, Awá in Brazil and Degar-Montagnards in Vietnam. Expert speakers and indigenous representatives discussed indigenous methods of resistance and dreams about their futures with the aim of highlighting some of the possible measures that can be adopted to address these challenges

MEP Francisco Assis opened the conference by reflecting on his duties, as a politician toward the voiceless and vulnerable, arguing that "one of the noblest functions of politics is to rescue others from invisibility". Mr Assis also shed light on the devastating consequences of exploitation of natural resources and more generally of economic activity on indigenous peoples. He ended his speech by expressing his commitment to the cause and his hope for greater respect of indigenous rights, although he conceded that "we still have a long way to go".

UNPO Program Coordinator, Ms Iva Petkovic introduced the audience to the concept of indigeneity, outlining how indigenous cultures, economies and philosophies coexist in harmony with the natural world. Ms Petkovic also opened the discussions by exploring some of the human rights violations endured by indigenous peoples, such as expropriation and exploitation of ancestral lands, poverty, cultural assimilation, discrimination, marginalization from political and economic power, as well as a lack of respect and protection for traditional knowledge systems and collective intellectual property.  

Photojournalist Luca Catalano Gonzaga shared his experiences and perspectives after living with the indigenous groups and capturing their stories through his camera lens, detailing the outcome of his collaboration with UNPO on the “Invisible Peoples” project.

Ms Janete Capiberibe, Brazilian Member of Parliament delivered a video statement in which she provided insight on the situation of native Indians in Brazil and their collective struggle to raise awareness at the National Congress of Brazil in the month of April 2015, including staging a sit-in demonstration in front of the Brazilian National Congress to call for demarcation of indigenous lands. She seized this opportunity to denounce the persecution of Brazil’s indigenous peoples by the Government and expressed dismay regarding the widespread “invasions of demarcated lands, threats, physical violence, and the killing of indigenous leaders, as well as intense campaigns to denigrate native Indians”. According to her, urgent political reform is needed to “change the influence of money in elections”, since the Congresses is largely anti-indigenous. She also proposed a constitutional amendment, which would require quotas on seats reserved for indigenous representatives. For the European Union, she suggested a boycott on the consumption of products obtained through the exploitation of indigenous peoples and conservation units.

Watch the video statement of Brazilian Member of Parliament Ms Janete Capiberibe here: 

Mr Adrianus Koetsenruijter, Head of the South America Division of the European External Action Service (EEAS), talked about the European Union’s work in the field of indigenous rights. He emphasized the obstacles and challenges faced by the institution and advocated for more dialogue between indigenous peoples and national Governments in order to build productive relationships, enabling different cultures to coexist. He then focused on the competences and opportunities the European Union has at its disposal, including the capacity to put pressure on States to trigger more ambitious initiatives and mutually beneficial creative solutions toward indigenous peoples. According to Mr Koetsenruijter, the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals and the upcoming 2015 Climate Convention represent great opportunities for international actors to incorporate indigenous peoples in global debates.

The President of Associazione Il Cerchio, Mr David Monticelli, provided an account of the situation of the Mapuche indigenous group, describing it as: "the Mapuche are like mice stuck in a room with a cat [the Chilean Government]". He broadcast the video clip of a rap song written by a Mapuche poet entitled "Lo Que No Voy A Decir”. This powerful song denounces the violent repression the Mapuche face on their territories.

Ms Alina Rodenkirchen, Mapuche Coordinator for the Society for Threatened Peoples and the German Mapuche Network, further spoke about the Mapuche and more particularly about their defense of their linguistic rights. She provided the audience with a personal testimony of learning Mapudungun as an adult at a residential school. She described her experience in the following words: "We got closer to our roots, to our identity, learned more about ourselves, about how to take care of the perpetuation of our language." According to her, one of the duties of the Chilean State is to recognize the Mapuche indigenous peoples and Mapudungun as the second official language in the country. She emphasized the complete absence of support by the Chilean Government to local communities.

"We are not invisible, we are invisiblised", she concluded.

Watch the speech of Mapuche Coordinator Ms Alina Rodenkirchen here: 

PhD Candidate Ms Dorothée Cambou, from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, delivered a speech focusing on the intricate relationship between indigenous peoples in the Arctic and the environment. She explained how climate change and industrialisation do not only impact surrounding ecosystems, but also indigenous peoples and their ways of life. She concluded by saying that the European Parliament can, and must, influence decision-making processes in order to ensure indigenous peoples’ survival and self-determination.

Mr Abidine Merzough, President of the European Section of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), began by introducing the audience to the case of the Haratin in Mauritania – the largest and most persecuted community in the country. He described the challenges faced by the Haratin – mainly slavery – and discussed how and why the Mauritanian Government silences Haratin voices.

Professor Koenraad Stroeken, from the University of Ghent, took the floor to talk about the diverging ways of life between the ‘Western world’ and indigenous peoples. According to him, cultural mediation is vital in order to learn from one another in the process of building indigenous representation on the international stage, so that one side does not get a “smaller share of the pie". He then gave to floor to a researcher, Mr Nick Rahier, who argued that “if we want to represent the Other [indigenous peoples] we have to take into account two things: first thing is giving them a voice, and hearing the voice; and the second thing is understanding that voice.” Mr Rahier has been conducting field-work on the economic functioning of Batwa in Burundi. He emphasized the importance of understanding the Batwa’s cultural base before understanding how they relate, in their own and unique way, to the economy.

Mr Rafael Railaf, from the Mapuche Netherlands Network, described the numerous difficulties faced by the Mapuche communities in Chile, among which he described land grabbing, discrimination, violence and the disappearance of their culture. He put special emphasis on the issue of language, advocating for the teaching of Mapudungun in schools. He shared with the audience his own personal story. He was born in a Mapuche community in southern Chile and has not been able to receive education in Mapudungun due to fears of rejection and discrimination. He concluded by giving recommendations to the Chilean Government about how to resolve the inter-cultural relations in the country, among which he emphasized the need to allow the Mapuche community to have a say in deciding the use, control and sale of ancestral lands and natural resources.

The conference came to a close with a speech by Dr Susan Kerr from Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), who shared CSW’s experience working with Degar-Montagnards communities in Vietnam. CSW interviewed members of these communities and reported a stark contrast between the treatment received by Christians and non-Christians. Dr Kerr said that in cities, the Government does provide Christian minorities with access to public services, because of the pressure of the international community, but that this has not been the case in rural areas. CSW’s 2015 Report outlines violations against other religious groups as well, and reports cases of imprisonment, torture and enforced disappearances among the Degar-Montagnard communities. She concluded that the European Union has the responsibility to continue to monitor the violations of the right to freedom of religion and belief taking place in Vietnam, encouraging the Government of Vietnam to seriously and constructively address the claims of Protestant Christians of human rights violations.

The conference explored the various difficulties faced by indigenous peoples worldwide, evaluating how the European Union, national Governments and international institutions could strengthen the protection of indigenous rights by ceasing the rapid and rampant exploitation of natural resources, creating spaces of tolerance, respect and dignity for indigenous collective identities, cultures and languages, as well as listening to indigenous voices, since any action being taken to improve indigenous peoples’ social and economic development must originate from their own definitions of well-being and their own visions of how to achieve it. Conference speakers agreed that far more needs to be done to recognize indigenous peoples as equal partners in national and international deliberations on issues, which affect them, their lands and resources, so that their unique interests can be represented and concerns defended.


Here you can find the conference hand-out.


Photos, video clips and conference report (including all transcripts) of the conference will be available soon.