FREE SPEECH FRIDAY|
Indigenous Day Forgotten
Edited by Ace in the Hole
By Diego Cevallos
The United Nations resolved in 1994 to celebrate International Day of the World's Indigenous People every year on Aug 9, but most natives are not aware of the event, and the governments that voted in favour of establishing the special day do little to commemorate it.
''It is hypocritical of the UN and of governments to declare a day for indigenous people and then do nothing about it,'' Guatemala's Nobel Peace Prize laureate Rigoberta Menchú told IPS.
In 1994, the first time the date was celebrated, also marked the beginning of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, decreed by the UN. Since then, indigenous leaders and movements increasingly have made their presence felt, particularly in Latin America.
There are approximately 40 million natives in the Americas. Though they are notably poorer and more marginalized than the general population, the organisations that represent them, their leaders and descendants today play an important political role.
In the past year, indigenous communities in Ecuador have maintained dialogue with the Gustavo Noboa government and have staged protests in which they continue to prove the convocational power demonstrated in January 2000, when their mass mobilisations contributed to the overthrow of then-president Jamil Mahuad.
The rise of Alejandro Toledo - a politician of indigenous descent - to the presidency in Peru, and the Zapatista guerrillas' success in putting indigenous rights on the national political agenda are other notable achievements of the last 12 months.
In Venezuela, the national legislature passed laws benefiting native groups, and in Colombia indigenous communities signed agreements to stay out of the civil war being fought by leftist guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries and government forces.
''All of this indicates that we are right in our demands for autonomy and that our cultures are going to follow their course,'' Menchú said.
But few remember the special date established by the UN.
The International Day of the World's Indigenous People and the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People were founded when the commemorative events of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas were still fresh in the international community's memory.
''Nobody even discusses the Indigenous Decade anymore. It is a shame, but it does not discourage us because we have made notable progress in our struggles,'' said the Guatemalan native in a conversation at her offices in Mexico City, where she heads a foundation bearing her name.
In spite of occasional statements made by government representatives on the UN floor in favour of indigenous peoples, the debates about the rights regarding autonomy, self- determination, culture, and use of their ancestral lands have ground to a halt.
On Aug 9, 1982, the UN Subcommittee on Human Rights created a working group to discuss such issues and to draw up a declaration on native rights.
To date, despite seemingly endless meetings and debates, the matter has not been resolved.
''At the UN it isn't the real problems that stand in the way (of approval of the Declaration), but rather the plots, greed, and jealousy regarding the posts. Furthermore, there are no resources for debating the indigenous issue. Native leaders interested in participating in the discussion have to find their own way there,'' said Menchú.
''In the indigenous communities there is misery, destruction, problems, while the men in neckties at the UN have luxurious conditions in which to conduct their discussions about the natives,'' pointed out the Nobel laureate.
''These matters are in the hands of supposed expert- technicians, and once again many governments have spent abundant resources on it, but now they are working on it only as a hobby, a diversion, which is why it does not reach the population. They do not make reports, and I think it is on purpose,'' charged Menchú.
A year ago, UN officials considered it a great success when they created a Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, to be made up of eight representatives from government and eight from native communities.
But the Forum has not yet been formed, it lacks a budget and there is no agreement on the criteria with which its members should be selected.
The world's indigenous organisations complain that they remain on the sidelines of the process and that they are not being heard in the arenas of the UN system, such as the conferences related to the Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.
The next opportunity the native leaders have to present their demands will be the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, to meet in Durban, South Africa, Aug 31-Sep 7.
Menchú said she is holding out hope that the conference ''will finally take into account the proposals of indigenous peoples,'' but pointed out that the preparatory process for the Durban meeting ''have so far been disappointing because they are not listening
to us.'' (END/IPS/wd/hd pr/tra-so ld/dc/mj/01)