Participants from the United Nations Working Group on
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JEFF MARTIN, Executive Producer: This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs
and the people who shape events. In this edition of Common Ground we look at the situation
of indigenous peoples from around the world.
INGE SJOSLEV: Indigenous peoples consider themselves a parallel to the type of people
that constitute a state. And they think that they have this right to self determination,
basically the right to the territorial resources they occupy.
MARTIN: Every summer, representatives of indigenous peoples meet at the United Nations
offices in Geneva, Switzerland. In an annual event that has grown from a modest beginning these
peoples meet to press their claim for basic human and political rights. But more often than not,
they leave Geneva feeling frustrated.
SUE PEARSON: It just seems like it’s very difficult to get anything done. I mean it feels
like the nation states are playing a game with us in allowing us to meet here at the United
MARTIN: In this edition of Common Ground, we look at the claims of indigenous
peoples and track the experiences of two groups who were represented in Geneva for the first time
this past summer. Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin. As
its name suggests, the United Nations is an organization comprised of sovereign nation states.
But not everyone in the world considers him or herself to belong to one of those nation states.
In fact some people identify with a nation that does not have state status and may very well have
been displaced from native lands. For the past fourteen years, many of these indigenous peoples
have been meeting in Geneva under the auspices of the United Nations. Judith McCray has the
JUDITH McCRAY: Geneva, Switzerland, land of watches, banks and The Jet D’eau spraying a
steady stream of water over Lake Leman. This scenic backdrop is home to the United Nations human
rights apparatus, and where indigenous and tribal people from around the world journey in summer.
For five intense days this city on the lake is host to representatives of native people whose
identities and cultures are deeply entwined with their ancestral land.
Three days before the conference, approximately 100 people gather at the gates of the United
Nations to welcome the cadre of runners culminating the Freedom Run 1996. Native peoples from
North and South America, the Pacific Islands and Asia are joined by European supporters who
chant, “Free Leonard Peltier,” the Lakota leader of the American Indian movement who’s been
jailed for twenty years for the murder of a U.S. law enforcement officer. The run served as an
official kickoff for the 14th Working Group on Indigenous Peoples Conference and Leonard Peltier
is dubbed the Mandela of Indigenous Peoples. Their numbers and enthusiasm symbolize the
heightened activism of indigenous people and their claims for sovereignty and rights to their
native resources. Julian Berger is the UN’s coordinator for the conference and describes the week
long session as the first rung in the UN structure to address the concerns of the world’s most
JULIAN BERGER: We’re not a meeting which can do very much. It’s a meeting as low down in
the hierarchy of the UN as you can possibly get, but what we do is we create an atmosphere, a
place in which we can hear about things and that’s very, very important. It gives people an
opportunity to express themselves, to say what they believe to be the problem; gives governments
an opportunity to explain their side of it, it creates an opportunity for dialogue.
McCRAY: And the dialogue is extensive. Over 600 people from native organizations,
government agencies, and non-profit service providers swarm the halls and conference rooms at the
United Nations. Languages and dialects fill the air as people greet, meet and scurry to finalize
the testimony they will present during the session. Amongst the dark-suited UN and government
officials are the brightly colored traditionally garbed indigenous peoples like the Maasai from
Kenya, the Saami from Sweden, the Chutkee from Siberia, the Maputi from Chile, and the original
inhabitants from the tiny Pacific island of Norfolk.
PEARSON: I am Sue Pearson, I’m a Norfolk Islander. My people are perhaps one of the
smallest and youngest and Mustunigue peoples on earth. We’re mixed Polynesian and Anglo-Saxon. We
descend from the mutineers of the Bounty and Tahitians who settled on Pitcairn Island. They
settled here and formed a new people, a new culture, a new language. Pitcairn Island suffered a
famine and our people as a whole and entire people migrated to Norfolk Island which at the time,
had been abandoned by prior settlements.
