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UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Opens 11th Session in New York

7 May 2012 marked the opening of the eleventh session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII). Approximately 2,000 representatives of indigenous peoples’ organizations and groups have arrived in New York to attend the session, which continues through the 18th of May. The theme of the eleventh session is “The Doctrine of Discovery: its enduring impact on indigenous peoples and the right to redress for past conquests,” based on Articles 28 and 37 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The official process will address this theme, and its regional focus will emphasize Eastern and Central Europe, the Russian Federation, Central Asia and Transcaucasia.

Over fifty side events, to be held at UN Headquarters and at the nearby Church Center, will complement the official deliberations of Permanent Forum members, indigenous representatives, UN agencies, and Member States. Important themes for the 11th session include food sovereignty, indigenous peoples’ human rights, violence against indigenous women (in the follow-up to the Expert Group Meeting on this subject held in January 2012), the upcoming Conference on Sustainable Development (“Rio+20”) and the impact of extractive industries on indigenous peoples’ resources, ancestral lands, and self-determination.

A particular highlight of the Forum, the High-Level Panel commemorating the fifth anniversary of the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, will take place 17 May in the General Assembly Hall, and will be convened by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The event will feature remarks from representatives of Bolivia, Slovenia, the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, and the Working Group on Indigenous Populations.

For more information, including the programme of work and information about accessing UNPFII events on UN grounds, please consult the official website at www.un.org/indigenous.

Opening

The opening of the 11th session of the Permanent Forum was held in the General Assembly Hall on 7 May. It began with a performance of the didgeridoo (an Australian indigenous instrument) by Cameron McCarthy, and a ceremonial welcome by Todadaho Sid Hill, Chief of the Onondaga Nation.

Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro made a statement, underscoring the Permanent Forum’s singular goal of recognition and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, within the context of sustainable and culturally-appropriate development. Pointing out that fewer than fifty days remain until Rio+20, Ms. Migiro acknowledged the essential messages indigenous peoples have to deliver at Rio regarding the importance of community solidarity and indigenous knowledge and the protection of indigenous peoples from exploitation by governments or businesses. Extending this message of the necessity of participation to include that of indigenous women, the Deputy Secretary-General called attention to the expert group meeting on violence against indigenous women, the upcoming session of the Commission of the Status of Women (CSW) to focus on violence against women, and the resolution achieved by this past session of the CSW on indigenous women as key actors in poverty and hunger eradication. Regarding the theme of the “Doctrine of Discovery,” the international legal construct that was used by European governments to attempt to justify their colonization and destruction of indigenous peoples and their lands, Ms. Migiro emphasized the need to acknowledge what has happened and to use this understanding to build a future based on mutual respect, equity, and justice.

Assistant Secretary-General for Policy Coordination and Inter-Agency Affairs Thomas Stelzer introduced the session and presided over the presentation and formal election of the Chair, Chief Edward John of the Tl’azt’en Nation and Canadian First Nations political leader. After officially receiving the chairpersonship from the previous Chair, Dr. Myrna Cunningham Kain, Mr. John presided over the election (by acclamation) of the other members of the Bureau: Megan Davis (Rapporteur), and Anna Naykanchina, Valmaine Toki, Alvaro Pop, and Simon M’Vibodoulou (Vice-Chairs). The provisional agenda was also adopted by consensus.

In his capacity as Chair, Mr. John made a statement on the proposed organization of work, highlighting the work of indigenous participants and the Permanent Forum in promoting a human-rights based approach to development that calls for the participation of indigenous peoples as part of good governance at national, international, and intergovernmental levels. Reminding those present that indigenous peoples and issues are the reason for the existence of the Permanent Forum, Mr. John voiced an appeal for access for the many indigenous participants who arrived in New York only to discover that they cannot attend many of the sessions due to space constraints; all actors including States, indigenous Nations and organizations, inter-agency support groups, and UN Agencies must address in collaboration the continued discrimination, racism, marginalization, extreme poverty, and conflict that indigenous peoples face, he concluded.

Following Mr. John’s statement, ASG Stelzer’s opening remarks acknowledged a worldwide hope for a balanced and more sustainable world, to be addressed at Rio+20. He called for “keeping the earth in full view” regarding decision-making at both the Conference on Sustainable Development and during this session of the Permanent Forum. After thanking those States that contributed to the UN Trust Fund for indigenous issues, among them Estonia, Ecuador, and Slovenia, Mr. Stelzer outlined the primary activities to take place during the eleventh session of the Permanent Forum.

