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Opening two-week session, UN indigenous forum tackles land, resource issues

Opening two-week session, UN indigenous forum tackles land, resource issues

More than 2,500 indigenous representatives from all regions of the world are gathering at United Nations Headquarters in New York for the two-week session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to focus on issues related to lands, territories and natural resources.

These matters are widely viewed as central to indigenous peoples' efforts to gain recognition for their rights. “With the increasing desire of States for more economic growth, senseless exploitation of indigenous peoples' territories and resources continues unabated,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum, which will meet from 14 to 25 May.

Addressing the opening session, General Assembly President Sheikha Haya Rashed Al Khalifa said the Permanent Forum “has been the source of thought-provoking dialogue and has produced concrete recommendations.”

At the same time, she cautioned that much remains to be done. “Indigenous peoples continue to face marginalization, extreme poverty and other human rights violations,” she said. “They are often dragged into conflicts and land disputes that threaten their way of life and very survival. Indigenous peoples also suffer from a lack of access to health care, and education.”

But she cautioned against casting indigenous peoples as victims. “They are a dynamic collection of communities,” she said. “Their knowledge, culture and environmentalism offer lessons that all of us can learn from.”

Sheikha Haya, who has held many meetings with Member States, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and representatives of indigenous peoples, said: “As President of the General Assembly, I would like to assure you of my continued commitment to reach a common ground.”

Last year, the General Assembly deferred action on the proposed UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which had been endorsed by the UN Human Rights Council.

Drafted and debated for over two decades, the Declaration emphasizes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain and strengthen their own institutions, cultures and traditions and to pursue their development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.

Essentially, the Declaration outlaws discrimination against indigenous peoples, promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them, as well as their right to remain distinct and to pursue their own visions of economic and social development.

Speaking to reporters today at a press conference, several officials associated with the Forum emphasized that breaking the stalemate on the Declaration is essential.

Asked about next moves in the process, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz voiced strong opposition to any re-opening of the text. “African governments wanted, with the help of Canada and the New Zealanders, to create a working group to discuss again the Declaration which of course the co-sponsors of the Declaration and indigenous peoples totally rejected, because we cannot have another 20 years to discuss the Declaration again.”

She said these governments were putting forward amendments but warned against this approach. “It’s untenable to have a mongrel declaration that would be subjected to voting.”

The majority of the world's remaining natural resources – minerals, freshwater, potential energy sources and more – are found within indigenous peoples' territories, she said. Access to and ownership and development of these resources remain contentious.

Recent decades have seen some progress in the area of legal recognition of indigenous peoples' rights to the protection and control of their lands, territories and natural resources, but in practical terms, this has not always translated into action.

Threats to indigenous peoples' lands and territories include such things as mineral extraction, logging, environmental contamination, privatization and development projects, the classification of lands as protected areas or game reserves, the use of genetically modified seeds and technology, and monoculture cash crop production.

Estimates point to more than 370 million indigenous peoples in some 70 countries worldwide. While they are from diverse geographical and cultural backgrounds, they generally suffer from similar problems, such as lack of basic health care, limited access to education, loss of control over land, abject poverty, displacement, human rights violations and economic and social marginalization.

The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was established by the UN Economic and Social Council in July 2000. It is composed of 16 independent experts, functioning in their personal capacity. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) appoints the members, eight of whom are nominated by governments and eight nominated directly by indigenous organizations in their regions.

Efforts to highlight indigenous issues at an international, intergovernmental level started in 1923 when Chief Deskaheh of the Cayuga Nation went to Geneva to speak to the League of Nations – the UN's predecessor – and defend the right of his nation to live on their land under their own laws and faith. The Maori leader Ratana made the same journey to Geneva in 1924 to plead the case of his peoples. Even though they were not allowed to speak at the League of Nations, their vision nourished the generations that followed.

The participation of indigenous peoples in discussions and programmes that impact on them is a top priority of the Permanent Forum. A Trust Fund for the Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People has been established to fund small grants projects that focus on culture, education, health, human rights, the environment, and social and economic development by and for indigenous peoples.