April 21, 2024


Roberto Borrero will never forget standing in the United Nations General Assembly on the day countries voted to approve the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It was September 13, 2007 in New York City, and Borrero had been walking those halls for years on behalf of the International Indian Treaty Councilurging country representatives to adopt the new human rights standard.

Now, as he watched his fellow native advocates embrace and celebrate, he thought of how many times their people had been dismissed as savages and animals. Here was a new standard that enshrined indigenous rights as human rights. “The world is finally looking at indigenous people as people,” he thought.

The vote was a pivot for Indigenous advocacy. For decades, people like Borrero turned to the United Nations to hear their pleas when colonial governments refused to do so.

Today, nearly two decades after that vote, Borrero feels indigenous peoples are approaching another critical moment.

World leaders pledge hundreds of billions of dollars to address climate change. At least 190 countries have committed to conserving 30 percent of the world’s lands and waters by 2030. Once again, indigenous advocates are flying to New York and Geneva to ensure that their voices are heard and that their people’s rights and territories are respected. But increasingly, Borrero and other advocates are unnerved by one particular acronym that keeps cropping up in multilateral discussions: IPLC, which stands for Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities.

If you study international conservation, you may have seen this before. It shows up in treaties, in scholarly works, in studies about what lands indigenous peoples own and what solutions to climate change exist. It’s a phrase that seems to have originated in conservation treaties, but advocates like Borrero are seeing it more frequently in various international locations.

It sounds innocent, but to Borrero it feels insidious. Indigenous people have fought for decades for their rights and recognition. For him, slapping them with the very broad, amorphous term “local communities” threatens to roll back the progress they have made.

It is one thing that state governments are expected to get the consent of indigenous peoples before carving out a new protected area. It is quite different when states can say they need “IPLC” consent, and can argue that local community support outweighs indigenous opposition, effectively drowning out the voices of indigenous peoples and reducing their rights.

Supporters of linking the two say doing so does not diminish indigenous rights, but Borreco and others who have seen their land stolen and communities destroyed are bracing themselves for the worst.

“You’re really creating a possibility for one of the biggest land grabs since colonization, since the beginning of colonization,” he said. “This is what we are raising the alarm about.”

He is far from the only one to do so. Last summer, three United Nations bodies spoke out against the term: the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Affairs, an advisory body to the Economic and Social Council; the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which promotes indigenous rights and analyzes rights violations; and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Genevaa subsidiary of the Human Rights Council that conducts studies to help state governments achieve the goals of the Indigenous Bill of Rights.

“We, the UN mechanisms of indigenous peoples, call on all UN entities in their working methods to refrain from conflating indigenous peoples with non-indigenous entities, such as minorities, vulnerable groups or ‘local communities’ , associate, combine or equate. ‘” they wrote.

“We further request that all UN member states that are parties to treaties related to the environment, biodiversity and climate stop using the term ‘local communities’ next to ‘Indigenous Peoples’, so that the term ‘Indigenous Peoples and local communities’ does not no longer used. .”

Not everyone agrees. In a meeting of United Nations working groups in Geneva last September, Borrero listened to Daniel Mukubi Kikuni, a representative of a group of African nations, argued that the linking of indigenous peoples with local communities in conservation treaties is necessary for achieving biodiversity goals.

Kikuni is the head of the Office for Biodiversity Conservation in the Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He is one of the chief negotiators at the United Nations for the Congo on climate change and conservation issues.

He said in an interview that in Africa it is difficult to separate indigenous peoples from local communities. In his mind they have the same rights. “Separating them is like having an elephant without ivory,” he said. “There is no elephant without ivory.”

He sees this work well in the Okapi Game Reserve in the Congo, where he said native Mbuti and Efe are mainly hunters while members of the local community are mainly farmers. The communities rely on each other and trade bushmeat and farm products. It is this kind of mutual trust that makes him think the two cannot be separated.

“At the global level, we have shown that the two are connected and contribute enormously to achieving our goals and targets,” he said.

