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Indigenous leaders take steps to make UN declaration law

QUITO, Ecuador - Indigenous leaders and other supporters from Ecuador and elsewhere are developing strategies to help all Native peoples turn the United Nations' declaration on indigenous rights into law across the hemisphere.

From Dec. 16 to 18 in Quito, the capital city of Ecuador, the leaders met for the ''International Conference: Formulation and Implementation of the Strategic Plan for the application of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.''

Organized by the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE in Spanish), the Native-based School of Government and Public Policy, the Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development of Germany and the Esquel Foundation, the conference addressed the issue through five ''work tables'': democracy, politics and autonomies; territories and natural resources; administration of justice; economics and development; and identity, culture and patrimony (which included intellectual, spiritual and cultural aspects).

In the first work table, participants reported that they needed concrete plans and programs to define how they would participate democratically and how they would construct or reconstruct their own forms of government. No specific plans were mentioned, however, in the report.

One idea was announced in the realm of economics. ''As we are living in a capitalistic system, the question of community enterprises or businesses'' was discussed, according to the events coordinator, Luis Maldonado, an indigenous activist and scholar at the School of Government and Public Policy. This type of business is being developed more quickly in Bolivia, where the nationalization of natural resources is progressing; and in Ecuador, Maldonado noted, ''a new conception of nationalization or 'citizenation' of the economy'' is approaching. (As of last November, Ecuador has a functioning Constituent Assembly that has, among other things, taken over the role of the national Congress and whose majority has pledged to develop pro-indigenous articles in the new constitution.)

Identity and cross-cultural initiatives were announced as fundamental objectives that can be brought forward through education, which involves more than just involving bilingual studies to include intercultural approaches. Details on those approaches, which would include not just the indigenous peoples but all sectors of the respective societies, were not available at press time.

For all societies, participants proposed two general strategies for the administration of justice: work toward enactment of the U.N. declaration as law of their respective republics, and formulation of proposals for laws to be presented to the national congresses. It was again noted that Bolivia had adopted indigenous rights as law of the land by adopting the U.N. bill as national legislation.

Legal enforcement of these measures was addressed in a section dedicated to creating a system of inspectors or comptrollers for the effective application of indigenous rights. Maldonado pointed out that ''this has to do also with the diverse plans established by the United Nations, for example, with respect to the second decennial of the indigenous peoples and the proposals that are being formulated at the regional and sub-regional levels.''

''The declaration is an important international instrument,'' Maldonado continued, ''that must be taken up by the indigenous peoples and their governments in spite of the limitations it still has.'' One of the limitations, according to the coordinator, involved the issue of free determination. Even though it is listed in the declaration, it remains constrained by the various national states and it does not permit ''a re-grouping of the different peoples and existing nationalities that are dispersed throughout different states.''

Another item of concern involved natural resources, which is causing conflicts throughout the hemisphere. ''The indigenous peoples only have the right to the free determination of the use of the ground on the surface and not of the sub-ground or underground, then this also is a fundamental limitation of what the declaration established,'' Maldonado stated.

While the indigenous peoples of Ecuador have some cause for optimism, there are still unresolved issues involving their allies in the current government and the mining industries. The new Constituent Assembly, for instance, includes some indigenous members, and it is under the control of the Acuerdo Pais party of President Rafael Correa; Correa ran on a pro-indigenous platform in his campaign and has a few indigenous people in his cabinet. The Acuerdo Pais, along with allied groups, hold 80 of the 130 seats of the Constituent Assembly. Correa has introduced and helped pass some laws that partially nationalize some natural resources, and he is considered a strong ally of President Evo Morales of Bolivia, but there are still serious problems involving huge mining operations in the country. Many of these mineral businesses operate in indigenous areas where allegations of human rights abuses and severe pollution continue.

Despite these limitations, Maldonado stated that the passage of the declaration involves ''a process, to continue advancing and to achieve the full range of rights that all people have in the international arena.''