Indigenous Congress Demands Teeth for UN Declaration


LA PAZ, Oct 12 (IPS) – Indigenous leaders are holding a regional congress in Bolivia to discuss strategies to oblige governments to take on board as state policy the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 13.

The U.N. declaration, achieved after a 20-year struggle, recognises the right of the world’s 370 million indigenous people to autonomy, self-determination and control of their territory and resources for their own benefit.

However, as a mere declaration, it lacks the legally binding nature of U.N. conventions, which form part of the framework of international law. This is the goal that the leaders of native peoples are now pursuing.

Representatives from several countries began a three-day meeting on Wednesday, called the Encounter for World Indigenous People’s Historic Victory. Guatemalan indigenous activist Rigoberta Menchú, winner of the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize, was one of the participants.

The congress, Menchú said, is a way of demonstrating support for the work of Bolivia’s leftwing indigenous President Evo Morales, who convened a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution with the aim of achieving recognition of indigenous peoples’ cultural values, customs and right to land and self-determination.

The cities of La Paz and Tiwanaku, in the country’s Andean region, and Chimoré in central Bolivia, were the sites selected for this week’s multicultural congress which is being attended by representatives of the Aymara and Quechua people of Bolivia and ethnic groups from Central and South America.

Sixty percent of Bolivia‘s 9.6 million people belong to 36 different indigenous groups, and a further 25 to 30 percent are “mestizo” (of mixed indigenous and European ancestry). The country is currently experiencing heated debate over the demands by indigenous people for autonomy and governments and territories of their own.

The U.N. declaration is a major boost to President Morales’ plans to “re-found” the country and grant the indigenous majority rights that have been denied to them since Bolivia became an independent country in 1825.

Morales could become the leader of an international movement for the effective implementation of the principles set out in the declaration, Menchú told IPS.

“The declaration is an extraordinary beginning, but now we must continue the struggle for an actual international convention on the rights of indigenous peoples,” she said.

In a speech to the congress, Menchú praised the changes being brought about in Bolivia, and emphasised the significance of Morales as the country’s first and only indigenous president.

She also said that her being in Bolivia was a gesture of support for Morales’ candidacy to the Nobel Peace Prize, and said she hoped that he would become the second indigenous person to be awarded the distinction.

In fact the prizewinners, announced in Oslo on Friday, are former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for their efforts to spread awareness of man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for corrective measures.

Morales charged indigenous peoples with the task of leading a new struggle for the defence of the environment, and vigorously criticised rich nations, whom he blamed for global warming. “Unless we change capitalism, we are doomed to finish off the planet. We must change, and wake up to new ways of living,” he said.

The Bolivian leader said that to save humanity, imperialism must be fought, and water, energy, land and natural resources should be preserved in the hands of the state, and not privatised.

Native peoples in the United States, who make up 2.5 percent of the population, hope to incorporate their rights in the country’s legislation, LaDonna Harris, head of the organisation Americans for Indian Opportunity, told IPS.

But they will wait for a new government, as presidential elections are due in 2008, before they begin lobbying to that end, she said.

Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States refused to sign the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but Harris, a Comanche, still believes that battling for the preservation of the identity and culture of the 550 tribes living in the U.S. is worthwhile, and that their cause can prevail.

Nieves Mamani, an Aymara woman who lives in Pacajes, in the highlands of the province of La Paz, said that she hopes the Bolivian constituent assembly will recognise the U.N. declaration on indigenous rights, but added that her main aspiration is for women in her communities to be more highly valued.

“In rural areas, women are longsuffering and marginalised. Women must start out on a new path and march at the head of the column,” she told IPS, speaking in Aymara.

In Guatemala, the indigenous majority are subjugated by powerful companies that exploit mining deposits and natural wealth at the expense of people who live in poverty, Candelaria Hernández, the representative of Organización Ceiba, told IPS.

The U.N. declaration must bring about better living conditions for the people, Delfín Tenesaca from Ecuador, the head of the Chimborazo Indigenous Confederation, told IPS. Irrational policies based on the exploitation of natural resources by foreign companies must be put aside, injustice and corruption must be uprooted, and a plurinational state must be created, he said.

An economy based on solidarity, that respects the capabilities and autonomy of indigenous peoples, without hunger and without violence, will ensure better days, Tenesaca said.

In Mexico, the U.N. declaration has opened doors for discussion and the possibility of incorporating indigenous people’s rights in state legislation, Franco Hernández, the representative of the Study Centre for Educational Development in Oaxaca, told IPS.

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