McCRAY: Sue Pearson is tall and slender with an ivory complexion. Her long wavy brown
hair signifies her Polynesian heritage. The Pitcairners or Norfolk Islanders are a small
delegation of two who are here for the first time representing a population of 800 descendants of
the mutineers from the HMS Bounty in 1790. Norfolk Island is located between New Zealand and New
Caledonia, one thousand miles off the coast of Australia which controls the tiny island as part
of its commonwealth. Pearson has come seeking world recognition of their status and rights as
indigenous peoples of Norfolk Island.
Sharon Venne, an attorney with the Cree Nation in Canada, and veteran from the very first
indigenous peoples conference says that empowering native peoples to come and speak up for their
rights is the main purpose of the conference.
SHARON VENNE: We’ve gone around the world to different peoples and encouraged them to
come to the Working Group, to come to the United Nations and to start speaking out for
themselves. I think it has been quite successful actually. When they first came there was 23 or
24 of us indigenous peoples and now there’s over 700, because it’s the only opportunity. We are
able to come for one week to meet on issues that are directly affecting us.
TRANSLATOR: I am an indigenous person from Sri Lanka. What I want to bring to the floor
here is the issue of the land that we have had for generations and generations and generations.
Since 1983 my people have had big problems.
McCRAY: Ura Warige Wanniya is the spokesman and son of the chief of the Wannayala-Aeto or
individuals of the forest in Sri Lanka. The Wannayala were outlawed from their native forest in
1983 after 28,000 years as the island’s original inhabitants. The four male delegates are easily
recognized as the Veddah people frequently photographed as one of the last truly traditional
living peoples. Slightly built with mahogany colored skin and straight, jet-black hair knotted
tightly into large buns at the nape of their neck, they are barechested and barefooted, wearing
bright plaid cotton sarongs and balancing small axes against their shoulders and chests. They
have come seeking a solution that returns them to the forest and the honey gathering and hunting
that are critical to their survival as a people. Their concern about their rights to their
ancestral land is one of the conference’s agenda items, but the issue underscoring this and every
other issue on the agenda is the right of self-determination.
ERICA IRENE DAES: The right to self determination of indigenous peoples is related very
much to the survival of their national and cultural identity. When they say we would like our
right to self-determination, is in order to continue to have their own way of life, their own
traditions, their own legal assistance.
McCRAY: Dr. Erica Irene Daes is the chairperson for the Working Group on Indigenous
Peoples and a member of the Subcommission on Human Rights. Her role this week is to convene and
structure the testimony presented by the Norfolk Islanders, Wannayala-Aeto and hundreds of others
into a report to be submitted to the Subcommission. Dr. Daes is a proponent of the rights of the
indigenous, but she says she is also sensitive to the concerns of some UN member governments who
fear that native self-determination will lead to the breakup of existing nation states.
DAES: A right to self-determination, of course, is very important to the indigenous
people, but I dare to say also to the state in which the indigenous peoples live. It is very
complicated because there is a misunderstanding by very few governments who do not like to see
the real wishes and aspirations of the indigenous peoples and how they would like to exercise
their right to self-determination.
McCRAY: The right of self-determination is a core doctrine of the United Nations that
applies to native peoples as well, says Inge Sjorslev, Director of the advocacy organization, the
International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, in Denmark. She says the problem is that the UN
was founded on a structure of nation states, which has often excluded native peoples whose land
and cultures fall within or extend national borders.
SJOSLEV: Indigenous peoples consider themselves as parallel to the type of people that
constitute a state and they think that they have this right to self-determination, basically the
right to the territorial resources they occupy, that they could have educational systems with
their own languages; that they could have cultural integrity; that they will be free of
discrimination. Self-determination implies all that. But it does not mean that the indigenous
peoples want to create their own states. Very few of them do. Some want independence, but it’s a
minority. The absolute majority of the indigenous people who come together here want to have
self-determination, but they want to have access to the states, to be considered legitimate
partners in a negotiation relationship with the states, and find some form of self-government,
which implies that they would have their own political systems.
