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
“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.