Indians Voice Concerns in Rio
Indigenous peoples ask for demarcation of land and other rights at United Nations forum
RIO DE JANEIRO — IT had been a long wait under a hot afternoon sun, but someone inside had vouched for them and now 10 Brazilian Indians were walking across the parking lot towards the conference pavilion. The photographers went into a clicking frenzy over the way the Indians' colorful feather headdresses, bare chests, swim trunks, and rubber flip-flops combined with the starched blue uniforms and police caps of the United Nations escort.
Once inside, the Indians clipped their visitor passes onto their necklaces and went through the security check. Raoni, a chief of the Brazilian Caiapo nation, climbed up onto one of the concrete planters decorating the pavilion's skylit central hall.
"We need our land demarcated. We want to maintain our customs," he told the crowd of reporters. "We want to tell you that for many, many years you've been destroying the forests, and we're going to tell you that we're not going to let you finish gutting all of our forest." He added that the Indians want the white men to "leave us alone."
The visit of the 10 Brazilian Indians to the UN Conference on Environment and Development was brief and brought no immediate action on the part of delegates. But indigenous leaders say the visit demonstrated that the native peoples of the Southern Hemisphere are finally beginning to break into world affairs in their bid to seek justice.
"It was difficult to get anything from the UN [before now]," says Marcos Terena, president of the Brasilia-based Intertribal Commission, a nongovernmental group. "The South didn't have this tradition. So [with the conference] a new chance opened up to work within the United Nations.... One day we'll have a seat there."
For five minutes, Mr. Terena spoke on indigenous peoples' concerns at the conference plenary session. It was the first time a UN forum had officially taken up concerns of native peoples.
The UN conference did involve the direct participation of indigenous delegates from developed countries, such as Canada and Norway, but Costa Rica was the only developing country with an indigenous representative on its official delegation. The imbalance parallels differing histories that today contribute to different priorities.
"Indians in Brazil and Latin America are struggling for recognition and the demarcation of their land," says Lydia Luz, coordinator of the Pro-Indian Commission, a Sao Paulo nongovernmental group. "But in the North they talk of sovereignty. They have demarcated their land; for them the fundamental question is political autonomy."
This difference was evident in conversations with many native peoples from around the world who were attending the official UN conference and its parallel nongovernmental meetings. Mark Charfauros, who is from the 43,000-population Chamoru nation on the island of Guam, wants "complete independence from the United States," which he says has "enslaved" Guam.
But for Pedro Inacio Pinheiro, a chief of the Tukano, an equally small nation whose members live in Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, justice would be upheld if the Brazilian government recognized his people's right to their ancestral lands, thereby diminishing constant conflicts with whites over fishing and lumbering.
"We say you came from outside. We are the first owners of the earth, you came later," Mr. Pinheiro says that the Tukano tell nonnative intruders, "[but] in the white man's law you need documents." The Tukano have been to see federal officials about their problems "more than 20 times," he adds, "and nothing happened."
Between the extremes of Guam and the Amazon are peoples such as Chile's 2 million Mapuche, most of whom are literate, thanks to the religious schools they attend. The Mapuches focus on keeping strong their lively music, rituals, and other traditions, but they also say they want the government to return land it confiscated from them in the last century, provide them with agricultural assistance and credits, offer bilingual education, and end discrimination.
Indigenous peoples meeting here managed to have some say at the United Nations, despite deep splits among various factions. Because they could not agree on a single native-peoples' event, at least four different factions ran separate programs paralleling the UN conference, ending with recommendations and demands that were passed on to official delegates.
The problem, explains Ms. Luz, is that many tribes have traditionally warred with one another and so have trouble thinking in larger collective terms. "In many native languages, the name of the tribe means `people,' as if they were the only ones," she says.
The Indians were also hampered by the negative impact of a Brazilian news-magazine report during the conference that Caiapo chief Paulinho Paiaca raped a young white woman in May. The report diverted public attention from other issues, some Indians said. The alleged crime also pointed up the confused legal status of Indians in Brazil and many other countries; Brazilian law allows for both federal- and local-government involvement in such a case, while the local tribal council said it preferred to deal on
its own with Mr. Paiaca.
By the end of the Earth Summit, the native peoples' input, like much of the language considered at the conference, was watered down in efforts to reach agreement between North and South. Terena says that the term "indigenous peoples" was replaced with "indigenous populations," and that delegates axed a proposed indigenous consultative body to be set up under the UN aegis with a $3 billion yearly budget.
Nevertheless, Agenda 21, a final document containing a world-action program, recognizes indigenous peoples as fundamental elements in environmental recovery and recommends the use of their experience in sustainable environmental management. It also ensures their rights to their "habitats."
Finally, it recommends that the conference language concerning Indians be reviewed in the context of the United Nations official International Year of Indigenous Peoples in 1993.