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Seventh Generation Fund

Water protection is 'the ultimate fight'

UNITED NATIONS - Of the dozens of recommendations submitted to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in May, one of the most universal and compelling was a call for the protection of water.

Tia Oros Peters, A:shiwi People/Zuni Nation and executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, presented an ''intervention'' - a statement and recommendations - at the forum's sixth session at U.N. headquarters in New York May 14 - 25, calling for immediate measures to protect the most basic of human rights: the right of access to clean, free water.

''Indigenous peoples know water as the sacred source and essence of all life imbued with a spirit and a consciousness. The vitality of water to our communities is expressed in a rainbow of songs, stories and ceremonies, holding a special place in our cultures for the continuation of an indigenous worldview that affirms the vital link of water to life everlasting,'' Oros Peters said in her address to the forum.

And yet, Oros Peters said, it is becoming more and more difficult for indigenous peoples to have access to clean water or the means to protect this vital element on their lands.

''Privatization of water and other resources places them in the control of multinational corporations, shortsighted governmental development policies and the unrelenting encroachment by non-indigenous settlements, forcing us into poverty and pushing us further to the edge of existence, where we are already barely holding on by our fingertips for survival,'' Oros Peters said.

The Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development - www.7genfund.org - is a nonprofit organization dedicated solely to promoting and maintaining the uniqueness of Native peoples throughout the Americas. The organization is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

Oros Peters has personally experienced the impact that water expropriation by non-indigenous people has on an indigenous community.

''In the Zuni community, you know, we had a river,'' Oros Peters said in an interview with Indian Country Today. ''Because of diversion, there's no water left.''

The Zuni River, which ran through parts of New Mexico and Arizona, was dammed and diverted by the Ramah Cattle Co., allowing Mormon missionary settlements upstream to flourish.

''People assume the desert is always dry, but there used to be water there; there used to be a lake, there used to be a river that ran through the village, but because of upstream divergence, it's gone.''

The same thing can happen to the Klamath River, which runs through southern Oregon and northwestern California to empty into the Pacific Ocean. The Klamath River provides cultural, physical and spiritual sustenance for the Yurok, Hupa and Karuk peoples.

''People say the Klamath will last forever, but a lot of the water is being diverted and if it continues, never mind the seventh generation: there won't be water 10 years from now,'' Oros Peters said.

Those two examples come to mind because of their proximity, but water issues all over the world are equally urgent, Oros Peters said.

In Kenya, the nomadic Masai no longer have access to the water catchments areas they have used since time immemorial because of ''land grabbers.'' In the Mekong Valley, villagers are going blind because of pollutants upstream.

''It's outrageous. There is no one issue that is more significant. Hearing these stories convinced me even more that this is the ultimate fight,'' Oros Peters said.

The Seventh Generation Fund's recommendations included a call for a U.N. special rapporteur for the protection of water and water catchments areas to gather testimony from indigenous peoples impacted by current or proposed water privatizations, diversion and other environmental injustices; support for the ''free, prior and informed consent'' by indigenous peoples for projects on their lands; and immediate steps to protect water from privatization and from government agreements that affect water on indigenous peoples' land.

The issue affects everyone, Oros Peters said.

''I think there's going to be more and more organizing around the issue of water and water protection, not just by indigenous peoples, but by all peoples. It's the most critical thing.''

The Seventh Generation Fund and 24 other organizations have signed on to a recommendation for A World Indigenous Forum on Water and Peace ''that would position this issue front and center,'' Oros Peters explained. Meanwhile, she plans to ''keep pushing on this issue for sure and doing more advocacy work around it.''

Water will likely be central at next year's forum, which will feature a special theme on climate change.