The bond between indigenous people and their homelands is spiritual, economic and ancestral. The tribe is the communal trustee of the land for living members, as well as for past and future generations, but indigenous people often follow a land-based religion, believing that when their land is taken away, so is the spirit that gives them life. indeed, land is the lifeblood of traditional existence, providing indigenous people with their food, shelter and possessions.
But during a history plagued by foreign conquest, colonization and assimilation, masses of indigenous people have been forced off their ancestral lands or relegated to impoverished and subordinated lives if they remained, despite existing treaties enacted to protect their territorial rights.
In waging an ongoing struggle to secure or regain what they view as legally and historically theirs, indigenous communities have achieved incremental progress by resorting to the very legal tools that have let them down in the past.
Land claims have gathered particular momentum in Canada, with the recent signing of an agreement that will give ownership to some 40,000 Inuit (as Eskimos prefer to be known) and other indigenous tribes living near the Arctic of a vast expanse of wilderness and tundra. The new territory, called Nunavut, is to be established by the year 2000.
Pressing for land rights
In the United States, the Western Shoshone are pressing claims to several million acres taken from them by an act of Congress in 1863, and the Lakota Sioux have refused to accept more than $100 million in court-awarded compensation for the Black Hills, a sacred area expropriated by Congress in 1874 after gold was discovered there.
The High Court of Australia declared in 1992 that the traditional land rights of the Murray island people in the Torres Straits had not been extinguished by the arrival of the British in Australia, which set a completely new agenda for the national debate on indigenous rights.
Similarly, 500,000 native Ecuadorians successfully demonstrated for legal title to more than 2.5 million acres of Amazon land in 1990. Colombia has also begun to acknowledge the territorial rights of some 500,000 indigenous people, who inhabit nearly 2 5 per cent of the country's land area.
The rising tide of land claims put forth by indigenous communities has been matched by intensified efforts to secure greater autonomy and political power.
Although the great majority of the nearly 300 million indigenous and tribal peoples live in Asia and the Americas, progress towards indigenous self-rule has been led by the Nordic countries, where a strong liberal democratic tradition, coupled with effective political organization on the part of indigenous communities, has made self-rule and high levels of local autonomy a reality.
The Saami people of Finland were granted what some describe as an exceptional concession with the creation of a Saami Parliament in 1973, a move replicated for the Saami people of Norway in 1987.
Denmark passed a Home Rule Act in 1979, granting the local Inuit population of Greenland wide powers of self-government within a single State system, while maintaining the territorial and legal unity of Denmark. Although they cannot enter international treaties on their own, the Inuit of Greenland now have considerable legislative autonomy on a wide range of domestic issues.
Colonial treaties: A problem
In the developing world, a major problem area for tribal peoples is that of treaties promulgated during colonial rule. In the post-colonial era, many such agreements have been sidestepped, amplified or otherwise changed.
Many indigenous communities have had no choice but to place their grievances before the international community through the UN. Indigenous people base their claims for the right to self-rule on the fact that the principle of self-determination is mentioned in the UN Charter and included in the International Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Commenting on the subject of self-rule in 1991. Antoine Blanca, former Under-Secretary-General for Human Rights said: "One of the central issues in the elaboration of new standards to protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples is that of autonomy or internal self government." However, he added, "there is as yet no consensus on this important principle".
A milestone in the struggle for self-rule was marked in September 1991 when a UN meeting of experts was convened in Nuuk, Greenland, to review schemes of internal self-government for indigenous people.
The participants, including representatives of Governments, indigenous organizations, and UN specialized agencies, recognized that "indigenous peoples are historically self-governing, with their own languages and cultures, laws and traditions" and that self-determination is a "precondition for freedom, justice and peace, both within States and in the international community".
The experts also recognized the concerns of States by emphasizing that the realization of political rights "should not pose a threat to the territorial integrity of the State" and that "within States, autonomy and self-government for indigenous peoples contribute to peaceful and equitable political, spiritual, social and economic development".
The UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations has also advocated autonomy as the most viable way to achieve equality and freedom from discrimination, and the draft Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms the principle of self-rule.
China: Sustaining diversity
Bisected by the muddy trail of the Mekong River as it winds through the extreme southwest corner of China's Yunnan Province, the misty tropical region of Xishuangbanna is rich in both natural and ethnic diversities. This autonomous region, along the border with Burma and Laos, is home to some 600,000 indigenous inhabitants representing a dozen different nationalities, predominated by the Dai people.
Most Dai are Buddhists, but they maintain an ancient animistic belief in the preservation of a "holy hill" as an inviolable place for the gods. In Xishuangbanna, there are some 400 "holy hills", constituting a long native tradition of environmental conservation. But a growing burden of overpopulation in the ethnic region seriously threatens this historical balance, as does the introduction of modern cash crops, such as rubber, which has encouraged slash and burn agriculture at the expense of more sustainable, traditional practices. The combination has taken a sad toll on the unique tropical rain forests and the customary lifestyles of the region.
Indeed, over the last two decades, Xishuangbanna's population has more than doubled, while its tropical forest cover has been halved. So many plants and animals endemic to Xishuangbanna are now at risk--including elephants, tigers, monkeys, and peacocks--that they comprise fully one third of China's endangered species.
To safeguard the region's natural resources, the Chinese Government has set aside some 2,000 square kilometres as nature reserves, relocating entire villages from the protected areas. However, some 80 indigenous communities have refused to leave. Instead, they are looking for novel ways to survive on the forest without cutting it down.
In one part of the reserve, indigenous dwellers have found that harvesting butterflies is a sustainable alternative to hunting big game. The butterflies, which regenerate quickly, bring profits to the local communities from the international market in exotic insects. This combination of new livelihoods on traditional lands may provide a sustainable future for both the environment and its indigenous inhabitants.…