Rawiri Taonui: Declaration just the beginning for indigenous communities

A Nenet herder reads her voting ballot in the elections to the lower house of parliament  northeast of Naryan-Mar in ...

A Nenet herder reads her voting ballot in the elections to the lower house of parliament northeast of Naryan-Mar in Nenets region, Russia. There is a high rate of suicide in the isolated indigenous Nenet community.

OPINION: This month marks the 10th anniversary of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), signed on September 13, 2007 with 143 countries in support, four against and 12 abstaining.

The Declaration recognises and affirms the collective and individual human rights of first nations as peoples and human beings, thereby proclaiming their equality with all other members of society.

Indigenous peoples matter. Numbering between 350 and 500 million people in up to 90 countries, they are the descendants of the first arrivals or earliest surviving occupants of a land. Comprising 5000 distinct cultural groups speaking 4000 of the world's 7000 languages, they are home to 90 per cent of the world's body of cultural diversity.

Living on 22 per cent of the Earth's land mass, their territories harbour 80 per cent of its remaining biodiversity. Their cultures are deeply embedded within the environment and, once belittled, are now increasingly regarded as integral to the survival of the planet.

Progress on the Declaration

Several of the original abstentions, including Colombia and Samoa, now support the Declaration; 182 states at the Durban World Conference on Racism in 2009 endorsed the Declaration and, having overcome the self-inflicted trauma of their previous hesitation, the governments of the four countries who opposed it – the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – also now support the Declaration.

Guided by the principle that "no one is left behind", indigenous peoples are a priority under the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Pope Francis's 2015 encyclical on meaningful climate action declared that when indigenous land rights are protected they are the best guardians of the world's forests and biodiversity.

From the Waitangi Tribunal and courts in New Zealand where the Declaration reinforces the Treaty of Waitangi, to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and African Commission on Human and People's Rights, the international judiciary is increasingly citing the Declaration and supporting the protection of indigenous rights.

Indigenous rights are being recognised or enshrined in new laws and constitutional arrangements. South America has been an important leader, in particular Bolivia, under the leadership of President Evo Morales.

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In Europe, Denmark has granted greater self-government to Greenland, where the majority of the population is Inuit. In Africa, the Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Kenya, Namibia and Burundi have taken steps to recognise indigenous peoples.

Continuing Challenges

Indigenous people remain the world's most vulnerable of the world's people. One indigenous language is lost every two weeks.

Wherever they live, indigenous communities are the poorest of the poor. At 6 per cent of the world's population, they make up 15 per cent of the world's poorest people.

They continue to face significant racism. In developed countries there is a "new colourism", with dominant institutions preferring indigenes that are compliant, middle class, with fair skin and European features. Concern is also rising that some indigenous elites are leaving the people behind. Indigenous women and children continue to endure significant violence.

Many countries, particularly those with large first populations, including China, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Russia, recently stalled efforts to increase indigenous representation at the UN and placed strict limitations on the recognition and rights of indigenous populations.

From the Arctic to the Amazon and from West Papua to Africa, a majority of new extractive industry projects, including mining, drilling, hydro-electric, forestry and agribusiness, are in indigenous areas and do not meet the standard of the Declaration to obtain the "free prior and informed consent" of indigenous peoples before starting.

These projects service all manner of demands in the Western and developing world, from oil, gas and beef to the rare earth minerals that build our cellphones, laptops and flat screen TVs.

The resulting loss of lands, detrimental environmental impacts and effect on the welfare of first communities is costing many lives. In the 10 years since the signing of the Declaration the annual number of individual indigenous human rights advocates killed has doubled to 600 a year.

Every year submissions to the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples echo the words "we may not survive".

Compromises in the Declaration on Article 3, the Right to Self-determination, essentially mean that indigenous peoples cannot form new states, which reinforces uncertainty and dislocation for indigenous peoples straddling the borders of nation states. Many are losing their lands and their lives, including the Karen (Thailand and Myanmar), Guarani (the Amazon) and the Kurds, who are divided between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey and are the largest nationality in the world without a country.

There is a worldwide crisis in indigenous suicide. This year the Unicef Building the Future report identified New Zealand as having the highest adolescent suicide rate at 15.6 per 100,000. Embedded within that figure is a more serious Māori youth suicide rate, often double or more than that of non-Māori, which, in conjunction with their higher proportion over the national demographic (Māori are 35 per cent under 15 years old; 27 per cent between 15 and 40) elevates the national figure.

In other countries, such as Canada, Australia, the United States, the Nenets of Russia, Guarani of Brazil and the Sami of Scandinavia, the indigenous suicide rates are equal to or higher than that of Māori but do not lift their national average in the same way because the indigenous demographic is a significantly smaller proportion of the national population.

Mainstream approaches to suicide focus on mental health, bad parenting, drug addiction, crime and poverty. These approaches have their place; however, many are also driven by underlying assumptions about the inferiority of first cultures.

In the case of Māori, historical research shows that pre-European Māori were good parents. Before 1900, when the language was intact, Māori were just 3 per cent of prisoners – today they are 50 per cent. Before the mass urbanisation of the 1950s every Māori knew their marae and sub-tribe and suicide was half that of Europeans. A Canadian study has shown that where 50 per cent or more of an indigenous community speaks their language suicide is between half and zero that of other communities.

Cultural alienation as anomie is a causal factor but so too is structural racism and discrimination. Indigenous youth are compressed between a past they do not understand, a present that does not understand them and, for many, a future without hope.

The Future

Indigenous peoples have shown great determination and huge resilience in the face of significant difficulty. The Declaration is not perfect. A lack of action by governments and prejudice from majority populations are main impediments to progress. Nevertheless, the journey has begun and for those who survive the next generation there is a future.

Dr Rawiri Taonui is Professor of Māori & Indigenous Studies at Massey University.

 - The Dominion Post


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