Indigenous Peoples Living in Voluntary Isolation

By Ruffin, Fayth A. | UN Chronicle, June-August 2004 | Go to article overview
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Indigenous Peoples Living in Voluntary Isolation

Ruffin, Fayth A., UN Chronicle

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.

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