Published on Saturday, May 17, 2003 by the Inter Press Service
'Pay for Destruction', Indigenous People Tell Corporations
by Haider Rizvi
UNITED NATIONS - Leaders of the world's 350 million aboriginal people, gathered here to discuss ways to protect their culture and environment, are demanding that multinational corporations accept legal responsibility for policies that destroy indigenous lands and lifestyles.
''Industries on indigenous lands were meant to bring development, economic growth and reduced poverty,'' Victoria Tauli of the Indigenous Peoples Caucus on Sustainable Development told a meeting at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues that started this week. ''Rather than bringing development, however, they have brought more poverty and misery to indigenous people.''
The vast majority of indigenous leaders, assembled here from as far as the lush green valleys of the high Himalayas to the rainforests of the Amazon basin, hold a similar view. In meeting after meeting of the two-week annual Forum, they tell countless stories about how oil, gas, lumber and mining projects by multinational business, and in some cases by national governments, continue to pose threats to the survival of their communities.
''For me, the environment is the single largest issue at this Forum, because it is everything,'' says Goodluck Diigbo, president of Partnership for Indigenous Peoples Environment (PIPE), who grew up in Ogoni, Nigeria, a region with a fragile ecosystem.
''My people once lived in a state of nature, sharing everything in common with the inhabitants of the forests, including animals such as lions and reptiles. I learnt from my elders that we are custodians of the planet and it is our responsibility to protect nature.''
Diigbo whose ancestral lands have been devastated by oil drilling and spills, says multinational corporations interested in drilling for oil and gas or mining for gold, uranium and diamonds should be legally accountable for the environmental impacts of those activities. ''We are living in the age of scientific push and technology,'' he says. ''This is a blessing, but also a curse.''
That curse has been experienced by Nana Akuoko Sarpong for 28 years. ''Multinational companies have engaged over the past 50 years, in the systematic exploitation of our timber resources,'' says the aboriginal leader who represents the ancient Kingdom of Ashanti in Ghana. ''The tropical woods which sometimes take 200 years to mature are felled at the stroke of a chainsaw to enrich the homes of Europe.''
Sarpong says the issue of destruction of African rainforests and the effects on biodiversity has been the subject of conference after conference, ''yet very little has been made to arrest it''.
''It is time the international community woke up to its obligation to indigenous people, by creating a fund for indigenous people to assume responsibility for the regeneration of their resources, and the Mother Earth will be richer for humanity,'' he adds.. ''This is a wake up call for those who care about sustainable development.''
Earlier this week, the World Bank launched a 700,000-dollar-fund called the ''Grants Facility for Indigenous Peoples'', which will provide up to 50,000 dollars for projects on development themes recommended by the Permanent Forum.
''It's cruel joke,'' says Roy Laifungbam, of the Center for Organization and Research and a leader of the Meitei people of northeast India. ''Many of the World Banks officials are earning more money than this every year.''
''The World Bank has lent millions of dollars for projects that had led to the destruction of indigenous communities and their environments,'' adds Tauli, and it should address the issue of compensation for that devastation.
''The small grants facility should not be used in exchange for those demands,'' she says.
Bank officials acknowledge that the amount is insufficient. ''It's not a huge amount of money, but it is symbolic of our relationship with indigenous people,'' said Ian Johnson, vice president of the Bank's environmentally and socially sustainable development network.
Another of the planet's most powerful multilateral institution, the World Trade Organization (WTO), is also under fire at the Forum, which has attracted 1,500 participants from around the globe. Noting that their people have been harmed by WTO agreements, which in some cases have led to the extinction of indigenous lifestyles, a number of aboriginal leaders want the trade body to explain how it will respond to their concerns.
''The Forum must support the indigenous knowledge system and protect intellectual property rights from piracy,'' says a delegate from Hawaii. ''A research by any bio-tech or pharmaceutical company without indigenous people's permission is nothing but piracy.''
Despite representation from nearly 500 aboriginal groups worldwide, the Forum is not empowered to enact laws; it can only advise the U.N. Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
After its historic inaugural meeting last year the Forum, which includes 16 representatives - eight nominated by governments and eight by indigenous people - called among other things for a permanent office and funding at the United Nations in New York. It received both, creating high expectations in some observers.
"It's quite an exciting moment in terms of its possibilities,'' Marcus Colchester, director of the UK-based Forest Peoples Programmes, told IPS. ''But I think it should go beyond just talking - have bite and be taken seriously.''
For Sebastiao Manchineri of the Yine people of the Amazon rainforests, any approach to address indigenous issues will require a fundamental change so that governments recognise their territorial integrity. ''When the people have no land, no rights, there is no room for any kind of development.''
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