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Davinder Kumar Headshot

States 'Extinguishing' Rights of Indigenous Peoples

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As the UN observes the 'International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples' today, the fight to uphold the rights of some of the most marginalised and discriminated populations on the planet is fast becoming a lost cause.

The 370 million indigenous people spread across 70 countries are rapidly losing control of their land and natural resources as states continue to issue orders and amend laws leading to systematic dispossession and displacement of indigenous populations.

In south-east Cameroon the indigenous hunter-gatherer Baka people are facing an increasingly uncertain future as their traditional lands have been almost entirely taken away from them, for purposes including commercial mining and logging. Forced out of their territory, Bakas are now faced with extreme challenges to access food and basic services.

The indigenous Mangyan people in the dense rainforests of Occidental Mindoro in the Philippines are desperately battling to save their ancestral land from transnational mining corporations, Some 40,000 hectares of land, including vast swathes of forest, is claimed by Mangyans as their ancestral domain. The land potentially holds reserves of gold, natural gas and minerals worth many millions of dollars. Physically and socially isolated from the rest of the Filipino population and among the poorest in the country, Mangyans are up against all odds as they must legally prove their ownership of the land they have traditionally inhabited for generations.

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Mangyan people in the Philippines' Occidental Mindoro are striving to their forest, communities.

Globally, although the indigenous peoples represent only about 5 per cent of the world's population, they occupy one-fifth of entire earth's territory from the Arctic to the South Pacific. Despite their hold over vast swathes of land, indigenous peoples make up 15 per cent of the world's poor and one-third of the world's 900 million extremely poor rural people.

They are over-represented on all indicators of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment. Indigenous peoples face systemic racism, violence and abuse in their daily lives. An indigenous woman is more likely to be raped, with some estimates showing that more than one in three indigenous women are raped during their lifetime

The social and economic exclusion of indigenous peoples is not restricted to developing countries alone. Even in developed countries, indigenous peoples consistently lag behind the non-indigenous population in terms of most indicators of well-being. They live shorter lives, have poorer health care and education and endure higher unemployment rates. According to UN, a native Aboriginal child born in Australia today can expect to die almost 20 years earlier than his or her non-native compatriot. In countries where indigenous peoples are in sizeable numbers, they still fare poorly as compared to dominant societies. Chronic malnutrition, for example, affects 8 in 10 indigenous children in Guatemala.

At the heart of indigenous peoples issues lies the inherent discrimination of one of the most vulnerable groups in the world. Only a few countries recognise indigenous peoples' land rights. In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples making it the most comprehensive statement of the rights of indigenous peoples ever developed. The Declaration upholds the collective rights to a degree unprecedented in international human rights law, but it is not legally binding.

The International Labour Organisation's 'Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention 1989', is the only international law that protects indigenous peoples' land ownership rights and sets minimum UN standards regarding consultation and consent. More than two decades after this treaty came into force only 22 countries have ratified it so far, denying a vast majority of indigenous peoples their basic rights to their assets and natural resources.

In few places where indigenous peoples have legal title deeds to their lands, these lands are often leased out by the state as mining or logging concessions without consultation of indigenous peoples. In the ruthless appropriation of their assets, free and prior informed consent of affected indigenous peoples is almost always ignored. Still suffering from the consequences of historic injustice, including colonisation and dispossession, indigenous peoples are finding themselves trapped in an overwhelming morass of poverty, illiteracy, lack of political representation all of which is resulting in their loss of control over their own way of life.

"We are very worried that big mining companies will take over our ancestral land. If the government gives them license to operate, our forest land and heritage will be lost forever," says Juanito Lumawig, the 62-year-old supreme leader of all seven tribes of Mangyans. For him, it is a battle for survival for his people, who for centuries have inhabited the rough and hard-to-reach Philippine highlands of Occidental Mindoro."We don't know what to do but I am sure our ancestors will save us," he says with a degree of confidence.

Indigenous leaders like Lumawig are relying on prayers and spirits of their ancestors to save their land, communities and way of life as the onslaught continues to take control of their territory. With the state often on the side they are battling against, they have no one to turn to and nowhere to go. Community development organisation Plan International is assisting Mangyan tribes in surveying their land, documenting their oral history and putting their legal claim together. However, the complexity and scale of issues affecting indigenous peoples worldwide will require an effort at the global level. According to a UN report, around 60 million indigenous people around the world depend almost entirely on forests for their survival.

The deteriorating situation of indigenous peoples has figured prominently in the recent discussions at the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues -- the United Nations expert advisory body dealing with the human, economic and social rights of indigenous peoples. The Forum, in its recently concluded session, approved landmark draft recommendations on the 'Doctrine of Discovery', "conquest" - the key argument used by colonisers throughout the world as legal and political justification for the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their lands, their disenfranchisement and the abrogation of their rights. The Forum has called upon the states to repudiate such doctrines as the basis for denying indigenous peoples' human rights.

The UN Forum noted that dispossession doctrines have led to a situation where states have allegedly "extinguished" the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources, their right to self determination, their languages, religions and even their identities. "No other peoples in the world are pressured to have their rights extinguished", the Forum said.

It therefore does not come as a surprise that worldwide the indigenous peoples are paying a huge human cost of activities sanctioned by the state for purposes ranging from commercial exploitation to unsustainable development. Large dams and mining activities have caused forced displacement of thousands of indigenous persons and families without adequate compensations in many countries. Several communities, in many countries, have been moved out of national parks against their will, while tourist development in some countries has resulted in the displacement of indigenous people, pushing them further into poverty.

According to a UN statsitic, in Indonesia, of over 140 million hectares of indigenous territories that are classified as state forest lands, almost 58 million are with timber companies. Concerns remain about the prospect of more forest land being diverted for commercial plantations.About 30 million indigenous people depend on these forests for their livelihood. In eastern Africa and the Congo Basin, the creation of protected forest areas has caused the displacement of tens of thousands of indigenous peoples and threatened their subsistence survival.

Wanton dispossession and displacement of indigenous peoples has brought them in direct conflict with the authorities and their agents the world over. When indigenous peoples have reacted and tried to assert their rights, in most instances they have suffered physical abuse, imprisonment, torture and even death.

Even as the indigenous peoples situation continues to deteriorate, the UN Forum's robust invalidation of 'Doctrine of Discovery' has helped push the indigenous agenda to a new level of global discussion. As the debate progresses in the larger framework of human rights, the states face a call to redefine their relationship with indigenous peoples. It will be a test case for states' commitment to peace, justice and human rights. It may also be the last hope for indigenous peoples before their rights, identity and way of life are systematically 'extinguished.'