Hope in sight for indigenous people

  • 29/06/1993

Hope in sight for indigenous people MOST OF the 300 million indigenous people in the world live in highly vulnerable ecosystems and have often been deprived of their human rights and fundamental freedom, resulting in dispossession of their land and resources. Because they are such a high risk group, they are also the most in need of an enforceable right to survival.

The draft Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations hopes to complete this year, states that indigenous people have the right to:
own, control and use land, territories and resources they have traditionally occupied or used;
protect and ...rehabilitate the total environment and productive capacity of their land and territories; and,
engage freely in traditional and other economic activities, including hunting, fishing, herding, gathering, lumbering and cultivation.

But many governments are fearful of giving special rights to indigenous people or even acknowledging them as a special category. The Indian government, for example, contends it is impossible to determine who indigenous people are since by definition, they are supposed to be descendants of the original inhabitants of a land or territory subsequently colonised, settled or populated by other people. Says Sharad Kulkarni of the Centre for Tribal Conscientisation in Pune, "There is no certainty about who displaced whom and which of the races of India today are descendants of the conquered or of the conquerors."

In India, there is the added complication of "tribal people", who are considered synonymous with indigenous people. The protection envisaged for indigenous people could be extended to tribals, as suggested by the International Labour Organisation.

But even non-tribal communities in the Himalaya and the Thar Desert have a special connection with the land and specific traditions of land use, conservation of sacred groves and other practices. So perhaps all traditional people who have a sustainable relationship with the land, whether officially "indigenous" or not, should be protected.

As the chairperson of Yarrabah, an aboriginal community in Queensland, Australia, commented: "If we haven't got land rights, what have we got to manage anyway?"

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