International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples

The poster for the 2nd Decade of the International Day
of the World's Indigenous Peoples
by douglas reeser on August 9, 2013
Today is the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, an annual event that aims to spotlight the vibrancy of indigenous cultures and the many issues faced by indigenous people around the world. First proclaimed in December, 1994 by the United Nations General Assembly, the day was to be observed on August 9th every year during the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, which marks the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982. Now extended through its second decade, the 2013 theme is "Indigenous peoples building alliances: Honouring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements."

According to the UN, The 2nd International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, which began in 2005, has five main objectives:
1) Promoting non-discrimination and inclusion of indigenous peoples in the design, implementation, and evaluation of international, regional and national processes regarding laws, policies, resources, programmes and projects;
2) Promoting full and effective participation of indigenous peoples in decisions which directly or indirectly affect their lifestyles, traditional lands and territories, their cultural integrity as indigenous peoples with collective rights or any other aspect of their lives, considering the principle of free, prior and informed consent;
3) Redefining development policies that depart from a vision of equity and that are culturally appropriate, including respect for the cultural and linguistic diversity of indigenous peoples;
4) Adopting targeted policies, programmes, projects and budgets for the development of indigenous peoples, including concrete benchmarks, and particular emphasis on indigenous women, children and youth;
5) Developing strong monitoring mechanisms and enhancing accountability at the international, regional and particularly the national level, regarding the implementation of legal, policy and operational frameworks for the protection of indigenous peoples and the improvement of their lives.
These are all noble goals, and it speaks to the slow progress of humanity as a whole, that these remain issues that need to be addressed. Sadly, most indigenous people, and those who work with them, will be able to provide unending examples that would help explain why these objectives remain important. 

My own experience in Belize provides one such example. Just last month (July, 2013), the Belize Supreme Court ruled on a government appeal from a case in 2010 that granted Maya communities in southern Belize rights to their lands. The court reaffirmed that Maya had customary community ownership of their lands, however, it also ruled that the government has no duty to protect those rights. The ruling, it seems, was a victory and defeat all at once. 

International Cry Magazine has a brief history of the case, which actually has roots in the colonial era, when Maya communities throughout the region were thrown into upheaval at the arrival of the Spanish. Centuries later, Maya communities in Belize were still not recognized as the owners of the land they had lived on and cultivated for generations. It took the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights to get things moving towards change, when in 2004, it issued a report stating that Maya have land rights, and the government of Belize has been violating those rights. Finally, in 2010, the country's own Supreme Court ruled the same, however the government appealed the case. 

The latest ruling by the Supreme Court has been seen as a victory by many - Maya communities finally have recognized ownership of, and thus, some semblance of control over, their ancestral lands. However, the other part of the ruling is likely to prove more powerful than this long-overdue victory. By ruling that the government has no duty to protect those land rights, a door has been left open, and through that door has stepped U.S. Capital Energy, an oil company that has been granted permission by the government to drill for oil on those same Maya lands. 

I wrote a bit about this situation in November, 2012, when Capital Oil was just getting started in Belize. At that point, the land rights case was still in the courts, so the company was walking softly. One has to wonder if that will now change, for while this situation has yet to fully play out, a conflict seems imminent. While the Maya own the land, the national government, with no duty to protect those ownership rights, is able to not recognize that Maya ownership. This position was made clear when the oil concession was granted. 

Instead of recognizing Maya land ownership, the government has recognized its own right to the land by granting the oil concession. The oil company has the backing of the government, and so will likely continue the exploratory drilling project. The Maya are primarily farmers, with little history of protest or activism, and the oil company essentially has the backing of the government, and more important, its security forces - the police and the army. To be clear, there have been no reports of protest, or the presence of security forces, however, were it to come down to it, the government has made clear the side on which it lends its support. Its not with the Maya. 

And so yes, even though while reading over the objectives for this 2nd Decade of Indigenous People, they strike me as being issues of the past, it is clear that these are issues still being faced today. On this day, it would seem appropriate for the U.N. to speak out against this very recent case in Belize. Such action, however, has so far not been on their agenda. Instead, they continue to issue a more general call of attention to indigenous peoples, the issues they face, and objectives for some nebulous entity to achieve. This is certainly important, but it's now been over 500 years of the same old story, and it is well past the time to become vocal, to become active, and to lend some real support to the plight of indigenous peoples, not just in Belize, but the world over. 
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