UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — THEY are descendants of the earliest inhabitants in the regions where they live.
For years, the globe's indigenous people - at least 300 million of them from the Arctic to Australia by conservative United Nations estimates - were pressed to submerge their lifestyles into the more dominant cultures around them. Colonization, development efforts, and civil conflicts forced many off their lands or into poverty. To many citizens, these are the largely invisible members of the "fourth world."
Yet a more aggressive stance taken recently by a number of indigenous groups has prompted a growing global recognition of their rights to keep their lands, their languages, and their cultural identities.
By designating 1993 as the International Year for the World's Indigenous People, the United Nations General Assembly hopes to underscore the need for new international standards and a stronger global effort to protect native groups and their more than 5,000 distinct cultures. Their human rights concerns are on the agenda of the mid-June UN World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. (See story, Page 12.)
Most of the world's indigenous people have something special to share - from their unique cultural heritage to well-honed skills in such areas as fishing and farming that do minimal environmental damage.
Yet they are often "looked down on as backward, evolutionary relics of past primitive ages," as Moringe Pakipuny of Tanzania puts it. He was one of several leaders of indigenous groups who spoke at a special General Assembly session in December to launch the new year. Speaking for the Orongoro Integrated People Oriented to Conservation in Tanzania, Mr. Pakipuny blamed both past colonial rulers and leaders of newer independent states in Africa for committing "cultural genocide" by absorbing indigenous lan ds and perpetuating old artificial borders.
Self-determination is the prime goal of indigenous people everywhere. "They want to determine for themselves their relationship with the state," says Julian Berger, a Geneva-based UN senior staff member assigned to work on this special year. Yet few seek full political independence.
Even so, many governments view the push for greater recognition of native rights as a direct threat to their power and to national unity.
The issue is so sensitive that the UN was forced to withdraw an indigenous peoples map that the UN Center for Human Rights had assembled and circulated. A number of Asian and African nations objected to specific figures, insisting either that they had no "indigenous" inhabitants at all or that everyone within their borders qualified.
Though a UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations plans to finalize the wording of a universal declaration of rights for indigenous people at its annual meeting in Geneva this July, the group may delay sending the document to the UN General Assembly. UN member governments have the right to rewrite the declaration. "The General Assembly could alter the wording and dilute the message to the point of meaninglessness," says Ted Macdonald, an anthropologist with Cultural Survival, a nonprofit human rights a nd development group based in Cambridge, Mass. "They [the working group] may wait for a more opportune political moment," he says.
Yet the Rev. Paul Reeves, a Maori from New Zealand who will chair a working group on the problems of indigenous people at a nongovernmental human rights conference to be held June 10-12 in Vienna, says governments need not feel as threatened as many of them do. Fair delivery of services, from justice to education, is at the heart of what many indigenous groups really want to discuss, says Bishop Reeves, who is the Anglican Communion's observer at the UN and a former governor-general of New Zealand.
Many groups in his view are now trying to understand their own nationhood within the context of the nations that have grown up around them. "I think what we offer at our very best is the possibility of a greater richness and a wider understanding of what [national] unity means," Reeves says.
Ties with the land are strong for all indigenous people.
"Land is not just real estate," Reeves says. "Land is part of the essence of who indigenous people are. It needs to be understood within the context of their spirituality and their holistic sense of creation and humanity.... A landless indigenous person is a person at real risk."
In response to growing legal and moral pressure, some governments have made key compromises in recent years with their indigenous populations.
The most recent example is the proposed creation in 1999 of Nunavut ("our land" in the Inuit, or Eskimo, language) in Canada's Northwest Territories. The agreement, covering an area almost one-fifth the size of Canada, was signed May 25 by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Inuit leaders in the small town of Iqaluit, some 1,000 miles south of the North Pole, where snow is still on the ground.
The result of almost 20 years of negotiations, the settlement gives the Inuit title to much of the land and full hunting and fishing rights. In exchange for these, and a government payment over 14 years that will amount to more than $1 billion (US) for job training and other preparatory work, the Inuit gave up all other land claims. The new territory still must win formal endorsement in Canada's Parliament.
"The agreement finally gives the Inuit some hope for the future - a way to control their own destiny," says Lazarus Arreak, a policy planner with Nunavut Tungavit, the co-signing organization, in a telephone conversation from Iqaluit.
The Nordic countries are considered particularly progressive in their response to indigenous demands for self-rule. Sweden, Finland, and Norway all have approved parliaments for their Saami (Lapp) residents of the north. The Inuits in Greenland have had home-rule rights from the Danish government since 1979. Copenhagen has gradually ceded responsibility to Inuit leaders in Greenland, although the central government keeps a firm hand on defense, foreign policy, and finance. (Greenland politicians often ta lk up the merits of gaining more control, but heavy dependence on Denmark's financial help makes a move to genuine independence unlikely.)
The UN working group on indigenous populations is currently compiling a list of native peoples' treaties and agreements with an eye to determining their current validity under international law. "There's still a lot of work to be done," says Antonio Gonzalez of the California-based International Indian Treaty Council, one of several nongovernmental organizations helping with the job. They hope to finish by 1995.
Many indigenous groups have taken legal steps to assert longstanding land claims. In a landmark decision a year ago that surprised the government of Australia, the nation's highest court overturned the doctrine of terra nullius (no landowner), which had been embraced by the government since the late 18th century. The court ruled that the traditional land rights of the Murray Islanders of the Torres Straits had not been extinguished when the Europeans arrived.
Several South American countries, including Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, and Venezuela, have also made moves in recent years to return land to indigenous owners. But Mr. Macdonald of Cultural Survival says most of the transfers are incomplete.
Those in Brazil and Venezuela, for instance, were presidential promises that Macdonald says may yet be overturned. Specific parcels of land in Colombia, where almost one-fourth of the population is indigenous, were transferred, he says, but their remote location leaves open the question of whether the government is willing to help residents maintain the integrity of the land if other settlers arrive.
"In Latin America most threats to territorial integrity come about through spontaneous colonization," Macdonald says.
"The majority of indigneous people in Latin America remain in a very difficult economic, social, and political situation," says Mr. Berger of the UN.
One legal tool native groups hope to master is that of intellectual property rights. Legends and songs as well as agricultural strategies and use of native plants for medicinal purposes often are appropriated without credit. Some indigenous people want patent rights or royalties.