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Kearns: Seminar drafts measures to protect isolated indigenous peoples

After centuries of genocide, displacement and neglect, the last isolated Native peoples to live completely off the land of the great Amazonian forests are getting some help. As “civilization” marches inexorably in their direction, they’ll need all the protection they can get.

Remember the exchange between the reporter and another Indian, Mahatma Gandhi? The reporter asked him, “What do you think of Western civilization?” to which Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” This is one of those times when the world can get closer to that good idea.

“The actions that must be taken involve human rights and respecting the principle of no-contact,” asserted a report from the first Regional Seminar on First-Contact and Isolated Indigenous Peoples in the Amazon Region and the Great Forests of the Chaco (in Bolivia). “The indigenous delegates put much emphasis on the fact that the isolation was never ‘voluntary,’ but the result of aggressions suffered by these peoples.”

These peoples include indigenous groups in Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, Venezuela, Colombia and elsewhere, whose numbers have been decimated by contact with the so-called civilized world. From Nov. 22 to Nov. 24, indigenous leaders, activists, government officials and scholars converged on Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, to draft public policy recommendations to be presented to most of these same Latin American countries and the United Nations.

The two-day seminar was organized by the Office of the High Commissioner of the U.N. for Human Rights, the vice minister of Lands of Bolivia, the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Eastern Bolivia (CIDOB) and the International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs. The CIDOB representatives acted as hosts and leaders of the seminar.

The jointly drafted final document put a top priority on urging governments and international organizations to include the issues of isolated peoples in their respective agendas, and especially to make states understand that they must accept the responsibility of protecting the isolated peoples from “the aggressions of external agents.”

Another policy emphatically supported by the group was the establishment of territories that would be deemed off-limits to outsiders, and that indigenous ownership of these same areas would be assured by issuing legal titles to the lands. Surrounding these off-limit territories would be contiguous buffer zones that would also include special protections from outside exploitation.

Organizers noted that Bolivia’s own indigenous president, Evo Morales, had signed a similar resolution in August that set aside a “Zone of Absolute Reserve” to protect a territory that is home to isolated indigenous peoples. This zone is a protected territory of 19,000 square kilometers and is located within one of the largest and most important nature preserves in the country, the National Mididi Park. Along with instructing the armed forces and police of the need to enforce this law, known as Resolution 48, Morales spelled out the details of the protection: “… all types of prospecting, exploitation and extraction of natural resources are absolutely prohibited, this includes mining or hydrocarbon extraction … and finally, to protect the health of the residents of the reserve, there is also a strict prohibition against the ingress or entry of ‘any external agent’ that could put the residents at risk.”

While the seminar’s participants were pointing to Resolution 48 as a good policy they were also noting that another related strategy – enacted by certain states and conservation groups – was causing hardships for Native peoples. Many organizations have pushed for the creation of natural parks or conservation areas within indigenous territories, and the way these conservation laws are written takes away the rights of the isolated indigenous communities to utilize their own lands for agriculture or other productive purposes. As a result of these possibly unintended effects, the report called for the return of those rights to the isolated peoples living in those conservation areas.

While some parts of the report focused on changing territorial laws there were also calls for changes in the responsibilities of state and national government officials. The report encouraged the strengthening of the roles of public ministries (governmental departments) and the courts in the prohibitions against contact and the application of “exemplary sanctions” against those who would threaten the lives and the integrity of the isolated peoples.

Following those suggested regulations were calls for punishing acts of genocide and ethnocide and for generating legal tools to bring swift action on issues of protection. The report also recommended the prohibition of missionary activities in the areas of the isolated peoples. It wasn’t explicit but the mentioning of genocide and missionaries in the same section of the report was no accident.

In the international arena the seminar participants agreed to introduce these same topics to the following international organizations: the Amazonian Treaty Cooperation Organization, the Andean Community of Nations, the Organization of American States and the Common Market of the South, among others. There was also a separate initiative to request the assignment of a special reporter, or rapporteur, from the United Nations to focus on issues relating to the isolated and first contact peoples.

Both the existence of this group and its report and the support of at least one of the governments involved – that of Bolivia – gives some of us hope for the future of the isolated peoples. It was only 100 years ago that the “rubber barons” swept through these countries, pushing aside or murdering thousands of indigenous Amazonians, in the pursuit of the raw materials that helped build the automobile empires of North America and Europe. It’s only fair that their descendants do something to bring justice to the peoples that were robbed and killed to make sure we all ride on good tires.

<i>Rick Kearns is a freelance writer of Boricua heritage who focuses on indigenous issues in Latin America.