McCRAY: To many indigenous activists, having political power is crucial to their survival
and the expanding global economy in which multinational corporations and national governments
view native lands as new resources to exploit. Vicky Tauli-Corpuz is a member of the Cordillera
people in the Philippines and a veteran conference activist. She says that the push by the World
Trade Organization to liberalize corporate investments in countries’ natural resources is
bringing a change for the worst for native peoples.
VICKY TAULI-CORPUZ: In the Philippines, for instance, they have fully liberalized our
mining law. Before we have an investment law which says foreign corporations can only own 40% of
the equity and then the local equity should be 60%.
Now, the whole thing is removed altogether. They allow 100% foreign equity for a mining
corporation. Now there is a mad rush of all the foreign mining corporations to come in because
its incentives are being given to them and in the Philippines, for instance, many of the mineral
lands are really left and exploited are found in indigenous peoples’ communities.
McCRAY: This greed for new resources, says Cree Nation attorney Sharon Venne, is the real
reason why some governments oppose recognizing native peoples’ right to self-determination.
VENNE: When we call for the United Nations to recognize our rights as peoples, these
state governments which are illegally occupying our lands, see that if other governments, other
states recognize that we have a right to self-determination, that we are in fact peoples under
international law, then we have a right to freely determine our political future. And they’re
afraid that they’re going to lose access to the resources, access to the land.
McCRAY: Seeking this political recognition under international law is what brings the
Norfolk Islanders to the UN. Being recognized as a distinct people, says Sue Pearson, is the
first step in their battle for a say in Australia’s use of their resources.
PEARSON: We’re asking to be recognized as the indigenous people of Norfolk Island, which
is not constitutionally a part of Australia, it’s a dependent territory. The land has never been
ceded to or annexed by Australia; however, their government controls our government. Their
government has claimed our waters and they steal the fishing rights from our waters.
ROBIN FORRESTER: Norfolk Island comes under the governance of Australia, it’s part of the
Commonwealth of Australia, but like many of the other territories, they actually have their own
government. The position on the Norfolk Islanders is that Australia, at this stage, doesn’t
recognize them as being indigenous peoples of Australia.
McCRAY: Robin Forrester is a delegate with the Australian government, which supports the
rights of indigenous peoples to define themselves. In her speech at the conference, Forrester
acknowledged Australia’s acceptance of self-identification as a starting point in determining
whether or not a particular group is considered indigenous, but not the defining factor.
FORRESTER: Self-identification is not, however, the whole story. It is not enough for
anyone to walk in the door and proclaim themselves to be indigenous. It then becomes a matter for
the government and people’s concern to establish whether or not they are prepared to be
recognized as a group or individual as indigenous. The matter of the Norfolk Islanders is still a
very gray area and if they’re wanting to be recognized as indigenous peoples of Norfolk Island,
that’s a different issue to being recognized as indigenous people of Australia. I don’t think
this forum was the right forum for them to actually come to and make complaints about the
Australian government not recognizing their status as indigenous peoples.
PEARSON: When we got to Norfolk Island, our people developed our culture further and so
the culture and the traditions and the history evolved around Norfolk Island, the land. We have
different foods, we have different weaving techniques. Australia refuses to recognize us as a
people. On the one hand they support self-definition, self-determination; and on the other hand,
when we do these, they refuse to recognize us. Australia is still colonizing, it’s still annexing
new territory. In other words, money is more important than anybody’s rights, anybody’s claims.
We believe that having oil in our water probably has a lot to do with it.
McCRAY: For newcomer Sue Pearson, the Australian government’s duplicity is a stumbling
block. But for veteran Sharon Venn, with the Cree Nation in Canada, this doublespeak is just a
smokescreen used by governments as they attempt to garner resources owned by indigenous peoples.
VENNE: The only lands now that are left for exploitation are our lands. You know, they
pushed us back away from so-called civilization and have left us in the margins of territories
and all of a sudden now they find that there’s riches there. And running into tremendous
opposition from indigenous peoples who are saying, you know you’re not taking any more. They
don’t want us to focus on self-determination. State governments would prefer us to focus on
health rights, education rights, rights that flow to minorities. But we’re not interested in that
because without control of our lands and resources, we lose who we are.
