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Native Currents: World Summit on the Information Society

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) proposes a worldwide democratization of information, under the concept that international communications is currently concentrated mainly in the hands of monopolistic transnational companies. The World Summit will bring together government, business and civil society representatives for meetings in two phases: the first will be held in Geneva from the 10th to the 12th of December 2003, and the second in Tunis from the 16th to the 18th of November 2005. What is exceptional about this projected Summit is that the United Nations Official Bureau called on the private sector and the so-called civil society, including indigenous peoples, to actively participate in the making of the Declaration of Principles that will guide the Summit and to put into practice the recommendations in the Action Plan.

Participants at the planning stage include indigenous leaders and organizations from North, Central and South America working together with civil society's NGOs from all over the world, independent media, education unions, etc., and these have been very active and well organized while indigenous participation, ironically due to a lack of information, has been limited. In the last preparatory conference in Geneva these civil society groups played a distinguished part in drawing up proposals, achieving consensus and presenting them to the international conference. They have also been very receptive and sensitive toward indigenous proposals, and they supported indigenous representatives. All of these participants have expressed the hope that more indigenous participants, especially from North America, will join in the WSIS as it progresses.

The indigenous peoples from Latin America found out about the WSIS during the International Conference on Connectivity in March 2003 that was organized by Canada's Connectivity Institute of the Americas, Native Peoples of Canada, and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Members of the Secretariat of the WSIS in Geneva were present to inform and invite indigenous peoples to participate in this. At the end of the conference the indigenous delegates of Latin America and Canada met not only to draw up strategies with a view to actively participate in the WSIS, but also to establish an indigenous network of communication on a continental level in order to share information and strengthen the struggle for indigenous rights. Indigenous peoples have not been fully represented in any of these preparatory conferences nor at the inter-session meeting. Only the Indigenous Media Network (based in Mohawk territory but comprised of indigenous peoples from Africa, Latin America and Scandinavia) has had active participation. Last October, Indigenous Peoples Network on Communication of Latin America met in Brazil to formulate proposals to be presented at the World Summit.

Some of the main issues affecting indigenous peoples include the right to communication, use of community media, the strengthening of cultural and linguistic identity and diversity (established in the UNESCO Declaration), respect for indigenous knowledge threatened by current patent standards education and research and the right to free software for indigenous peoples in developing regions.

The Indigenous Media Network (IMN) has drawn up a document to be presented at the World Summit in Geneva and also proposed its consideration by the indigenous delegates at the preparatory meeting in Brazil, held Oct. 8 - 10.

The IMN document demands special attention to the situation of indigenous peoples, taking into account that their full and equal participation in the evolution of the information society should be based on their own visions and concepts. The respect for their foci, their own protocols, procedures and obligations that are culturally different and defined. The document considers that the information and communication technologies should be at the service of indigenous peoples in order to strengthen their cultures and identities. Some of these proposals were accepted.

The government of Canada is organizing (via the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues) a parallel Indigenous Global Forum to be held on the dates of the World Summit where the indigenous delegates should be actively participating. For the success of the Forum, they have decided to contribute an unspecified amount of money and have solicited support from other governments. The Swiss government has responded by contributing around $70,000 for the travel expenses of indigenous delegates going to Geneva. While this is positive, indigenous peoples must continue to pressure the organizers to correct the lack of indigenous participation in the themes, preparation, and organization of this forum, especially as it will overlap with and distract from the main WSIS conference.

The civil society made more than 80 concrete proposals in the Action Plan, however only 13 were taken into account, included but not approved. Texts will continue to be discussed. The draft adopted by governments was marked by the influence of market demands and tends to give more power over the media to private firms and governments. The U.S. disappointed Third World countries and civil society delegates by opposing most of their proposals. Indigenous delegates commented on other governments, specially those of Northern Europe, which proposed that civil society should have access to information and communication technologies but as consumer societies and not as actors and with rights to access and creativity within communication.

Some of these obstacles themselves demonstrate the difficulty in distributing information and the enormous challenge that indigenous organizations have in communicating amongst ourselves, informing and making sure that our peoples are properly trained in the use of communication media, a central and necessary skill to command in this communications era.

In addition to the influence that indigenous peoples may have in the shaping of global information policies, the process of participating in the WSIS will be another form of strengthening the identity and unity of indigenous peoples in our common concern for our ancestral rights.

Nilo Cayuqueo, Mapuche activist and writer, lives in Oakland, Calif. and Mapuche Country, Argentina. He is a member of the Abda Yala Nexus, a Native development network. Mr. Cayuqueo can be reached at: nilocayu@earthlink.net.