American Indians Appeal for Right to Manage Their Land

MORE than 100 Indians from 30 ethnic groups across the Americas have launched a new appeal for the return of their territories on the grounds that they have been the best managers of the hemisphere's tropical forests and natural resources for thousands of years.Meeting in the tiny village of San Ignacio de Moxos in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon lowlands, the Indians, or "original nations of America" as they prefer to be called, issued a statement calling for respect for their "concepts of development and management of the ecosystem." "We are not conservationists. But we are managers of the laws of nature," says Nicanor Gonzales, a Kuna Indian from Panama and the coordinator of the congress, the second to be held in the last two years on Indians and the environment. "For millennia our ancestors have shown they know how to manage and live in harmony with tropical forests." At the congress, Guaymi Indians from Panama expressed concern about foreign mining companies extracting the gold and copper deposits on their land; Mapuches from Chile protested the building of hydroelectric dams in their territory; and Guatemalan Mayan Indians objected to Army occupation of their villages. The common solution the Indians seek is the recovery of their original territories, backed by proper legislation and an equal participation in any benefits from the land. "We, the aboriginal people in British Columbia, only control three-quarters of 1 percent of the wood in the province," says Harold Erickson, an Okanaga Indian from Canada and the only representative from the "North" at the conference. "The rest is all going out to industry ... and the provincial government is collecting over $750,000 annually off our traditional lands - while there isn't one red cent going to the Indian people." The Okanaga Indians, like others at the congress, share a lack of real econo mic participation and management of their resources, the delegates agreed. Just a few miles from San Ignacio de Moxos, chosen for its remoteness, is an example of the challenges Indians face. Tomas Ticauso, a Siriono Indian, was one of the leaders of a 400-mile march last year to protest mahogany logging. "The [Bolivian] government granted us our own territory after we marched to the capital La Paz. The logging companies were told to leave," he says. "But a saw mill is still operating right bang in the middle of the forest." Mr. Ticauso hopes that this type of international Indian congress will help forge links among Indian groups across the hemisphere and put more pressure on governments to cede to Indian demands to manage their own land. "The ranchers and the logging companies are destroying the flora and fauna and our habitat," says Ticauso. "We protect the forest, but they destroy it - and with it, our lungs and the lungs of all Bolivia." But for Mr. Gonzalez, the recovery of Indian territory is pointless unless accompanied by a recovery of Indian cultures and values. "We have advanced a lot in the last 10 years," he says. "It's now not so shameful to say 'I am an Indian.' But we don't want paternalism. We want new laws and active participation in their formulation." One of the meeting's final resolutions called for a new system of education based on Indianscosmo-vision of the world, and their history, culture, and future," and rejected current systems as "alienating and depersonalizing." But the most insistent message was for governments and forest managers - who until now have had little or no success in curbing deforestation across the continent - to sit down and listen to Indians about their concepts of environment. "It doesn't matter what tribe you come from, be it in South America or North America," says Mr. Erickson. "We've got a special inner strength when it comes to dealing with resources and environment that nobody else on the globe knows other than indigenous people."

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