MARTIN: You are listening to Common Ground. Our story on the UN’s indigenous
peoples meeting will continue in a moment. Printed transcripts of Common Ground and
audiocassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on
ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan
organization that conducts various programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage
dialogue on world affairs.
McCRAY: For the Wannayala-Aeto of Sri Lanka, loss of their forest lands has placed them
on the brink of extinction as a people. In 1983 national parks were established to protect
endangered species, yet evicted the Wannayala-Aetp whose lifestyle served to protect and maintain
the forest and wild life. Now their only means of survival has been assimilation into the lowest
rungs of Sinhalese society as beggars or outlaws.
TRANSLATOR: If my people go inside the jungle, they will be arrested. There has been
very recently an occasion when one of our people was arrested for having trespassed the border.
McCRAY: Wiveca Stegeborn is the interpreter and anthropologist working with the
Wannayala-Aeto foundation. She explains that permits are now required to enter the forest and
traveling hundreds of miles across the island to obtain them is a near impossible feat for the
Wannayala-Aeto. Even if permits are obtained, it is illegal to hunt or gather the honey that has
been their traditional livelihood. Many sneak into the forest in order to feed their families and
risk dire consequences.
WIVECA STEGEBORN: There are borders with electric fences and barriers and there are
guards there aimed to shoot. They are brought to court cases because they’re always guilty of
course, it’s self-evident that they have trespassed the border and now one of them has to pay ten
thousand rupees. That is money that is very hard for them to get and the only way they can get it
is to go inside again and try to hunt as quickly as possible and gather as much as possible in
order to pay the people that arrested them.
TRANSLATOR: It is very difficult for us now to have a subsistence. Now the only thing
that my people can do is to beg, they have to go to the roads and ask for money.
STEGEBORN: I have to say this is apparent and this is not a translation, but tourists
come to look at us and we are part of a tourist packages and then we have to act savagely.
McCRAY: These options for survival, says Stegeborn, are destroying their culture. The
four delegates have come to the UN conference to solicit support in changing the law so that they
can return to the forest and save their people. They hope to contact the World Wildlife Fund and
the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, two international
agencies that influence the Sri Lankan government’s establishment of the policies. They also hope
to meet others who live within national parks.
TRANSLATOR: I have heard that in some countries people from the environment are allowed
to live inside the environment. Although national parks have been made, we would like to have
that reversed so that reversed so that we also can return to our forest where we belong.
McCRAY: At week’s end, the delegates’ lounge is crammed with people intently planning
strategies and scores of informal sessions. Hundreds of testimony have been presented in the
formal session and the conference is now drawing to a close. The large cafe is filled with sun
streaking through the wall of windows that look out onto the UN’s grounds and Lake Leman sparkles
in the distance. Fluorescent colored peacocks stroll grandly across the manicured lawn. Like the
proud peacocks, the rhetoric dished out from all sides this week and been lofty and eloquent. For
newcomer Sue Pearson, the week has been exhausting and confusing. She says she is overwhelmed at
the complexity of the UN structure and process and the seemingly insurmountable odds at getting
recognition as the indigenous people of Norfolk Island.
PEARSON: It just seems like it’s very difficult to get anything done. I mean it feels
like the nation states are playing a game with us in allowing us to meet here at the United
Nations, and yet they’re still controlling the meeting. How much power does representation here
mean? For instance, Australia signs, makes ratifications, and then in the same breath, they’re
not bound to these covenants. So you know on the one hand you think, oh what’s the point. We’re
wasting time and money and emotions. And on the other hand you think, well if you do nothing
you’re going to lose. We’ve just have to fight to hang onto everything that we can.
TAULI-CORPUZ: All this UN conference, they have also said, you know we recognize that
indigenous people should have access and control over the resources and over things. And there
are always good rhetoric that you can read in all these declarations that come out from all these
conferences. But still, you cannot see it translated into the local level. So to hope, that this
is the arena where we can really win our battles, is not really very realistic.
