Thursday, September 20, 2007

declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples

One of the topics given great coverage at last weekend's IFG teach-in was the recent passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. On September 13, 2007 after more than 2 decades of discussion, the U.N. General Assembly passed this non-binding declaration. Now I find most of the folks actively involved in the issues of climate change, peak oil and resource depletion to generally be well informed and well meaning individuals. So at first glance it didn't seem strange at all that this group would be celebrating the passage of such a declaration. It "prohibits discrimination against indigenous peoples and promotes their full and effective participation in all matters that concern them." That is only a good thing no? But the emphasis of importance that accompanied this declaration seemed unusually strong until one of the speakers spelled it out for us.

The 46-article declaration establishes a framework for the respect of indigenous peoples’ rights, including self-rule, autonomy, land ownership, access to natural resources on lands they have traditionally held or used, and that the state provide these peoples with legal support to back their claim to these lands.

This declaration gives decision making power over to the native people who live on the lands containing a large portion of the developing world's remaining natural resources. Up until now that power has been held largely by the governments of those developing nations. And other than for a few exceptions it's easy to see how corporate powers have been able to manipulate governments in the global south to surrender those resources. Usually there's some talk about how parting with those resources will pull the citizens of those colonies- I mean countries- out of poverty. The truth on the ground though is that doesn't really happen. I heard first hand accounts of Nigerians living near the oil drilling not only still impoverished but now suffering from the pollution those operations produce.

There is no doubt that a certain rise in the standard of living of those impoverished in the south would be a welcome benefit. And to that end we should work to ensure that any resource extraction in an impoverished nation helps its citizens and doesn't just line the pockets of the elite. And while still non-binding, that is what this declaration might be able to do. If the people in these nations themselves have the power to authorize or not to authorize the extraction of resources in their own backyards, or what might happen to those resources once they're dug up, might there be a chance that this process might happen in a more equitable way?

There is always the danger of the 'Iced Tea' phenomenon. That is what some Alaskans call the money they are paid as a part of the agreement to drill for oil in that state. Each year each Alaskan gets a check for a certain amount, a percentage of the oil revenue derived from that industry's presence in Alaska. They get this money not from 'Texas Tea' as oil is known in that state but from a chillier beverage in a chiller state, their 'Iced Tea'. For this reason while working in Alaska I found many Alaskans quite happy about the drilling of oil in their state. Of course accidents like the Exxon Valdez spill have put a dent in that happiness. I haven't' been to Alaska in a decade so I can't tell you what the citizens of that state think now, but from my experiences there I would guess that many of them share the opinion of their Senator, Ted Stevens that ANWR should be drilled and more oil extracted; and more Iced Tea money paid out to Alaskans, even if it greats a tremendous ecological disturbance in on of the most untouched areas on Earth and only gives us a few more months of the fossil fuel party.

While working on a project in the City and Bureau of Juneau Alaska, I had occasion to spend time with quite a few of the natives of the area. Some too shared the sentiments of the non-natives of whom the majority liked oil drilling and its revenue (there were non-native exceptions to this). But more often than not the natives I spoke with were not in favor of wholesale resource harvest, even as a way to bring about financial improvements to the many Southeastern Alaskan communities who experience high levels of poverty. They were not totally against using natural resources or developing to fight poverty (many were strongly interested in tourism as an alternative) but they seemed to have more of an aversion to the selling what nature has blessed that part of the Earth with. It is the most beautiful part of the world I have ever visited. And I welcome any thoughts about my experience shared above concerning the people there. It has been a while. Much might have changed.

My point thought is that I believe those people who have a strong connection to their land, not hundreds of years but thousands, will probably be more willing to tread likely on that which has sustained them and their ancestors. Who better but these people to decide how to use what they have been given. And further who are we, thousands of miles away, to tell them what to do with their resources. This declaration came at a time when resource depletion is pushing the corporate peddlers of consumerism further into the dwindling areas of our planet in search of the last fix of a drug that is by now becoming increasingly known for what it truly represents, a temporary turn from the true sources of happiness that include our relationships with ourselves our family, our friends and our wider world. It is my great hope that the indigenous peoples of Earth might just be able to help show us the way back to the balance we have been missing for quite a while.

More on this declaration

1 comment:

homebrewlibrarian said...

...And I welcome any thoughts about my experience shared above concerning the people there. It has been a while. Much might have changed.

Unfortunately not. I live in Alaska and have since 1992. If anything has changed it is the image of our elected officials. Sen. Stevens first lost his firm control when the Democrats won the majority and he's now under great scrutiny in an ever widening bribery scandal issue. But that really hasn't changed most Alaskan's opinion of the Permanent Fund dividend. Most folks do not care how that money is collected up but they sure have come to rely on that annual cash infusion in October. If there's anything good to say about this is that in the 1970s Gov. Hammond had the foresight and chutzpah to push forward the idea that the companies extracting oil resources should pay royalties (gasp!) to the state for the privilege. At least it hasn't been a "screw the locals" situation for once like in, say, Nigeria.

I haven't spoken with Native people about their opinions of resource extraction but I would gather that it would be mixed. The white missionaries did a fine job of removing Native cultural heritage from Native peoples so that while the ones who still live in villages still have some traditional ways, most have been replaced by western European ideals which have been completely disastrous to them. Talk about a rock and a hard place. That's the place most Natives find themselves.

I would like to think that this UN declaration will give the Native peoples here some oomph to give their corporations even more teeth than they have already. Alaska is covered in tribal corporations and some are better managed than others. Meaning, some have a stronger grasp on the control of their natural resources. It will be interesting to see if they can gain even more control but it's unknown if more Native controls would translate to better management of natural resources.