Jul 30, 2001

The UN Working Group of Indigenous Peoples and the Special Theme of Development

I would like to start with a quote used back home "We no can eat golf balls" and to add to that, "We can't eat bombs either".Ms. Kuuleinani Maunupan (Ka Lahui, Hawaii)

The special theme on development drew many spirited interventions from Indigenous Peoples present. One of the main problems raised was that much of development was carried out on the land of Indigenous Peoples and using their resources, without their prior consent and without them receiving any tangible benefits from development.

The right to development is guaranteed to Indigenous Peoples based on the UN General Assembly resolution 41/128 of 4 December 1986, on the Declaration on the Right to Development that was used as much of the basis for discussion. Article 1 of the Declaration states:

1. The right to development is an inalienable human right by virtue of which every human person and all people are entitled to participate in, contribute to, and enjoy economic, social, cultural and political development, in which all human rights are fundamental freedoms, can be fully realized.

2. The human right to development also implies the full realization of the right of peoples' self-determination, which includes, subject to relevant provisions of both International Covenants on Human Rights, the exercise of their inalienable right to full sovereignty over all their natural wealth and resources.

While the Declaration allows for the participation in development it has often been abused as a way to exploit the natural resources of Indigenous Peoples in ways that often threaten rather than enhance their survival - an ongoing problem facing Indigenous Peoples. "In January 1990", Ted Moses, Grand Chief of the Crees reminded "I appeared here in Geneva as an expert with regard to the Global Consultation in the Realization of the Right to Development as a Human Right. At that time I said:

I am not against development, but would like you to know that indigenous people know development primarily as victims of development. Our history, particularly the history of indigenous peoples in the Western Hemisphere since Columbus, is characterized by the extermination of indigenous peoples as a direct result of development...Indigenous human rights, the right to life, the right to our own means of subsistence, have historically been denied to us because of development in our lands; forced development that ignored our needs, our economies, our very existence. That is the history of indigenous peoples in the Americas. But it is also contemporary history - it is still going on.

According to many participants, the impact of globalisation and the actions of trans-national corporations (TNCs) have tended to further exacerbate this trend and it was noted that these mostly acted in their own solely profit-motivated interests. Concrete examples of human rights abuses and displacement of indigenous peoples to make way for development programs from which they did not benefit were given from all around the globe. These were often government-facilitated projects and in several instances were enforced by police or locally hired paramilitaries. The Statement of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus contained the following reference to TNCs:

The history of corporate "development" in indigenous lands has mostly been of expropriation, destruction and abuse; thus building a legacy of mistrust towards corporations. Acknowledgement of this history and acceptance of responsibility for past actions is a first step towards the recognition and respect for indigenous peoples rights by corporations and investors. Corporations are increasingly prepared to endorse voluntary codes of conduct, which are too general to be monitored and lack sanctions. But these same companies have campaigned and worked tirelessly to weaken laws and liberalize regulations protecting indigenous rights and too often avoid their responsibility in actual projects.

The experts of the UN Working Group noted that new vocabulary was being used to describe the negative influence of "development" on Indigenous Peoples. Justice Guiss‚ remarked that the situation of many Indigenous Peoples was now being described as "extreme poverty". This is worse than "absolute poverty", which means one person only has one meal every 24 hours. He continued: "We know colonialism and other forms of domination jeopardized the existence of Indigenous Peoples. They were uprooted from their natural environment. We know that the right to environment is a whole series of relations with the land. Once the industrial settlements force them to leave their land, it forces them to become poor and takes them away from what nature gives them. Then we cannot talk about development but only about their poverty." Justice Motoc described development where the rights (particularly the right to land and natural resources) of Indigenous Peoples have been denied as "aggressive development". She called on states to oversee the implementation of equitable development.

Prof Yokota noted that Indigenous Peoples have different notions and priorities of development and that these should not be over-ride by other interests. He suggested the assessment of development should be based on "human development" rather than merely "economic development". He said that the UNDP produces a report that also takes into account the aspect of human development. "Unfortunately," he continued, "these figures are given on a country basis and are provided by governments. I suggest the UNDP explore the possibilities of having a human development index for identifiable Indigenous Peoples so we can compare them with national averages." He further suggested: "We have been focusing so much in their participation on development affecting them. It think we have to consider Indigenous Peoples' effective participation in a national program of development; not just those directly affecting them."

Mr. Tim Coulter of the Indian Law Resource Center pointed to the fact that the issue of sovereignty over land and natural resources, and the competing interests of states are still the center of conflict regarding development. He reviewed Indigenous Peoples right to sovereignty under international law and emphasised that Indigenous Peoples are colonized peoples in the economic, political, and historic senses:

Lands and resources are the very centre of the historic conflict between indigenous peoples and the colonizing peoples that have now become states. These resources were and still are the supreme objects of desire, greed, politics and warfare. Lands and resources are literally the reason why there is such a thing as "indigenous peoples,"; peoples surrounded by a dominant settler population. For this reason, it is on this issue of lands and resources that we see the most intense injustice, the starkest racism, and the harshest assertions of state power. The stakes are very high: substantial resources of great value, the preservation of the environments where indigenous peoples live, and the future survival of indigenous peoples. It should be no surprise that special measures will be necessary to encourage and promote respect for indigenous resources - literally, to promote the decolonization of indigenous peoples.

Madam Deas, in her retirement speech, noted the progress made by the Working Group in promoting and recognising this right:

Some years ago, there was still a debate over whether indigenous peoples possess any distinct collective rights. One of our primary tasks in the Working Group was to develop a consensus that indigenous peoples do, indeed, exist as distinct peoples with specific rights to their collective existence and identity. We have achieved this, on the whole. The Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples 1989 (Number 169), and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (as interpreted by the relevant treaty body), recognize the collective rights of indigenous peoples to govern themselves and their ancestral lands and resources. The remaining legal arguments concern the nature and scope- but not, I would venture to state, the existence- of indigenous people's right to self- determination.

Ted Moses' intervention struck a chord with many indigenous people when he stated that the right to development should also mean the right to say no to "development". "As far as my people are concerned," he said "the debate regarding our right as indigenous peoples to control development on our lands is concluded. Those days are over; we are the owners of the land and its resources. We will control development on our lands. And we will consider and judge any denial of our right to development to be ill-founded and defective in law. We will act accordingly."