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Indigenous People Press for Rights

By Lucia MouatStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 1993


THEY are descendants of the earliest inhabitants in the regions where they live.

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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.