McCRAY: This fight for their rights extends beyond the Working Group on Indigenous
Peoples Conference, says activist Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, with the Cordillera people in the
Philippines. Networking with other native peoples, meeting with carefully obscure government
officials and negotiating with UN agencies during the conference are a critical component, she
says, but only part of the indigenous peoples battle for their rights.
TAULI-CORPUZ: We are not so fools to think that by coming here and saying all these
things, things are going to improve back home. I think we are more realistic that this is not
going to change that. If you’re already able to generate international public opinion, then at
least you have an added instrument or tool, you know, that will help you in advancing your whole
progress. To really have indigenous peoples’ rights to recognize.
McCRAY: Unlike the Norfolk Islanders, the Wannayala-Aeto succeeded in accomplishing their
initial objectives, to meet with the UN wildlife agencies, the Saami people of Sweden and the
Masai people of Kenya. Uru Warige said meeting with these other people of the environment who
live on national park lands and have been able to continue their traditional lifestyle, has given
him much hope. In the closing hours of the conference, Waniya and international translator
Stegeborn, meet with the Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN, Bernard Goonetilleke. This is the first
time that the Wiveca have been allowed to meet with Sri Lankan officials and a god deal of time
is spent trying to determine just how many of the Wannayala-Aeto remain and want to return to the
BERNARD GOONETILLEKE: I still have some doubt about the figures of the population. When
you mentioned about a figure of 2,000 I thought you were speaking of 2,000 persons of forest
dwellers. Some are ex-forest dwellers and some are forest dwellers. Waniya told earlier that
around 700 of his clan wishes to return to their original habitat on the traditional lands.
STEGEBORN: Most of these people come from the rehabilitation village; they want to go
back to the jungles.
GOONETILLEKE: Our concern at this point is not those who follow that lifestyle, but
others who feel that they have been taken away from their own land and who’d like to get back to
their own land.
McCRAY: Upon eviction from the forest, the Wannayala-Aeto were resettled into
rehabilitation villages where they were given two and a half acres of land per family and seed
and fertilizer to grow food. The rehabilitation villages provide schools and Buddhist temples in
efforts to mainstream the Wannayala-Aeto into the Sri Lankan culture. The lure of this new
culture has caused many young Wannayala-Aeto to view their traditional lifestyle and culture with
STEGEBORN: They have been ashamed of calling themselves “indigenous,” so the father could
belong to the Uru Warige group and the mother could belong to the Tali Warige group. The children
prefer to call themselves Smith and Jones. The older people have maintained their names but the
younger generation are ashamed and they want to change. It is also a part of the indoctrination;
remember they have schools to teach them how to become a different people. They’re not supposed
to be indigenous anymore; they have to be part of the mainstream society. It is part of the
indoctrination. Like they did to the American Indians.
McCRAY: The consequences of their indoctrinations says Waniya has been increased social
and health problems, like obesity, alcoholism, and madness. He adds that the increasing numbers
of healing ceremonies performed to exercise the madness are a sign that their culture is in
danger of dying. Throughout the hour-long meeting, Ambassador Goonetilleke took notes and
expressed his concern and desire to look into their problem. He was careful, however, not to make
any promises of support or actions to be taken. At the meeting’s end, a noticeably homesick
Waniya is cautiously optimistic.
TRANSLATOR: I feel that if we make this combination now of the representatives for my
country here in Switzerland will contact the great lady in my country that is the president and
if we could combine that with the people that are working with wildlife here in Switzerland and
in Sri Lanka, and then also integrate us, then I have a big optimism that this will be coming to
an end and we will have a solution.
McCRAY: Do you think he’ll come back next year?
TRANSLATOR: I hope I will never have to return and have a reason to return here again. I
hope this will be the first and the last time there will be a reason for me to come here.
McCRAY: This is Judith McCray for Common Ground.
MARTIN: The technical editor for Judith McCray’s story was Ivan Muriey. For Common Ground, I’m Jeff Martin.
Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.
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