But not all local communities have strong connections to the land. In other countries, local communities can be equated with civil society at large, Borrero said. And the potential for tension between the two is what has Indigenous advocates worried.

Few people know this as well as Andrea Carmen, who the International Indian Treaty Council for the past 30 years. The organization was founded 50 years ago at Standing Rock in the wake of numerous protests in the 1970s to raise awareness of native rights. Frustrated by North American governments and their lack of response to indigenous issues, thousands gathered in solidarity and decided to take their voices to the international arena.

Carmen joined the organization in the 1980s, pushed for the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and raised two children and grandchildren in the process of getting the declaration approved. She said that in the countless meetings she attended about the writing of that statement, no one ever suggested that it be called the rights of “indigenous peoples and local communities”.

She said the first time she came across the link between the two was in the 1992 United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. The conservation treaty, signed by nearly 200 countries (excluding the United States), was a commitment by countries to recognize the importance of conserving biological diversity. In Article 8(J), the treaty recognizes “the close and traditional dependence of many indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles on biological resources.”

At the time, the fact that countries recognized the value of indigenous peoples at all was significant. But the wording still raised red flags, said Nicole Schabus, a law professor at Thompson Rivers University in Canada.

Schabus said that in international negotiations, single words or even letters – such as the word “people” versus “people” – carry huge implications. United Nations documents used to refer to indigenous populations, which she said implied, “‘let’s look at the problem of indigenous populations who are so poor, how can we help?’ not ‘Let’s look at indigenous peoples and how can they be sustained and empowered?’”

In recent decades, indigenous advocates such as Borreca and Carmen have lobbied international organizations to use the term “Indigenous Peoples”. The term “people” suggests that indigenous groups have a defined identity with the right to self-determination, instead of just being another population or community.

In 2014, they found success at the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, where parties agreed to add the word peoples to future documents, using the term “Indigenous peoples and local communities”. But the countries concerned have also made it clear that they are not changing their legal obligations under the 1992 agreement. And still, connecting indigenous peoples with local communities has esteemed indigenous advocates.

“’IPLC’ is problematic because it implies that indigenous people and local communities are all the same. They’re not,” Schabus said. In international law, indigenous people have different rights and status than local communities. Local communities can be knowledge holders, but they do not have the same rights as set out in the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. They do not have their own bill of rights.

“It’s important to keep those terms and concepts separate,” Schabus said. Part of the problem is that there is a lot of confusion about what “local communities” means.

There is ambiguity around both terms, but there is much more clarity about what makes someone indigenous, according to Elissavet Tsioumani, an international law scholar at the University of Trento in Italy. Indigenous peoples are generally considered to have a connection to pre-colonial cultures and land bases and to have the right to determine their national identity. There is also a growing body of international law around the rights of indigenous peoples, such as the right to free, prior and informed consent to projects on their lands.

Local communities do not expressly have the same right. At the same time, there is often conflict between local communities and indigenous people, said Galina Angarova, former executive director of the indigenous advocacy group Cultural Survival.

“In many cases around the world, local communities actually represent mainstream society,” she said, adding that their interests can be in direct opposition to indigenous peoples, especially when it comes to resources and territorial claims.

For Monica Magnusson, a lawyer and human rights advocate in Belize, the issue is not theoretical. She is a member of Laguna, a community of Mayan people in southern Belize.

Her community has fought for years for recognition of their ancestral ties to territories in Belize. They won a major victory in 2015 at the Caribbean Court of Justice which upheld their land claims. But she said that the Belize government still resists granting the Laguna people rights to their territories.

Magnusson thinks acronyms like IPLC give state governments an excuse to spread indigenous rights.

Local communities and indigenous people may have some common ground, she said, and local communities should be free to organize and advocate for their own rights. But any reference to indigenous peoples must recognize their respective rights and not conflate them with another group.

“What is being created here in these spaces are policies and protocols that will have a direct impact on indigenous people’s lands and resources,” she said. “For governments like Belize, who already don’t want to recognize the rights we have, they’re going to jump at any opportunity to water them down.”






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