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Water Rights Highlighted at United Nations Indigenous Issues Forum

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At the 10th annual Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, being held at UN headquarters in New York City through the end of this week, environmental issues are a constant topic of discussion, and none more so than water rights for indigenous peoples. On May 24, a panel of four experts briefed the press on issues surrounding indigenous peoples' rights to water.

"There is quite a fundamental link to access to water and living in dignity," said Valmaine Toki, a professor of law at the University of Auckland, in New Zealand. Toki is Maori, of Nga Puhi, Ngati Wai and Ngati Rehua descent. "Part of the problem with respect to the recognition of indigenous rights to water is the approach by governments of state," she continued, "with water being viewed very much as a property right and a resource for economic gain, without any recognition of original or native title rights to water. Unsurprisingly, indigenous rights to water are not recognized within the legislation that follows from that."

She went on to criticize policies that "do not include an indigenous perspective to water," citing "mismanagement, overallocation to intensive agricultural practices, and extractive industries—things like mining—and this obviously results in pollution of waterways, ecosystems, and livelihood, causing detriment and harm to indigenous peoples." She cited a couple of examples from her region of the world: Papua New Guinea, where tailings from mining operations have polluted the waterways, and New Zealand, where runoff from intensive dairy farming negatively impacts the ecosystem of the water and kills seafood.

Tia Oros Peters, Zuni, the executive director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, described the dangers and difficulties of life without readily accessible clean water. "How can it be that every eight seconds a child dies from a water-related disease?" she asked. "How can it be that people have to walk miles and miles and miles, women have to walk miles and miles and miles and children and risk their lives with one little bucket to secure water? And when they do, it's dirty."

Peters coined a term to describe the trend toward more and more polluted waterways: "Aquacide."

"We know what the term 'genocide' means—the killing of our peoples," she said. "We even may know what the term 'terracide' means—the purposeful killing of the mother Earth, creating a situation in which the mother Earth is no longer able to regenerate herself. ... So comes the term 'aquacide'—the purposeful killing of our waters. ... [Zuni] people look at aquifers as the spirit world. And when privatization happens, when commodification of water happens, when pollutants and toxins are in the water, when it's been dammed and diverted to such an extent, when springs have been damaged, when every possible drop of clean water has been destroyed, it kills the water's spirit. Aquacide. The killing of our waters."

To watch an archived webcast of the press conference in its entirety, visit