Minister of Communication and Relations with the Parliament of the Republic of Congo, Bienvenu Okiemy, made a statement that emphasized the firm commitment of his government to indigenous issues. Three to ten percent of the population of the Republic of Congo consists of indigenous groups originating along the Congo River basin, and they are protected under a provision of the Congolese constitution drafted in accompaniment with indigenous peoples, NGOs, and UN agencies, in line with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Given the dangers of exploitation often faced by indigenous peoples who possess resource-rich territories, Mr. Bienvenu called for increased global attention to marginalized and impoverished indigenous populations.

The Opening meeting was adjourned with the recitation of a ceremonial prayer by two Mayan elders, Virginia Ajxup and Juan Sapil.

Side Event - Indigenous Peoples and Extractive Industries

During the first day of the session, three non-governmental organizations - Cordillera Peoples Alliance, Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN), and the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) - held a side event focusing on extractive industries in Southeast Asia.

Joan Carling, AIPP’s Secretary-General, focused on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN region, an area of extreme economic growth based on mining, logging, and other extractive industries that exploit indigenous lands and block the self-determination of the majority of the 85 million indigenous peoples in the region. Ms. Carling illustrated her points with three examples: land concessions in Cambodia, which cause conflict, displacement of indigenous peoples, and hunger for populations that rely on timbre forest products to survive; the 25 hydroelectric dams planned or set up in Laos, 18 in Myanmar, and 12 in the Sarawak region of Malaysia to supply the energy needs of neighbouring countries; destructive mining of nickel, iron, ore, tin, bauxite, gold, gas, and oil in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Myanmar; and palm oil plantations which have used 4.5 million hectares of land (with an additional 30 million proposed) in Malaysia and which have already caused 663 documented conflicts with indigenous peoples. In addition to the physical and economic displacements and destruction these cause, ASEAN States typically respond to indigenous protests by militarizing these regions, Ms. Carling stated, and international attention needs to recognize and address the struggles of these indigenous populations for self-determination and government accountability.

The Chair of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance Windel Bolinget focused on the area of Northern Luzon in the Philippines to illustrate the government mining policy of “liberalization and plunder.” Charting the continuing annual increase in large-scale mining in the region, most undertaken by transnational mining corporations, Mr. Bolinget shared information on indigenous peoples’ opposition and resistance to this trend as a violation of their collective rights to ancestral land and increasing their vulnerability, along with the state response of militarization that has resulted in abuses to women and children and the threatening of agricultural livelihoods and traditional institutions. Extractive industries that base their existence on the “Regalian Doctrine” (similar to the Doctrine of Discovery, colonial discourse integrated into the legal framework of the Philippines and other States) deny indigenous rights, Mr. Bolinget concluded, as “a concrete case of imperialist and corporate plunder.” Their reorientation to cohere to human rights and to respect indigenous populations is necessary, Mr. Bolinget stated, to fully respect free prior and informed consent and in acknowledgements of indigenous peoples’ collective rights to ancestral lands and resources.

Rukka Sombolinggi of AMAN addressed the issue of mining and indigenous peoples in Indonesia, which has made good progress in terms of policy but faces continual problems with development focused on land concessions and extractive industries. Approximately 1.5 million hectares of land are converted for mining per year, Ms. Sombolinggi asserted, which marginalizes indigenous peoples through increasing poverty, locking them out of permits and high-paying jobs in the mining agencies, and increases environmental damage and pollution in indigenous areas. Though Indonesia’s Parliament has vowed to table a draft of Recognition and Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples during 2012, Ms. Sombolinggi voiced the concern, as evinced by the more than 100 ongoing cases of criminal persecution of indigenous activists against landgrabbing, that the government will not follow up with concrete protection of indigenous land and its inhabitants.

Participants shared comments and suggestions during the discussion, including, most notably, the adoption of the model of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to increase governmental accountability towards their indigenous populations.

Note:

An overflow room has been designated in the North Lawn Building, eliminating the need for secondary passes for participants in the Permanent Forum to enter. Only the blue UN groundspass will be necessary to attend the official sessions of the forum, as of Tuesday 8 May.