Regardless of the rhetoric, Indigenous people continue to be treated like second class citizens at the Rio+20 Earth Summit.
On the last night of negotiations here at the Rio+20 Earth Summit, the future we supposedly want is being drafted; but those with the most to contribute to sustainable development are being written out. Throughout the negotiations, Indigenous peoples have been ‘tokenistically’ called upon by the governments who have largely discriminated against them. Their contribution to sustainable development has been noted ‘when appropriate’ but their role as a ‘vulnerable population’ has been consistently highlighted.
In the current text, the word ‘Indigenous’ is mentioned in the sections on mountains, stakeholders, the green economy, biodiversity and education. Interestingly, it has been excluded from the sections on forests, mining, health, sustainable tourism, Desertification, land degradation and drought, disaster risk reduction and chemicals and waste.
These sections, play a significant role in the lives of Indigenous peoples around the world, and their exclusion is tantamount. Considering the amount of time and strategic effort that goes into debating every single word in this text, the exclusion of Indigenous peoples from sections on forests and mining is particularly troubling.
However, even when Indigenous peoples are mentioned, Indigenous people are being envisioned as a burden rather than contributors to sustainable development. In the section on education, Indigenous peoples are placed immediately alongside disabled peoples in regards to their need for access to education.
In the section on mountains, Indigenous communities are discussed in terms of “needing improvement”. While there is no doubting that in many parts of the world, access to education and community development is critical, the strategic framing of Indigenous peoples highlights some deeply patronizing trends within the UN.
If you read the text carefully, the only real place Indigenous peoples are mentioned in a positive manner, is under the ‘biodiversity’ section. Here their ‘traditional’ knowledge is appreciated, in language very similar to Australia’s proposal. While this represents a critical inclusion in a negatively framed document, I find it highly ironic and uneasily colonial that that the only positive mention of Indigenous peoples is within the ‘biodiversity’.
There are some small references to Indigenous cultural preservation ‘when appropriate’ within the Green Economy. There is also a reaffirmation of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples under the ‘stakeholders’. However, these mentions are so small that their overall significance that they seem far closer to tokenism than integration, engagement or emancipation. They also continue to see Indigenous knowledge as a resource to tap into and exploit rather than to respect and learn from.
However these inclusions came only after a strong push from countries such as Australia. In the lead up to the negotiations, the Australian delegation sought to “partner with other countries with similarly positive positions on integrating Indigenous peoples within sustainable development”. When you take into account that Indigenous to non-Indigenous life expectancy, unemployment and inequality rates are wider in Australia than anywhere else around the world, this statement could not be more hypocritical. But I think I feel even worse for any of the “similarly positive” countries Australia wishes to partner with.
Regardless of the official negotiations, Indigenous peoples have will not subdue themselves in passive exclusion.
Over the last 3 days, Indigenous people from all around the world have gathered together at the Indigenous Peoples Summit on Self-directed, Sustainable development. The Summit has highlighted the rich cultural diversity and resistance of Indigenous peoples to the pushing and pulling of nation-states trying to label, arrange and degrade them.
Tonight, Indigenous leaders came together to sign the Kari-Oca II Declaration as a critical alternative to the text being negotiated inside Rio+20. The Declaration highlights the rights of Indigenous peoples and their critical connection to Mother Earth. It also highlights the contemporary importance of Indigenous environmental knowledge and they key role Indigenous peoples will need to play in guiding sustainable development throughout the 21st Century.
In the end, as the world’s negotiators decide on the future path toward a more sustainable planet, there are very few who actually know what ‘sustainable’ means. Indigenous peoples have been living and thriving within the earth’s planetary and local boundaries for millenia. As the original 1992 Kari-Oca Declaration highlights, in order to create the future we really want, it’s time we respected Indigenous peoples and placed them at the centre of our vision for sustainable development.
About the authorChris Wright
Climate researcher, political ecologist, activist and an award-winning slam poet from Australia.