The long fight of indigenous peoples


In August 2014, the Peoples Social Forum, a gathering with an alternative vision of globalisation, was held in Ottawa, Canada, with the aim of promoting “indigenous peoples”.

Maoris, Quechuas, Aymaras, Kanaks…there are an estimated 370 to 400 million indigenous peoples in 90 states, although the definition of these terms continues to be blurred.

The specific rights that should be granted to these groups has been the object of growing demands put forward by the peoples themselves since the 1940s. They are currently fighting against the confiscation of their ancestral lands or against changes to their environment and for the recognition of their cultures.

In Cambodia, for example, despite the passing of a law on land ownership in 2001 that recognises the collective right of indigenous peoples to own their lands, in practice, 6.5 million hectares of forest have been expropriated over the last decade by large forestry companies, which have been granted concessions. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, almost 58 of the 143 million hectares of indigenous lands classed as state forests have been taken over by timber companies and commercial plantations.

Yet some 60 million indigenous people around the world depend on forests for their survival.

In addition, their traditional knowledge is being looted by multinationals. As reported by the United Nations (UN): “An element of the Hoodia plant, used by the San people of southern Africa to stave off hunger and thirst during extended hunting expeditions, was patented in 1995 […]. It was later licensed to a multinational pharmaceutical company for use in the development of a slimming pill. After the San people threatened legal action against CSIR, claiming their traditional knowledge had been stolen, the two groups reached an understanding whereby the San would receive a share of future profits from the sale of the drug.”

Similarly, the poison from a frog, used as a painkiller by indigenous communities in Brazil, “has been the target of more than 20 patents in Europe and the United States”.


A new approach

The current affirmation of these peoples’ rights is the result of a long battle. Indigenous peoples were already appealing to the UN in 1946: indigenous peoples in the Americas have been sending petitions to the UN Human Rights Committee every year since it was founded.

The only United Nations body taking action in support of indigenous peoples back in the 1950s was the International Labour Organisation (ILO): in 1957, it adopted Convention 107 on Indigenous and Tribal Populations. The convention saw indigenous peoples as exploited workers and argued for the need to integrate them within the modern economy.

This text constituted a first attempt to codify the international obligations of states with regard to tribal and indigenous peoples. It covers a range of themes, such as land rights, employment, handicrafts, health, education and communications.

Its approach, however, was integrationist, assimilationist, in the sense that it advocated the integration of indigenous peoples within society as a whole.

Over the years, the approach of Convention 107 was called into question. A committee of experts convened by the ILO in 1986 concluded that “the integrationist approach of the Convention was obsolete and that its application was detrimental in the modern world”. This led to the convention’s revision and its replacement with another convention in 1989.

In 1971, the United Nations decided to conduct an in-depth study into indigenous peoples, led by the Ecuadorian José Ricardo Martínez Cobo. In 1983, after twelve years’ work, the significant Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations (or the Cobo Report) was published within the framework of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations (WGIP), which had just been set up at the UN.

The text advocates self-determination for indigenous peoples and concludes that they have an inalienable right to their land and the right to reclaim lands that have been taken from them. The WGIP became a forum for the grievances of indigenous peoples.

At the same time, indigenous peoples themselves continued to become more vocal on the international stage. In 1974, the World Council of Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) was founded, under the initiative of American Indian Chief George Manuel. The demands of the WCIP spurred the UN to host a conference in 1977 on discrimination against indigenous peoples in the Americas.

As of the 1990s, the UN stepped up its action: 1993 was declared International Year of the World’s Indigenous People. In 1994, 9 August was proclaimed International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. In the year 2000, a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was set up within the UN in New York. In addition, between 1995 and 2005, the UN organised the First International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples followed by a Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples launched in 2005.

Finally, in 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was a hard won victory. One of the key achievements of the declaration, the fruit of twenty years’ work, is the fact that it covers both individual and collective rights, and recognises the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination, that is, autonomy over their internal and local affairs.

Bolivia was the first country to approve the declaration and to transpose it to national law, at the initiative of President Evo Morales, who is himself indigenous.

But the indigenous peoples question is a complex one, as it implies a change of concept, with the idea of recognising specific rights and, in particular, collective rights for indigenous peoples, such as the right to a specific education system, specific media and specific administration, which calls into question the unity and indivisibility of the state.

The 2007 Declaration takes this approach. But would continuing in this direction not, ultimately, create divisions within states and open the gateway for a multitude of specific demands from the different groups (regional, religious, etc.) comprising each state?

The challenge for the international community is to take care that the rights of indigenous peoples are respected, and to ensure, in particular, that their lands are not confiscated. But at the same time regression must be avoided, by putting traditional practices before universal human rights, for example, or encouraging indigenous peoples to isolate themselves within their communities, which could foster communitarianism and tensions between the different groups within states.

Should we not look, rather than giving specific rights to indigenous peoples, to giving all citizens, indigenous citizens included, broader economic, social and cultural rights? Real social democracy for all, rather than à la carte rights based on the group to which each citizen belongs.


This story has been translated from French.