American Indians Appeal for Right to Manage Their Land

By James Painter, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 17, 1991 | Go to article overview

American Indians Appeal for Right to Manage Their Land


James Painter, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


MORE than 100 Indians from 30 ethnic groups across the Americas have launched a new appeal for the return of their territories on the grounds that they have been the best managers of the hemisphere's tropical forests and natural resources for thousands of years.

Meeting in the tiny village of San Ignacio de Moxos in the heart of the Bolivian Amazon lowlands, the Indians, or "original nations of America" as they prefer to be called, issued a statement calling for respect for their "concepts of development and management of the ecosystem."

"We are not conservationists. But we are managers of the laws of nature," says Nicanor Gonzales, a Kuna Indian from Panama and the coordinator of the congress, the second to be held in the last two years on Indians and the environment. "For millennia our ancestors have shown they know how to manage and live in harmony with tropical forests."

At the congress, Guaymi Indians from Panama expressed concern about foreign mining companies extracting the gold and copper deposits on their land; Mapuches from Chile protested the building of hydroelectric dams in their territory; and Guatemalan Mayan Indians objected to Army occupation of their villages.

The common solution the Indians seek is the recovery of their original territories, backed by proper legislation and an equal participation in any benefits from the land.

"We, the aboriginal people in British Columbia, only control three-quarters of 1 percent of the wood in the province," says Harold Erickson, an Okanaga Indian from Canada and the only representative from the "North" at the conference. "The rest is all going out to industry ... and the provincial government is collecting over $750,000 annually off our traditional lands - while there isn't one red cent going to the Indian people." The Okanaga Indians, like others at the congress, share a lack of real economic participation and management of their resources, the delegates agreed.

Just a few miles from San Ignacio de Moxos, chosen for its remoteness, is an example of the challenges Indians face. …

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