Haudenosaunee Chief Deskaheh and Maori spiritual leader T. W. Ratana would have a lot to smile about as they look in 2004 from their ancestral realm upon the United Nations. Representing the Six Nations of the Iroquois on a mission to the League of Nations, Chief Deskaheh in 1923 travelled from Canada to Geneva, but the League, based there, refused to hear his case. Similarly, in 1924, Ratana and a large delegation of Maoris travelled to London to protest New Zealand's breach of the Treaty of Waitangi and petitioned King George for redress. The New Zealand Government was denying them guaranteed land rights under the Treaty. Again, redress was denied. In 1925, Ratana also journeyed to Geneva to approach the League of Nations about his cause, but like Chief Deskaheh, he too was turned away.
The blaze of events and activities comprising the third session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, held in New York from 10 to 21 May 2004, is a far cry from the access denied to Chief Deskaheh and T. W. Ratana. But the road to a United Nations permanent forum on indigenous issues has been slow. As early as 1924, the International Labour Organization (ILO) began investigating the use of native populations as forced labour. In 1957, it adopted the first legal instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples, which was replaced in 1989 by the Convention concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries (Convention 169). In 1970, the UN Sub-commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities appointed a Special Rapporteur to undertake a comprehensive study on the situation of indigenous peoples. Between 1981 and 1984, this study yielded five volumes empowering the international community to act decisively on behalf of indigenous peoples. As a result, the UN Economic and Social Council in 1982 was able to establish the Working Group and customize access, allowing hands-on indigenous participation in the Group's sessions.
The UN Commission on Human Rights in April 2000 adopted a resolution to establish the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples, which is mandated to discuss indigenous issues relating to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, health and human rights. The Economic and Social Council officially endorsed the resolution in July 2000 and the General Assembly established a voluntary fund for the Forum in December 2002.
However, although access to the United Nations and civil society in general now abounds, many indigenous populations prefer to live in voluntary isolation. They have a special attachment to their land and territories, a shared ancestry and right to self-determination, their own language, culture, spirituality and knowledge, their own political, economic, social and cultural institutions, and a form of customary law and governance. Voluntary isolation can be easily undermined by development, and the choice of isolation appears inherent in human and land rights. Governments are faced with squaring the need for an economy competitive in an increasingly globalizing market with preventing extinction of indigenous populations choosing isolation.
During the last two centuries, South America's indigenous populations living in the forests retreated further to avoid enslavement as rubber harvest workers. Today, rights groups push the protection of natural areas and the creation of territorial reserves on behalf of indigenous peoples declining contact with the modern world. Peru in April 2002 established its first territorial reserve in the southeastern region mainly through the efforts of the Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and Tributaries and the Racimos de Ungurahui Project. It protects indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation from loggers in pursuit of mahogany. Rights activists were able to strike an agreement with local loggers to create the territorial reserve. The Nahua of Peru live remotely in the Amazon rainforest headwaters of the Manu, Mishagua and Serjali rivers, where they fled at the beginning of the twentieth century to escape slavery and genocide connected to the rubber industry. A Nahua delegation travelled to Lima in late 2003 to meet with the Peruvian Government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), seeking an end to invasion by oil and gas expeditions, expulsion of illegal loggers, and title to their ancestral lands. The Nahua say that over half their population died from diseases and epidemics in the 1980s following unsolicited contact with oil and gas companies.
Malaysia shares sovereignty with Indonesia and Brunei over Borneo. This complicates matters for the Penan people, who are also known as the "lost tribe of Borneo". In their home State of Sarawak, 70 per cent of the world's oldest forests are losing ground at twice the rate of the Amazon rainforests. The three Governments balancing of Penan human and land rights with economy-building commercial timber exploitations becomes crucial. The Philippine Government likewise faces competing interests of national development and indigenous rights in its Cordillera region, whose Agta people isolated themselves in the forest interior to avoid the dispossession of land and adverse environmental effects of logging operations.
The Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East have brought the question of balancing development and indigenous interests to the Russian Federation. They say that after the disappearance last century of the Ain, Vod, Kamasinets, Kerek, Omok and Yug indigenous populations of Russia, other indigenous peoples may also be lost due to economic and other pressures. The Association seeks formulation of policy beneficial to the 29 remaining endangered indigenous groups in northern Russia. In North America, the choice of isolation is unavailable to the Lubicon Cree, an indigenous group of about 500 whose homeland extends over 10,000 square kilometres of forest north of Lesser Slave Lake and east of Peace River. When the Canadian Government negotiated treaties with indigenous populations in 1899, the Lubicon Cree were inadvertently overlooked. According to its Chief Bernard Ominayak, "we never had anything fancy, but we never went hungry. Then all of a sudden they found oil and we were caught in the way".
In the community of the Ayoreo ethnic group living on some 3 million hectares in northern Paraguay and along the southeastern Bolivian border, the Totobiegosode indigenous population was forced out of isolation. Illegal logging exhausted the resources for hunting, fishing and gathering on which the population, which had dwindled to 17, depended. The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador, an autonomous indigenous organization that emerged from isolation to centre stage, actively promotes indigenous language, culture, natural medicine and traditional healing. Over 45 per cent of the population in Ecuador is indigenous. While many indigenous populations in Colombia remain isolated, the U'wa Nation came to the forefront seeking alliances with 85 other groups and voluntarily participated in the "Cliff of the Dead" event in 1995, where 100 U'wa ancestors, their children and families together jumped from a cliff into a void in Guican, department of Boyaca. They were protesting political and economical subjugation and social and cultural annihilation. While maintaining their tradition, they seek the cooperation of governmental officials, NGOs and the private sector in establishing a model national economy based on respect for human rights, a clean environment and in accordance with international humanitarian law.
Brazil is a forerunner in creating protected lands. The Government has established territorial reserves for its indigenous populations living in voluntary isolation. The reserves are "no go zones" to extractive industries and migrants. The Zo'e are a Tup-Guarani group living on the Cuminapanema River basin in the state of Para', while the Koruba live in the Javari River Valley in the state of Amazonas. Yet, voluntary isolation from modern society does not mean isolation from one another. Instead complex networks of exchange have evolved. The Waiwai, in the northern part of Para' and the state of Roraima, have matrimonial, commercial and ceremonial contacts with their neighbours. The men of the Tukano, Arapasso, Desana and Tarina, all of the Upper Negro River region, marry women from other indigenous groups. At the same time, a hierarchy exists; for example, "river Indians" do not marry "forest Indians", which substantiates the degree to which the identity of the indigenous personality is bound up with his or her natural environment. While they only marry within and among certain groups, indigenous people still trade goods with others outside their groups in the intrinsic web of exchange.
The Governments and the international community are increasingly acknowledging the rights of indigenous peoples, in part because these groups have pressed for empowerment, their human rights and dignity. Maybe that is what Chief Deskaheh had in mind for all indigenous people, not just the Iroquois, in his last speech in Rochester, New York, a few months before his death in 1925. He proclaimed that the Council of the Six Iroquois Nations comprised the oldest League of Nations. He went on to say: "It is a League which is still alive and intends, as best it can, to defend the Iroquois to live under their own laws in their own little country now left to them, to worship their Great Spirit in their own way, and to enjoy the rights which are as surely theirs as the white man's rights are his own."…