Indigenous Peoples' Rights Ignored Again

Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Apr 10 (IPS) - The rights of indigenous people are given
respect in speech after speech, but few countries have signed up to an
international convention to protect those rights.

The Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent
Countries, also known as Convention 169, was proposed by the
International Labour Organisation (ILO) in June 1989. But the
convention has been ratified by only 18 countries, mostly developing
nations from Latin America.

In Europe, only Norway, the Netherlands and Spain have approved the
convention. The German Bundestag (parliament) debated the convention
last week, and turned it down.

Most members of the German parliament agreed on the need to protect
the rights of indigenous people. "Indigenous peoples through their
experience and specific knowledge of nature contribute in a particular
way to cultural diversity," Liberal member Karl Addicks said. "We
Liberals expressly support the protection and respect of indigenous
people." But he went on to oppose the convention.

Green deputy Thilo Hoppe, who had proposed approval of the ILO
convention to the Bundestag, said the debate was "a shame"
particularly since Rodolfo Stavenhagen, UN special rapporteur on human
rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples, was attending
the session as special guest.

Hoppe said "the opposition to convention 169 derives from the fear
that the protection of the rights of indigenous peoples could
constitute an obstacle for German and other international private
companies operating in the regions inhabited by them."

Convention 169 calls for protection of natural resources in areas
inhabited by indigenous peoples. Article 15, paragraph 1 of the
convention states: "The rights of the peoples concerned to the natural
resources pertaining to their lands shall be specially safeguarded.
These rights include the right of these peoples to participate in the
use, management and conservation of these resources."

Paragraph 2 of the same article states: "In cases in which the State
retains the ownership of mineral or sub-surface resources or rights to
other resources pertaining to lands, governments shall establish or
maintain procedures through which they shall consult these peoples,
with a view to ascertaining whether and to what degree their interests
would be prejudiced, before undertaking or permitting any programmes
for the exploration or exploitation of such resources pertaining to
their lands."

In addition, the convention says the peoples concerned "shall wherever
possible participate in the benefits of such activities, and shall
receive fair compensation for any damages which they may sustain as a
result of such activities."

Convention 169 has been invoked by indigenous peoples in several
conflicts over exploitation of natural resources like gold, gas and
oil, especially in Latin America. In Guatemala, the rights the
government gave to the Canadian firm Glamis to exploit gold mines in a
region inhabited by Mayan peasants in the south-western area San
Marcos, has been a source of conflict since 2003.

Representatives of Indians say that the Guatemalan government has
approved convention 169, and is therefore obliged to protect natural
resources on Indians' land. The Guatemalan government has ignored the
Mayan Indians' pleas.

According to the ILO, most of the world's estimated 350 million
indigenous people are marginalised in almost every aspect of daily life.

In a paper arguing the need to approve the convention, the ILO says
that "with globalisation, increasing population pressure on their
traditional lands and the increasing pressure on natural resources,
(indigenous peoples) are faced with increasing poverty, ill health and

In a report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month,
Stavenhagen said adoption of new legal norms and the creation of a
modern institutional framework "represent great progress in the
protection of indigenous peoples' rights." But, he said, "there is
still an 'implementation gap' between the norms and the practice,
between the formal recognition and the actual situation of indigenous

In Latin America, Stavenhagen told the council, "the gradual
deterioration of the indigenous habitat and the impact of extractive
activities on the environment and on indigenous peoples' rights are
matters of special concern, especially in the Amazon, the northern
border areas and the Pacific coast." (END/2007)

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