The creation of a new United Nations forum will provide a platform for the world's indigenous peoples to express their views and air their grievances on a wide range of issues, including violation of their rights.

By Mithre J Sandrasagra

United Nations: A new UN forum, to be created within the next 12 months, will provide a platform for the world's indigenous peoples to express their views and air their grievances on centuries-old and deeply ingrained problems.

The Forum on Indigenous Issues, the first of its kind, will enable some 300 million indigenous people living in more than 70 countries, to convey their opinions on violations of their rights which have been on the UN agenda since 1972.

The new body will consist of 16 members, eight of whom will represent indigenous peoples and the remaining eight will represent member states. All 16 will be appointed by the President of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), on the basis of broad consultations with indigenous organisations.

In choosing representatives, the 53-member UN Human Rights Commission, which took the decision to establish the forum in late April, will take into account 'the diversity and geographical distribution of the indigenous people of the world as well as the principles of transprency, representability and equal opportunity for all indigenous people'.

All members of the Forum would serve in their personal capacity as independent experts on indigenous issues for a period of three years with the possibility of re-election or reappointment for one further period.

The Forum will enable indigenous groups to define common goals and ideals and to act in concert to limit the power of commercial interests over them. Furthermore, the Forum will enable indigenous knowledge - developed over thousands of years - to be shared with the international community on a broad range of issues.

Following a panel discussion on 'Indigenous People and Traditional Knowledge' held on 2 May, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson/Rapporteur of the UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Populations, told IPS that the Forum would enable indigenous groups to 'convey their positions on a broader spectrum of issues than is presently possible under the auspices of the Human Rights Commission'.

Richard van Rijssen, Chairman/Rapporteur of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Establishment of the Permanent Forum, said the forum would address a wide range of issues, 'including human rights, social and sustainable development, health, the environment, education, culture, children, and gender'.

Tauli-Corpuz went on to say that 'thanks to the Voluntary Fund, key indigenous leaders and activists had been able to attend this year's session of the Commission.

'The Fund enabled them to speak and represent their nations, communities and organisations in relevant working group sessions... their active presence had spelt the difference in what these groups achieved,' she said.

Violet Ford, of Labrador, Canada, speaking at the Panel on Traditional Knowledge, said that it must be brought to the attention of the international community that 'many changes, environmental and otherwise, in Inuit territories of the Canadian Arctic reflect decisions made thousands of kilometres away'.

Governments must be held responsible for harmful paternalism or unduly manipulating the representation of their respective indigenous peoples. Ford commented that 'the contribution of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to sustainable development is dependent on how we indigenous people can participate in its implementation'.

Over the centuries indigenous groups had held land and had always intended to live in harmony with it; however, there are 'no international laws to protect indigenous management and administration of our own lands', she continued.

A spokesperson for indigenous groups, addressing the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) meeting in New York, said that 'globalisation and trade liberalisation had created more problems than it had solved'.

In the past five years, indigenous people had seen the appropriation of their land and resources. Many small-scale farmers had gone out of business, he said.

'Structural adjustment policies were also to blame... the net effect being that the potential of indigenous people had been significantly diminished,' he added.

A number of delegates at the CSD, including the representatives of Chile, spoke of the lack of any UN body which dealt with the needs of indigenous people in a comprehensive way.

Though some indigenous groups were allowed to participate in the Human Rights Commission this year, contributions of indigenous groups in spheres outside that of human rights have been limited.

Chee Yoke Ling, speaking on behalf of the Third World Network, in highlighting the ecological dimension of globalisation said that there is a 'growing concern that liberalisation in trade and investment is resulting in the privatisation of indigenous and public lands'.

Also, indigenous knowledge and public research are increasingly expropriated by private corporations through intellectual property rights. 'Natural resources, including seeds and water, are being turned into private property for private profit. Development has often taken place without indigenous peoples' consent, consultation, participation or benefit.

Governments and the private sector must recognise the central role of indigenous farmers and traditional knowledge in agricultural research and development by supporting training programmes of farmers' own organisations, and increasing research programmes that collaborate with farmers from beginning to end, the Third World Network representative said.

Ajay Vashee, speaking on behalf of farmers at the CSD, said that more linkages between new science and traditional knowledge must be located. - Third World Network Features/IPS

About the writer: Mithre J Sandrasagra is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose the above article has been reprinted.