Indigenous Peoples' Power: Global Mobilization Scores Dramatic Gains-With Many Challenges Ahead

By Colchester, Marcus | Multinational Monitor, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Indigenous Peoples' Power: Global Mobilization Scores Dramatic Gains-With Many Challenges Ahead


Colchester, Marcus, Multinational Monitor


PAK NAZARIUS LOOKED OLD BUT DETERMINED in the flickering torch light. Hunkered down against the wall of a Dayak longhouse in the Upper Mahakam river of east Kalimantan in the heart of Indonesian Borneo, he was explaining his ideas to a community workshop.

"In my community, our understanding is that we have rights to our land and the natural resources both above and below the land," he explained. "Everything up to sky belongs to us. Several laws and policies have classified our forests as State forests and the minerals as property of the State. We don't see it like that. I have hair on my arm, on my skin. Both are mine. I also own the flesh and bones beneath. They are also mine. No one has the right to take me apart. But the policy has cut these things apart and thus has cut us into pieces. We want the land back whole."

The community, whose lands had been taken over by a plantation company, was exploring how to regain control of what they saw as rightfully theirs, but which the national government had handed out to an Indonesian multinational corporation, Lonsum. The discussion is just one example of a worldwide movement of indigenous peoples seeking to reclaim their rights to ancestral lands and jurisdictions.

Facilitated by international communications, networks and supportive nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), indigenous peoples in Central Siberia, the Amazon Basin, the Congo, British Colombia and the Pacific can now learn about each other's gains and setbacks within hours or days. What started out as a plethora of local movements for justice by peoples dispossessed by colonialism, national development and corporate penetration, has now developed into a global movement for the recognition and restitution of collective rights.

Considering the continuing wave of expropriations and denial of rights associated with the inexorable spread into indigenous peoples' lands of dams, mines, logging, plantations, colonization schemes and agribusiness, it is easy to overlook how much progress indigenous peoples have made over the last 40 years. Yet, in the 1960s it took several years before the world learned of the machine-gunning of Amazonian Indians by land grabbers acting in connivance with the inaptly named Indian Protection Service in Brazil. The prevailing wisdom of the time was still that these "backwards" peoples were doomed to extinction, hangovers of a previous age that must inevitably give way to progress.

The international mobilization to counter this myth can be dated to the mid-1970s, when indigenous peoples from North America came for the first time to the United Nations to demand recognition of their right to self-determination. They were soon joined by Aboriginal peoples from Australia, Maori from New Zealand, Saami from Scandinavia and Indians from Central and South America.

Today, annual meetings on indigenous peoples at the United Nations bring together representatives of marginalized "native" peoples from all over the world. Their presence is not only testimony to the spread of ideas but evidence of innumerable local and national mobilizations, as communities have organized, created new representative institutions, federated into regional bodies and joined into national and international umbrella groups.

This mobilization has not only helped raise international awareness about indigenous peoples' situation, it has also helped to curb local processes of expropriation of indigenous lands. As political solidarity has grown and both the extent and underlying causes of dispossession have become clearer, national policies and laws have begun to change. Some countries have reformed national courts, and national laws and constitutions have been reformed.

Since the 1980s, most Latin American countries have either overhauled their constitutions or passed new "organic" (framing) laws to recognize the multi-ethnic and pluricultural nature of national societies and the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and natural resources.

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