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UN Condemns Land Grabs in Native Territories

by Haider Rizvi

UNITED NATIONS - Millions of people around the world who belong to indigenous communities continue to face discrimination and abuse at the hands of authorities and private business concerns, says a new U.N. report released here Thursday.

Environmental activists perform on the eve of Earth Day in Makassar, Indonesia's South Sulawesi province, in this April 21, 2008 file photo. (REUTERS/Yusuf Ahmad/Files) It is happening not only in the developing parts of the world but also in countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which champion the causes of human rights and democracy, the report says.

Despite all the "positive developments" in international human rights setting in recent years, the study's findings suggest that indigenous peoples remain vulnerable to state-sponsored violence and brutality, which is often aimed at confiscating their lands.

"Governments and the United Nations need to be serious about this," said Victoria Tauli-Corpus, chairperson of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, an advisory body that works with the 54-member Economic and Social Council, after launching the report.

The 222 page-report, entitled "State of the World's Indigenous Peoples", points out that an overwhelming majority of the indigenous population is condemned to live in extreme poverty. Its authors noted that while indigenous peoples are around five percent of the world's population, they comprise 15 percent of people living in extreme poverty.

The first-ever comprehensive report on indigenous peoples' rights comes as the U.N. is reviewing progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), globally agreed targets to reduce, poverty, disease and environmental destruction, among other issues, by the year 2015.

Explaining her findings, one of the report's authors, Myrna Cunningham, said indigenous communities in many countries are living in abject poverty because they have lost their lands to private interests that are often backed by state authorities.

She also raised concerns about the extrajudicial killing of indigenous people in some parts of the world. In this context, she cited the examples of Colombia and Peru, where extreme hostility towards native people has been well-documented by human rights organizations.

"There are several cases where indigenous peoples are being identified by governments as terrorists," Cunningham told IPS, adding that it was in clear violation of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The U.N. Declaration was adopted by the General Assembly in 2007. The historic document calls for the recognition of native populations' right to control their lands and protect their culture and language.

The report's chapter dealing with environmental issues suggests that most of the deforestation is taking place on indigenous territories due to massive operations by mining corporations. It says many of the business ventures on native lands are illegal.

"We have agonized over many ongoing situations," said Ben Powless, an indigenous activist in Canada who has attended numerous international meetings on climate change and biodiversity, including the U.N. summit held in Copenhagen, Denmark last month.

Powless said those situations included "the massacres of our relatives in the Peruvian Amazon, the evictions of our Masai families in Kenya, and the devastation of our communities by the impacts of climate change."

Large dams and mining activities have caused massive displacements of indigenous peoples in many countries. The study's authors documented several cases where native people were forced by the tourism industry to leave their ancestral lands.

The report points out that in many countries around the world, indigenous children are not only deprived of education, but also lack adequate access to health care and nutritious food.

That, according to Cunningham, is against "our right to self-determination".

The U.N. General Assembly fully recognizes indigenous populations' right to exercise their right to "self-determination". However, some powerful countries, including the United States and Canada, have rejected the Declaration.

Contrary to the previous U.S. administration's stance, President Barack Obama seems willing to sign on to the declaration. ¨We are having a dialogue with the U.S. government," Tauli-Corpus told IPS. "We are doing all we can."

At the news conference, Tauli-Corpus raised hopes that at future talks on climate change, indigenous peoples' rights to control their lands and forests will be given due consideration. But not all indigenous leaders think along the same lines.

Recent negotiations on climate change have suggested that deforestation in indigenous lands could be tackled by means of carbon trading. Many indigenous peoples see that as a tool of corruption and a threat to their cultural survival.

"Carbon trading and carbon offsets are a crime against humanity and Creation," said Tom Goldtooth, executive director of the Indigenous Environmental Network. "The sky is sacred."

"This carbon market insanity privatizes the air and sells it to climate criminals like Shell so they can continue to pollute and destroy the climate and our future, rather than reducing their emissions at source," he added in a statement.

Considering the fact that much of the world's forests are located in indigenous peoples' lands, Goldtooth fears that carbon trading would pave the way for more "land grabs, killings, evictions and forced displacement" of native communities.

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