Breathing Life into the Struggle: Victories for Indigenous Peoples & Transnational Allies
Paula Palmer is a member of Boulder Colorado Friends Meeting and serves as executive director of Global Response, www.globalresponse.org.
The corporate assault on the environment and indigenous communities is relentless indeed. But I hear about these assaults from inspiring, courageous local leaders who stand up to powerful oil and mining companies, to the World Bank, to corrupt national governments, and frequently to death squads, and still demand their communities' right to say no.
I hear from these leaders when their local demands are being ignored. They are at the first stage of the progression famously -described by Gandhi:
First they ignore you.
Then they laugh at you.
Then they fight you.
Then you win.
My job at Global Response is to increase the chances that community-based activists will prove Gandhi's formula. Community leaders contact Global Response when they need to generate international public pressure that can't be ignored.
We work with them to create international coalitions and exert pressure through strategically--focused letter-writing campaigns.
In 17 years of this work, we've celebrated victories in almost half of our campaigns - a tribute to effective collaboration and coalition-building - but most of the credit resides in the courage and determination of the local people who are fighting for their lives, their dignity, and their futures.
Free, Prior, and Informed Consent
The right to say no to corporate -invasions is most often referred to as the right to "free, prior, and informed consent." A number of international treaties and conventions cite the right of affected communities to be "consulted" and to "participate" in decisions about industrial projects that would affect them and their natural resources, but these are fuzzy terms that do not ensure the right to say no.
The strongest guarantee of free, prior, and informed consent appears in the recently approved United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
In September 2007, a thirty-year -struggle ended in victory when the United Nations General Assembly approved the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The vote of 144 in favor, 4 against (the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) and 11 abstentions seems to be a resounding affirmation that will benefit the world's 370 million indigenous people.
The Declaration spells out the fundamental rights of indigenous peoples including the right to traditional lands and resources; the right to give free, prior, and informed consent before governments take actions that negatively affect them; the right to be free from genocide and forced relocation; and the right to indigenous languages, cultures, and spiritual beliefs.
It provides moral and legal backing for collective rights to self-determination, self-government, and education in indigenous languages. It empowers indigenous peoples to defend ancestral lands, home to some of the world's most pristine ecosystems and rarest biodiversity, against the operations of extractive industries such as mining, oil and gas drilling, and industrial logging.
Some of the signatory governments, however, are already hedging
and qualifying their interpretations of the Declaration's
46 articles. So while indigenous leaders and human rights advocates
are celebrating -passage of the United Nations Declaration, we
are also gearing up for the struggle to implement it on the ground
in indigenous communities.
A Landmark Ruling in Belize
A first indication of the UN Declaration's power comes from Belize. For the past two years, the Mayas of southern Belize have opposed oil exploration in the vast wetlands where they live, dependent on the abundant but fragile wetland resources.
Over the Mayas' objections, the government authorized a US oil company to explore the area, including a national park that is co-managed by an indigenous organi-zation. Global Response exerted pressure on the prime minister and the ministries of environment and tourism, and the Mayas took their case to court.
On October 18, 2007, the Supreme Court of Belize cited the UN Declaration as a source for a historic ruling which recognizes the Maya people's right to collective land ownership based on traditional use and occupation rather than legal documentation. This ruling establishes a ground-breaking precedent in Belize and sends a signal of hope throughout the indigenous world.
No longer can the Belizean government issue land titles, concessions, licenses, or permits without the consent of the villagers, since the land is recognized as belonging to the communities.
Maya leader Greg Ch'oc captured the sense that the tables
are turned when he observed, "A lot will have to go back
to the negotiating table - the land, the [oil exploration]
concessions that have been given. And I want to warn investors
that it will be in their interest to come to us to see how we
can move forward."
A Victory(?) in Venezuela
Indigenous communities everywhere have learned to be cautious in declaring victories. Their experience was aptly described by David Brower who said of environmental activism, "Every defeat is permanent. Every victory is temporary."
