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The rights and wrongs of a United Nations declaration

13 June, 2013 - 09:22 -- World Land Trust
Photograph of a Guarani girl in Misiones, Argentina. © WLT / John Burton.

How many people have ever read the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

It is one of the most verbose and contradictory documents I have ever come across. But its main fault is that it doesn’t actually define who is an indigenous person. In fact, none of the key terms are defined. What, for instance is a military activity? Is it warfare? A read of the declaration implies indigenes all live in some Rousseauesque state of noble savagery.

One presumes indigenous peoples are the human group that got there first (why does that give them any more rights than later conquerors – it didn’t in most of Europe?). The declaration also assumes (as far as I could read) that indigenous people are not living in the modern world. 

In some case indigenous people are easy to identify. The Andaman Islanders are indigenous to the Andamans. But elsewhere who are they? Who are the indigenes of Africa? How long do you have to occupy a territory to become an indigene?

In many parts of the world indigenes were not settled. They were either hunter gatherers, roaming over vast areas, nomadic herdsmen, or slash and burn cultivators moving every few years. And what about in areas of the Congo, where one or more group live in overlapping geographical areas and in conflict? Try reading that into the declaration, and you will see what a mess it creates. Furthermore many of these groups practiced customs (protected under the declaration) which we would consider unacceptable, or at least in conflict with other parts of the declaration.

Article 1 states that indigenous peoples have full right to all human rights and fundamental freedoms under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But Article 11 states they ‘have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs’. It was certainly customary for many of these peoples to practice infanticide. And female genital mutilation is very much prevalent in the traditions of much of Africa. Do we really want these rights and traditions to persist?

Article 20 gives the right to maintain and develop their political, economic and social systems etc; but in most cases these were highly discriminatory against women, which is in direct conflict with Article 22 which states that ‘particular attention shall be paid to the rights and special needs of indigenous elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities.’ Not only were women often discriminated against, but those with disabilities might be abandoned, along with the elderly.

But it is articles such as Article 26 which have caused the greatest problems, and have probably caused huge harm to the cause of indigenous peoples (however they are defined). Article 26 baldly states that they ‘… have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired.’ But it does not specify how long that ‘traditional’ ownership or occupation has to be. A study of the famous Yanomamo of the Amazon showed that they had only occupied the land they were first contacted in by Europeans for 100 years or so.

I have considerable experience of visiting the Gran Chaco in Paraguay. Once this vast area was the territory of a number of indigenous groups, constantly on the move, with overlapping territories, with very small populations, constantly fighting each other. Geronticide, infanticide, murder and rape were also not uncommon.  But under the Declaration of Indigenous Rights, the tiny remnant populations, now mostly settled, have the right to claim all of this territory. And lawyers representing these people fight for these rights, probably knowing full well they will rarely, if ever, be conceded. By taking such extreme positions no one wins, but certainly the claimants to indigenous rights usually lose. 

World Land Trust (WLT) and others have demonstrated, in Misiones Province, Argentina, that by working with the Guarani indigenes, conservationists can sometimes accomplish more than lawyers can. We have achieved this success by working together, for common objectives, and accepting on both sides that there have to be compromises.

It is difficult because indigenous communities have been marginalised and disregarded for hundreds of years. Why should they trust conservationists, when even the lawyers representing them have often failed to deliver any concrete results?

Our hope is that by word of mouth we and our partners in Misiones can work with other groups of Guarani. Ultimately, enough of our objectives are shared to make compromise worthwhile. The compromise conservationists have to accept is that some of the hunting methods are not those that most of us would condone. But if we dig our heels in, the situation will only deteriorate.

For anyone wanting a better understanding of the complexities of the issues surrounding indigenous ‘rights’ a newly published volume by Napoleon Chagnon is a highly readable introduction: Noble Savages (2013) published by Simon & Schuster.


Submitted by Robert Burton on

What about the Touareg and other African tribes with their bonded castes? Being indigenes, it is presumably OK for them to keep clients/slaves.

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