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Mohawk: Despite advances, threats to indigenous peoples abound

Although great advances have been made in international law standards designed to uphold the rights of indigenous peoples around the world, there is a depressingly long list of things happening which threaten their continued survival. Among the threats are mining, which takes land, destroys forests, pollutes rivers, and sometimes brings military repression and removals. And there is oil and gas drilling, crop spraying (to eradicate contraband drugs but which often attacks people other than contraband drug people), cattle ranch encroachments, dams flooding indigenous communities and lands, illegal timber thefts, pharmaceutical patents which threaten traditional uses of herbs, and even military use of indigenous land for bombing practice. The problems are worldwide, and the magnitude is palpable when considering even a single continent like South America.

There are plenty of problems in Bolivia, but among the most serious is a gas pipeline between Bolivia and Brazil which will impact Chiquitano, Guarayo, Ayoreo, Guarani and Weenhayek peoples, among others. The project, led by Shell Oil, Enron, Transredes, and Petrobras, has already impacted 6 million hectares of the Chiquitano Forest, an area inhabited by at least 178 peasant and indigenous communities. The Ciquitano Forest is the largest relatively pristine tall dry forest in the world and it borders the world's largest pristine wetland area. The pipeline between Santa Cruz in Bolivia to Mato Grosso in Brazil is used to fuel Enron's 480-megawatt thermal power plant. The impacts include river pollution, increased encroachment by colonists, and the destruction of fish and game upon which the local people depend. (For an online report see: www.plant-talk.org/Pages/29enron.html.)

In Brazil, oil and gas pipelines open indigenous areas to miners, squatters, ranchers, and loggers, and the Apurina, Paumari, Deni and Juma peoples are set upon by a slew of companies which sound like a Bush fund-raising list: Elpaso Energy International, Halliburton, Schlumberger Corporation, as well as some from other countries such as Japan Export-Import Bank, the Brazilian National Development Bank, and the Brazil State oil company, Petrobras.

Colombia is the most dangerous country in the Western Hemisphere and its Native population is threatened with encroachment from all the players: guerillas, paramilitaries, drug traffickers, drug runners, and the Colombian army. The U'wa have staged massive protests against oil development by Occidental Petroleum and have focused attention on Occidental's investors and the U.S. military. (The U.S. military has been engaged in low-intensity warfare in Colombia for years. The U.S. government sends more than $1 billion per year to aid in Colombia's war on drugs, but Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International claim some of this money is used to support right wing groups who carry on assassination campaigns against Indians and unionists. Hundreds of Indians have been assassinated over the past few years. (See: www.labornotes.org/archives/2003/03/h.html or www.wrm.org.uy/peoples/amnesty.html. Or visit www.tv.oneworld.net/tapestry?/link=3092.) The latest U.S. bill to support the Colombian military contains $147 million for munitions and training to protect Occidental's Cano Limon oil pipeline. (See www.amazonwatch.org.) Tragedies have happened in Colombia. The Yariguie and Motilon tribes were exterminated by oil exploitation. A report on U'wa resistance can be found at the Rainforest Action Network's web page: www.ran.org/ran_campaigns/beyond-oil/oxy/.

In Peru, the Quechua and Aymara people are facing an invasion of American companies and their plans to patent food and fibers developed in the Andes many centuries ago. One example is the move by Appropriate Engineering and Manufacturing, a U.S. firm, which has patented an Andean popping bean. The peoples of the Andes have been the earth's most prolific developers of cultivars. Some 3,600 plants have been domesticated, most for food production. The American table is beneficiary of a very narrow selection of one of these - all potatoes come from there. The Guardian article about the popping bean patent is available on the Internet: www.cpa.org.au/garchve3/1039nuna.html.

Among other things, the Inga, Siona, and Cofan peoples in Ecuador are being forced to evacuate their country because two oil companies - Ecopetrol and Texaco - have contaminated their water supplies. One of these, the Cofan, has seen its population drop from 15,000 to 300 since the arrival of the oil companies. In May, oil company executives met with indigenous leaders following protests. Chevron-Texaco was holding a board of directors meeting at about the same time in Midland, Texas. For 20 years the oil company "developed" the area with little concern for ecological damage. A report is found at www.amazonwatch.com. The situation in Ecuador is particularly instructive of the kind of threat indigenous peoples and third world citizens face. A pipeline project known as the OCP (Oleoducto de Crudos Pesados) was due for completion this summer. It is a 300-mile pipeline from the Ecuadorian Amazon to the Pacific coast, designed to carry oil destined for California. It crosses large areas of the Amazon forest and territories of indigenous peoples. It is backed by the International Monetary Fund and seems designed to force Ecuador to make payments on $16 billion in debt. Ecuador will pay 80 percent of increased oil output toward this debt payment. Among the developers: En Cana (Canada 31.4 percent) Repsol-YPF (Spain 25.6 percent), Pecom Energia (Argentina 15 percent) and Occidental Petroleum (12.2 percent).

The list of threats to indigenous peoples and their lands is a lengthy one. People who are interested in a global view of indigenous peoples and development are advised to obtain the International Forum on Globalization's map, "Globalization: Effects on Indigenous Peoples," which locates issues in North, Central and South America, Greenland, Europe, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific, and Australia. It is truly a monumental, if overdue, piece of work available online at www.ifg.org/programs/indig.htm. Although it is impossible in a short column to list more than a few resources, the Third World Network deserves mention (www.twnside.org.sg/) as well as its publication, Third World Resurgence, which is found at the same site.

A reading list helpful to understanding the theory and practice of indigenous peoples' struggles is found at the Center for World Indigenous Studies web site, www.cwis.org/fourthw.html.

Some good late summer reading on this topic: Alison Brysk, "From Tribal Village to Global Village: Indian Rights and International Relations in Latin America" (2000); Ronald Niesen, "The Origins of Indigenism" (2003); Linda Tuhiwai Smith, "Decolonizing Mythologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples" (1998); Richard T. Perry, "From Time Immemorial: Indigenous Peoples and State Systems" (1996); Franke Wilmer, "The Indigenous Voice in World Politics: Since Time Immemorial" (1993); Bartholomew Dean (ed.), "At the Risk of Being Heard: Identity, Indigenous Rights, and Post Colonial States" (2002); Bradley Reed Howard, "Indigenous Peoples and the State: The Struggle for Native Rights" (2003); Shelton H. Davis, "Land Rights and Indigenous Peoples, the Role of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights" (1988, $205.00); and the inestimable S. James Anaya (ed.), "International Law and Indigenous Peoples" (2003), or the earlier cheaper paperback.

John C. Mohawk, Ph.D., columnist for Indian Country Today, is an author and professor in the Center for the Americas at the State University of New York at Buffalo.