Indigenous Peoples Recruit for the New Frontier

Article excerpt

The ship called Earth on which we stand is sinking. The time to make better choices and insist on life rafts for all was yesterday. In the wake of Hollywood's Titanic, where we cried en masse over injustice in the face of impending doom, can we put to rest the harmful priorities and prejudices of today and join land-based people in the fight for Earth's survival?

At the United Nations Earth Summit in 1992, world leaders met to discuss the environmental crisis but only one indigenous leader--Marcos Terena of the Terena Tribe in Brazil--was allowed to speak. He was allotted five minutes to represent the viewpoints of five thousand indigenous nations, all of which have never had a problem living sustainably with the planet.

Said Terena, "You cannot just squander millions and millions of dollars [on environmental conferences] if you don't want to listen to what the Earth has to tell you." Continued denial will prove fatal. Remember the Titanic. (But this ship can't sink!) Humanity's headlong pursuit of development at any cost has come at a price: we have built lives (for some) that are faster and fancier than any that have come before, at the cost of a planet that is growing less and less capable of sustaining any life at all. Ariel Araujo of the Mocovi Tribe in Argentina noted, "Indigenous peoples have the power to maintain the equilibrium that the planet needs to continue advancing. That is our technology, which is more advanced than the technology that money gives birth to."

Spurred into action by the lack of indigenous representation at the U.N. summit, Terena simultaneously organized the first ever World Gathering of Indigenous and Tribal Leaders. The Brazilian government donated land located within the compound of a psychiatric hospital, complete with patients. Ignoring the ironic (some might say racist) fact that, until 1978, indigenous people had the same human rights as the criminally insane, seven Amazon tribes built a village within the asylum to host the historical gathering.

Earth pioneers from the Americas, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, and the Pacific Rim passed through the guarded checkpoints to reach the inaugural gathering, where the 109-point Kari-Oca Earth Charter was unanimously drafted and signed. This charter provides environmentally sound guidelines for human rights, biodiversity, conservation, development strategies, land and territory, culture, science, and intellectual property. Said Helen Corbett of the Yamitji Tribe in Australia, "We come to reaffirm the practices that we have adopted since time immemorial to preserve Mother Nature .... We want to share that knowledge and understanding, educating the non-indigenous peoples throughout the world."

The indigenous Earth charter was made available to the United Nations and is available to anyone via the Internet at So why, in this age of information superhighways, is it unfamiliar? Terena offers this explanation:

   This life code that no scientist has ever managed to unveil rests with the
   Indians .... You don't have to look any further or research any further or
   spend millions of dollars on new research. We the Indians would like to
   offer you our time, our wisdom, for your civilization. And once again, we
   have to ask you, are you prepared for that? Is the contemporary world
   prepared to listen to what we want to convey after five hundred years of

Loaded questions. How can we listen to one another when some of us are deafened by disdain, while others are filled with mistrust--and for historically good reason?

Where is the common ground between tribal people and the descendants of those who came bearing small pox-infested blankets and--according to accounts such as Toxic Waste and Racism in the U.S. and "Dances with Garbage" in the April 4, 1991, Newsweek--come again today bearing toxic waste? Where is the common ground between descendants of people enslaved and slave owners, between men and women with centuries of hate crimes between us, between humans and every other creature we brutally disregard? …