UNITED NATIONS - The international community now fully recognises the native peoples' right to protect their lands and live distinct lifestyles. Yet, most of the world's 370 million indigenous peoples continue to face abuse and injustices at the hands of state authorities and commercial concerns.
"We must look at the substantial successes we have been able to achieve, but also reflect on how far we have to go," Ben Powless of the Indigenous Environment Network told IPS on the eve of the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples.
Though pleased with the U.N. General Assembly's decision last year to approve the Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, Powless and other activists say they have no reason to believe that those who have occupied their native lands are willing to change their behaviour.
"Governments in the past have been complicit in genocides, land seizures, massive environmental degradation, and many other human rights abuses because [indigenous peoples] were denied their fundamental rights and freedoms," said Powless, a Mohawk whose nation's territory is now divided between modern-day Canada and the United States.
Last year when the 192-member U.N. General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples, both the U.S. and Canada were among a handful of countries that voted against it.
"This shows how far we still have to go to make sure that states acknowledge and protect indigenous peoples' rights, for if they continue not to, we have many examples of the grave results," said Powless.
Recently, both the U.S. and Canada were found guilty by a Geneva-based U.N. rights watchdog, which keeps track of violations of the 1968 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. The U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) told Canada to take "appropriate legislative or administrative measures to prevent the acts of transnational corporations on indigenous territories."
CERD took the Canadian government to task in response to a petition filed by indigenous organisations that charged private businesses from Canada were unlawfully involved in the exploitation of their lands located in the U.S.
The petition particularly focused on the situation facing the Western Shoshone -- a Native American tribe whom some non-natives refer to as "Snake Indians," although in their own language they are called Newe people.
Stretching across the states of Nevada, California, Idaho, and Utah, the Shoshone land is currently the third largest gold producing area in the world. Numerous multinational corporations are operating in the Shoshone land, and many are planning to move in.
Many of these companies -- which include Bravo Venture Group, Nevada Pacific Gold, Barrick Gold, Glamis Gold, Great Basin Gold, and U.S. GoldCorp according to the complaint -- are registered in Canada.
Indigenous activists say that many areas where mining is taking place have been used by their communities for spiritual ceremonies and other cultural purposes for thousands of years. Certain areas are home to Shoshone creation stories and are vital to indigenous traditions of acquiring knowledge.
Shoshone elders have repeatedly charged that the enormous amount of toxic material produced as a result of mining is causing enormous damage to the health and well being of their people and the environment.
In 2006, in response to the Western Shoshone petition, CERD also assailed the U.S. government for violating the tribes' rights and said Washington had run afoul of the international antiracism treaty.
The 18-member U.N. panel of experts said it had "credible information" that the Shoshone were being denied their traditional rights to land. CERD said the U.S. government must cease all commercial activities on tribal lands, including mining operations.
The U.S. recognised Shoshone rights to their land under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1979 that the pact gave Washington trusteeship over tribal lands.
The federal government justified its position by saying that tribe members had abandoned traditional land tenure and practices and cited "gradual encroachment" by non-natives as evidence to claim much of the land as federal territory.
The Western Shoshone, in their petition to the U.N. panel, countered that "gradual encroachment" in fact took place as part of a U.S. policy to steal their lands, and that this constituted racism.
Shoshone leaders said they went before CERD because they had exhausted all other legal options to prevent the U.S. government from taking over their ancestral lands. For similar reasons they had to challenge the actions of the Canadian government.
In addition to recommending legal steps to change corporate behaviour, the U.N. panel also asked Canada to submit a report on the effects of the activities of transnational corporations in Canada on indigenous peoples abroad.
Mindful that relations between indigenous communities and governments in many parts of the world remain tense, officials at the U.N. Secretariat are currently trying to arrange seminars and meetings to create a cordial atmosphere for mutual understanding and reconciliation.
"Reconciliation between indigenous peoples and states can take many forms that differ from country to country," according to the U.N., "Generally it involves recognition for past injustices, justice for victims and the healing of relationships.
The U.N. has described the adoption of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 -- after more than 20 years of negotiations among states and indigenous peoples, under the mediation of the U.N. -- an "historic act of reconciliation".
In a message to mark the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, "The result of more than two decades of negotiations, [the Declaration] provides a momentous opportunity for states and indigenous peoples to strengthen their relationships, promote reconciliation, and ensure that the past is not repeated."
Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary General for Economic and Social Affairs and Coordinator of the Second International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, called the Declaration "a manifestation of reconciliation between indigenous peoples and states -- and a mechanism for carrying that reconciliation forward."
Meanwhile, Powless thinks that certain powerful countries are unlikely to change their attitudes towards indigenous peoples unless a majority of their citizens are informed enough to hold those accountable who play a powerful role in shaping public policy.
"The wider public must understand indigenous peoples' rights and concerns," he said. "They must act to protect them because as the most marginalised group in this world, it spells out how the rest of us will be treated, and is also the surest way to protect our last remaining ecosystems."
Many climate change scientists share this view. They think the indigenous peoples can play a vital role in preserving biodiversity and the planet's resources because they live in close proximity with nature.
© 2008 Inter Press Service