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Newcomb: World Conservation Congress endorses Declaration

On Oct. 13, 2008 (Columbus Day), in Barcelona Spain, the World Conservation Congress (WCC) of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), voted to endorse and begin implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 13, 2007.

The motion passed by the WCC recognizes that the UN Declaration is “the international mechanism for alleviating the tremendous pressures and crises faced by Indigenous Peoples throughout the world as they endeavor to protect Indigenous ecosystems, including biological, cultural and linguistic diversity.”

With the passage of the document, “Implementing the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” the WCC also acknowledges a connection between the colonization of Indigenous Peoples’ lands and territories and several Vatican papal decrees and other similar documents from the fifteenth and later centuries. The motion explains that these were official authorizations to “invade, capture, vanquish” and “subdue” Indigenous Peoples, “subjugate” them and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery” and “to take away all their possessions and property.”

The motion acknowledges that the effect of these authorizations, and the doctrines that followed from them, such as the “doctrine of discovery,” “terra nullius” and “terra nullus,” not only have been ecologically and culturally destructive for Indigenous Peoples, their lands, territories and resources, but also made passage of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples necessary.

The motion states that “the ability of Indigenous Peoples to protect and support biological and cultural diversity is strengthened by fuller recognition of their fundamental human rights, both individual and collective, and that there is a correlation between the rapid decline of biodiversity and the destruction of Indigenous linguistic and cultural diversity.”

The WCC motion also acknowledges that “the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples restates that Indigenous Peoples have the right to self-determination, freely determining their political status, and pursuing their economic, social and cultural development.” Additionally, the WCC further recognizes and reaffirms that “Indigenous Peoples possess collective rights which are indispensable to their existence, well-being and integral development.”

The WCC resolution endorses the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and calls on all IUCN members—(which, by the way, includes those countries that voted no against the Declaration)—“to endorse or adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and apply it to their relevant activities.” It also directs the Council of the IUCN “to form a task force to examine the application of the Declaration to every aspect of the IUCN Programme, policies and practices and to make recommendations for its implementation.”

The document acknowledges “that injustices to Indigenous Peoples have been and continue to be caused in the name of conservation of nature and natural resources,” and instructs the IUCN Director General and Commission “to identify and propose mechanisms to address and redress the effects of historic and current injustices against Indigenous Peoples in the name of conservation of nature and natural resources. The motion passed also requests that the Director General make Indigenous Peoples’ issues a main concern of [the] IUCN and future World Conservation Congresses,” and to “present a statement of progress to the annual UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues beginning in April 2009.”

Sponsors of the motion passed were Pace University School of Law’s Centre for Environmental Legal Studies; Forest Peoples Programme; Green Line, Centre for Environmental Law at Macquarie University; Sierra Club; Terralingua; Atlantic Centre for the Environment/Quebec Labrador Foundation.

On a related note, Ms. Aroha Te Pareake Mead, was elected to the IUCN Council during the WCC. Ms. Mead is a Senior Lecturer in Maori Business, Treaty of Waitangi and Maori Resource Management at Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Management and a National Policy Director for Te Tau Ihu o Nga Wanangaa Maori, Aotearoa (“New Zealand”). She is likely to be a strong supporter of the implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the IUCN during the next four years. What remains to be seen, of course, is the significance of the action taken by this year’s WCC, and how all the motions related to Indigenous Peoples’ issues will be dealt with by the IUCN in the years to come.

Formed in 1948 as part of the United Nations system, and comprised of governments, NGO’s, and eminent scientists, the International Union for Conservation of Nature is the world’s largest and oldest global environmental network. The next World Conservation Congress will be held in 2012.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is indigenous law research coordinator at the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today. He is author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008).