Today is the United Nations’ (UN) International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, numbering an estimated 370 million in 90 countries and speaking roughly 7,000 languages. To mark it, the Guardian interviews Kankanaey Igorot woman Victoria Tauli-Corpuz about the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which she calls “historic” and was adopted 10 years ago.
Tauli-Corpuz, from the Philippines, was Chair of the UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues when the Declaration was adopted, and is currently the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In this interview, conducted via email, she explains why the Declaration is so important, argues that governments are failing to implement it, and claims that the struggle for indigenous rights “surpasses” other great social movements of the past:
DH: Why is the UN Declaration so important?
VTC: [It’s] so important because it enshrines and affirms the inherent or pre-existing collective human rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the individual human rights of indigenous persons. It is a framework for justice and reconciliation between Indigenous Peoples and states, and applies international human rights standards to the specific historical, cultural, social and economic circumstances of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration is a standard-setting resolution of profound significance as it reflects a wide consensus at the global level on the minimum content of the rights of indigenous peoples. It is a remedial tool which addresses the need to overcome and repair the historical denial of the fundamental human rights of indigenous peoples, and affirms their equality to all other members of society.
DH: How significant an achievement was it?
VTC: In the 1970s Indigenous Peoples had brought to the UN’s attention the problems and issues they were facing, which led the UN to establish the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982. This was mandated to listen to the developments in indigenous territories and to draft a declaration on their rights. The drafting started in 1985 and Indigenous Peoples took an active part. When the Working Group finished its draft in 1995, it was brought to the Commission on Human Rights where the intergovernmental negotiations took place. On the first day, the Chair of the Intergovernmental Working Group told Indigenous Peoples that we weren’t allowed to speak at the negotiations – only to observe. We walked out, of course, because we could not accept and respect a declaration on our rights made without our participation. This led to a change in the UN rules and we were allowed to take part. It was during my term as Chair of the UN Permanent Forum that the Declaration was adopted. There was a real concern that [that would never happen], or that it would be watered down, but finally in September 2007 we were able to achieve this important victory.
DH: How has the Declaration helped indigenous peoples to date?
VTC: Its adoption has boosted the confidence and commitment of many Indigenous Peoples to sustain and strengthen their movements to assert and claim their rights, especially to their lands, territories, resources and self-determination, which includes the right to have their free, prior and informed consent obtained when projects are brought to their lands. I would daresay that Indigenous Peoples’ movements in many countries, regions and even the global movement gained more strength after the Declaration’s adoption. It has made Indigenous Peoples’ rights issues more visible and discussed during global processes, such as the High Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development Goals. Unfortunately, even if the UN’s member states adopted the Declaration, most have not been able to implement it effectively. There has been limited progress. Many Indigenous Peoples are still being dispossessed of their lands by states and corporations, and are being criminalised and assassinated when they fight to protect their lands from being grabbed and polluted by mining and oil companies. The Declaration remains the main tool to fight these battles. In some cases, these battles are being won.
DH: When you talk about “implementation”, do you mean it being respected as a Declaration or made legally binding? Are there any countries where attempts to do the latter have made serious progress?
VTC: Implementation means that states will amend their constitutions and adopt a national law to protect and respect the rights of Indigenous Peoples which are consistent with the standards established in the Declaration. Effective implementation requires states to develop an ambitious program of reforms to remedy past and current injustices. It involves all branches of the state, executive, judiciary, and legislative, and implies a combination of political will, legal reform, technical capacity, and financial commitments. Several countries have taken the significant step of passing such laws or enshrining recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ rights in their constitutions, such as Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador, among others. Brazil was an early leader in this regard and has titled over 100 million hectares of indigenous land, but we are now seeing this progress threatened by the current administration. Latin America has historically been the strongest with regard to recognising indigenous land rights – yet many countries now face potential roll-back. The Declaration doesn’t have to be made legally binding for it to be implemented effectively.
DH: Do you think the Declaration could be improved? Or is there anything in it you would be critical of?
VTC: No, I don’t think the Declaration has to be improved. It is not a perfect document, but it is the result of more than two decades of drafting and negotiating until Indigenous Peoples and states agreed that it was acceptable. Every article represents a response to some of the human rights violations and injustices suffered by Indigenous Peoples. . . We fought to be called “Indigenous Peoples”, a title that recognises us as distinct with our own identities and cultures. We fought for the inclusion of free, prior and informed consent. The biggest problem [with the Declaration] is a lack of implementation. Indigenous Peoples are still forced from their lands for development and conservation projects, and still face violence and criminalisation when they stand up for their rights.