This is the case of the Wayuu, Yukpa, and Bari peoples of Venezuela, who live in the biologically rich Sierra de Perija in northwestern Venezuela. Coal mining threatens the land and their livelihood.
At the 2006 World Social Forum in Caracas, Global Response launched a campaign against coal mines in the region. The campaign generated thousands of letters to the president and the Ministry of the Environment. Indigenous communities and Venezuelan environmentalists protested for over a year against new permits for foreign and -domestic coal mining companies.
On March 21, 2007, President Hugo Chávez issued a decree that no new coal mines would be built in the Sierra de Perija, and existing mines would not be allowed to expand. The presidential decree was a -victory for Global Response, and a triumph for indigenous Venezuelans.
In six public addresses to date, Chávez has said the coal of the Sierra de Perija will stay in the ground, and the Environment Minister echoes this pledge. But the existing concessions to multinational coal companies have not been revoked, and the state-run energy company continues explorations while it wages a campaign of bribery in the indigenous communities with free food -baskets, meat, beer, and haircuts.
Divide and conquer tactics are employed in Venezuela and in every other place where indigenous communities stand -between corporations and oil, gas, and coal reserves.
I once asked a VP of Newmont Mining what it would take for the company to take "no" for an answer from a community where Newmont wanted to mine. He said, "Given enough time [read: enough money], we believe we can convince any community that mining is in their best interest."
Congolese "Pygmies" Fight the World Bank
As I write this in October of 2007, representatives of different Central African ethnic groups who are collectively known as "Pygmies" are meeting with World Bank president Zoellick in Washington DC.
Two years ago, with international support from the Rainforest Foundation and Global Response, the Pygmies filed a complaint with the World Bank's Inspection Panel, charging that the Bank was financing massive industrial logging operations in the world's second-largest rainforest, the Congo Basin. The Inspection Panel's report strongly criticizes the Bank for funding logging which ignores the presence of indigenous people.
More than 40 million Congolese people, including some 500,000 Pygmies, depend on the forests for their livelihoods. The logging projects are unlikely to alleviate their poverty, reported the Inspection Panel. In fact, Bank staff broke many of the agency's own internal "safeguard" policies, which are supposed to protect the environment, natural habitats, and the rights of resident human populations. The Bank program would essentially turn 60,000 square kilometers of pristine forest over to European logging companies.
The Pygmies have shamed the Bank, but it remains to be seen whether the Bank's Board of Directors will direct the staff to safeguard Congolese forests and the people who depend on them. The Pygmies still face discrimination at all levels.
The Independent reports that in July, 2007 officials in the Republic of Congo apologized for housing visiting Pygmy musicians in a zoo, while other performers were given lodging in hotels.
The struggle against corporate globalization - or global corporatization - takes many forms as communities around the world, in ecosystems from rainforests to tundra, insist on their right to determine how their natural resources will be used.
In Ecuador, a cloud-forest community just won a decade-long struggle to stop construction of an open-pit copper mine. Their persistence was rewarded by the Correa administration, which recognized the right of municipal and county governments to authorize or reject mining and oil projects. The indigenous peoples of Ecuador are engaged in drafting a new national constitution, which may set the highest constitutional standards yet for indigenous peoples' rights.
In Malaysia, the Penan people have erected and defended rustic barricades for two decades, preventing logging companies from entering their forest homelands. Now, instead of using the police force to assist the loggers, the government is telling the companies they must come to an agreement with the Penan forest dwellers.
And in Brazil's Para state, where powerful landholders have assassinated indigenous and peasant leaders with impunity for years, the author of Sister Dorothy Stang's murder was tried, convicted, and jailed - perhaps auguring an end to a reign of terror.
These victories, bolstered now by the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, keep our spirits up as we take on each new fight. As Christopher Peters (Pohlik-lah), president of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, said, now we must "breathe life into this new human rights document."
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