The Fight for Rights

Oct 212004
Authors: Meg Burd

As 2004 marks the end of the United Nation’s declared

International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People, the ending

of this decade of focus on indigenous rights should inspire us to

examine all the more carefully the problems and rights violations

faced by indigenous communities all over the world.

According to a report by the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human

Rights, there are an estimated 300 million indigenous people spread

all over the world. Considered the natives of the land, indigenous

people “are descendants- according to one definition- of those who

inhabited a country or a geographical region at the time when

people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived, the new

arrivals later becoming dominant through conquest, occupation,

settlement, or other means,” the High Commissioner’s report


Groups such as the Mayas of Guatemala, the Aymaras of Bolivia,

the Inuit of the circumpolar region, Maori of New Zealand, and the

Native Americans from right here in the United States and Canada

are just a few of the many indigenous communities around the globe

that found themselves often forcefully stripped of land, traditions

and rights by the forces of colonialism and the subsequent state.

As the United Nations notes, “Exploration and colonization

beginning in the 15th century not only led to rapid appropriation

of indigenous people’s lands and natural resources, but also

despoiled their sciences, ideas, arts and cultures.”

Unfortunately, such exploitations and attacks against indigenous

people’s rights and cultures are still continuing in many, many

places today.

“In countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada,

Chile, Guatemala and Nicaragua, indigenous people are reclaiming

the lands of their ancestors,” Amnesty International reported,

noting that in trying to reclaim their lands, they “are coming up

against violent opposition from landowners and companies exploiting

natural resources, often supported by the authorities.”

In Honduras, for example, (where indigenous communities are

among the most marginalized of the population) Amnesty

International reports that developers and other multinational

companies have been unjustly taking the lands the indigenous

population claims has belonged to them for generations. Conflicts,

sometimes violent, have resulted as the populations clash with

logging companies and other “landowners.” According to the

organization, at least 25 indigenous people (many of them leaders

in indigenous rights movements) have been murdered, while many

other have been injured or repeatedly threatened.

In some places, such as the Amazon and the Kalahari desert,

indigenous people are also facing the loss of tradition knowledge

and plants to biopiracy, where large drug companies come in and use

plants or compounds utilized by the locals without giving the

community credit or compensation.

Shifting the focus to the Democratic Republic of the Congo,

other attacks on indigenous rights are reportedly taking place.

Indeed, the Minority Rights Group (as reported by Nicole Yukna in

the newspaper “Cultural Survival Voices”) has called for an

investigation by the International Criminal Court into abuses

targeted at the Bambuti Pygmies of the area.

At least 80 victims and more witnesses have reported “rape,

murder and mass dislocation of the Bambuti by both official and

rebel military forces,” says Yukna. Horrifically, there have even

been reports of cannibalism by those attacking the Bambuti. With no

help from officials and little power (being such a marginalized

group) the Bambuti have been forced to abandon their homes and


While cases such as the Bambuti are particularly violent and

horrific, such situations do not appear to be mere isolated

incidents. All over the world, indigenous people still are subject

to harassment, loss of land and attacks.

All these things must be stopped, and the marginalization of

indigenous communities should not be allowed to continue unchecked

as it often does today.

Voicing support for indigenous rights, such as by urging the

United Nations to ensure the Draft Declaration on the Rights of

Indigenous People, or by boycotting companies that exploit

indigenous groups may be helpful steps we as individuals can take.

Similarly, calling on our own government to take action against

U.S.-based companies that exploit native populations at home and

abroad is important. Finally, fixing our own record of exploitation

and marginalization of native people’s the United States is

something that should be a major focus for everyone in America


Meg Burd is a graduate student studying anthropology. Her column

runs every Friday in the Collegian.

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