DH: What did you think of the Pope’s comment earlier in the year saying indigenous peoples have the right to ‘prior and informed consent’? Were you surprised?
VTC: I was very glad to hear the Pope’s comments on the right to free, prior and informed consent and his recognition that our lands are vital to our identities, values and spirituality. His words inspire hope for Indigenous Peoples facing an uphill struggle. The Pope also recognised the importance of indigenous rights in the global struggle against climate change: when Indigenous Peoples’ rights to their lands are protected, they are the best guardians of the world’s forests and biodiversity. Studies show that where Indigenous Peoples have secure rights to their lands, carbon storage is higher and deforestation is lower.
DH: In your time as Rapporteur you’ve visited many countries and spoken to many indigenous peoples around the world. What has been the most distressing trip you’ve made so far?
VTC: Around the world, Indigenous Peoples face escalating attacks as well as arrests for refusing to give up the lands they have called home since time immemorial. Seeing evidence of this violence on my visits has been particularly distressing. When I visited indigenous communities in Brazil last year, they showed me the scars on their bodies from rubber bullets and the graves of their murdered leaders. I later found out that some of the communities I visited were attacked only hours after I left. I have seen evidence of this violence in many countries. In the last year alone I communicated my concerns to governments about these attacks in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, Tanzania and the United States.
DH: And what has been your most inspiring trip?
VTC: What inspires me the most is the firm determination of indigenous peoples to fight for their rights. Also, their capacity to survive and their high levels of resilience in the face of great difficulties.
DH: You’ve mentioned some of the threats and challenges that indigenous peoples have to deal with. Very briefly, what do you think are the biggest threats?
VTC: I think the biggest threats are extractive industries, conservation projects and climate change. Many Indigenous Peoples live on resource-rich territory – in large part because they have protected and preserved that land for generations – making them prime targets for both extractive industries and protected areas. Despite the fact that the UN Declaration has been accepted as an international norm, international law still heavily privileges investors and companies. Also, as I found in my report to the [UN] General Assembly last year, protected areas are still being established on indigenous lands without their consent, even though Indigenous Peoples are the proven best guardians of the forest and forcing them from their lands does not improve environmental outcomes. Finally, Indigenous Peoples often live in areas at increased risk of climate change-related disasters. I have already heard from Indigenous Peoples in Kiribati whose homes have been lost to rising seas. Unfortunately, even the solutions to climate change, such as wind farms and geothermal energy, can sometimes threaten indigenous land rights. Where Indigenous Peoples’ rights are ignored, they face the loss of their lands, livelihoods, sacred sites and self-governance.
DH: What do you think of the mainstream media’s portrayal of indigenous peoples?
VTC: I think that there has been an increase in media coverage over the years. I’m glad to see less coverage that portrays us as primitive, but sometimes the media fails to capture the fact that we are not anti-development. We are also seeing more media coverage – but still not enough – on the contributions of Indigenous Peoples to global goals on climate, poverty and peace. If Indigenous Peoples’ rights are not secured and protected, it will be impossible for the world to deliver on the promises of the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. Secure land rights for Indigenous Peoples is a proven climate change solution, and denying indigenous land rights and self-determination is a threat to the world’s remaining forests and biodiversity. It is also a primary cause of poverty. Many indigenous communities face intractable poverty despite living on resource-rich lands because their rights are not respected and their self-determined development is not supported. Protecting the rights of indigenous women, who are often responsible for both their communities’ food security and for managing their forests, is particularly important. Finally, undocumented land rights are a primary cause of conflict and a threat to investment in developing countries. Securing their rights can help mitigate these conflicts and create a more peaceful world.
DH: Finally, do you think the struggle for indigenous peoples’ rights and territories is comparable to any of the other great social movements in the past?
VTC: I think the Indigenous Peoples’ movement surpasses other social movements. They have struggled against colonisation for more than 500 years and continue against forms of colonisation and racism. At the same time, they continue to construct and reconstruct their communities and practice their cultural values of collectivity, solidarity with nature, and reciprocity even amidst serious challenges. Many still fight to protect their territories, which makes their movement different from others.