JuLast night, a small group of passionate and young Indigenous activists handed Julia Gillard the Kari-Oca Declaration II and gave Australia’s Prime Minister no excuse but to more formally recognise Indigenous desires at Rio+20.
In a small corner room of the conference centre at Rio+20, Julia Gillard and a host of governmental and Indigenous presenters launched their brand new Indigenous Network. The room was packed with a host of cameras and accents from around the world all excited to hear what Australia’s Prime Minister was about to announce.
In a gesture of good faith and empathy, “the indigenous people of Brazil” were invited to give a welcome ceremony before the event began. They opened with a prayer of peace, which was followed with an indigenous image of “real sustainable development” through a beautiful song depicting the ‘voice of the rainforest’.
Following the prayer, the traditional owners of Rio de Janeiro reiterated the integrated nexus between nature and culture that underpins Indigenous conceptions of Sustainable development and has been critically overlooked here in Rio.
“The tropical rainforest is being increasingly threatened. I have come here to ask you that you should look at the rainforest and the people who live here. Thank you”
This opening address is especially relevant here in Rio as Indigenous peoples have been ignored from the sections on forests in the most recent draft of the Rio+20 declaration.
Following the introduction, Julia Gillard herself began iterating the fact that “if I were in Australia I would acknowledge the traditional owners of the land. It’s an important gesture of respect made by our settler Australia and the Indigenous population.” Funny, but I didn’t hear her thank the traditional owners of Rio de Janeiro who just spoke. I guess that much empathy wasn’t in the script.
In the same manner, the Prime Minister promoted the “monumental” Mabo decision of 1992 without recognising the context of colonisation, terra nullius, and the contextual discrimination which the decision took place. It is this ongoing reference to Indigenous peoples without representation or contextual understanding which frames the incorporation of Indigenous peoples in the current Rio+20 declaration.
But I do think that what the Prime Minister said highlights a critical disjuncture which has led to the undervaluing of Indigenous peoples here in Rio+20. They are still seen as Indigenous.
There is still a “settler” and an “Indigenous” population. There is still a hierarchy whereby ‘we’ acknowledge them and not the other way around, as if our supremacy is unquestionably assumed. It is this assumption which I unfortunately see throughout the current Rio+20 declaration. There is no Indigenous perspective on the Green economy, on sustainable mining, on sustainable tourism, or even on the sustainable development goals. Yet, as Prime Minister Gillard highlighted;
“All the peoples of the world owe a great debt to the indigenous peoples for their custodianship of the land and sea, and all of the peoples of the world must now partner with indigenous peoples to share responsibility for the environment….it is a shared task.”
I for one don’t see this debt being recognised, especially not by the world’s leaders.
Nevertheless, Australia’s policy going into Rio+20 was to promote Indigenous biodiversity management (exclusively). The plan of the new initiative proposes to facilitate this knowledge sharing with Indigenous land and sea managers around the world. Currently there are more than 700 Aboriginal land and sea managers with unique knowledge to share, and as New Zealand’s Minister for Environment Amy Adams stated, “there’s a growing pool of capable and experienced Indigenous Land and sea managers.”
This program is a great example of seeking to foster further Indigenous networking and knowledge transfer. As one Aboriginal Australian speaker stated, “these programs focus on the utilisation of Indigenous knowledge and the transfer of this knowledge.”
But before long, Julia Gillard had to return to the urgent task of listening to State leaders self-righteously promote themselves on the international stage.
As she left exited the room, she was confronted by a small group of passionate young Amazonian Indigenous activists. Among this group was…. and in eloquent English translations, she handed the Indigenous People’s Rio+20 alternative declaration of sustainable development, known as the Kari-Oca Declaration II.
It was a beautiful moment. To see these brave, young and proud Indigenous voices hand over the declaration gave me hope for the future. Even if Julia Gillard does not read the Declaration, we all know she has been given it. She has no excuse now.
As one of the young Indigenous activists mentioned; “we have offered her a pathway for respecting our rights”.
In the most likely text, the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous peoples is importantly recognised, but Indigenous peoples have been critically ignored from several significant sections of the text, and Indigenous knowledge of sustainable development certainly has not been ‘mainstreamed’.
After the Kari-Oca Declaration was handed over, I met up with Tailee, a beautifully articulate 19 year old girl from Mato Grosso do Sul who was one of the brave young Indigenous activists involved.
“The Kari-Oca declaration of Indigenous peoples is about our lands, our homes, our territories. It includes aspects about culture, about rights of the earth and the animals. I hope the Prime Minister of Australia will read it because we know there were no Indigenous people from Australia at the Indigenous Peoples Summit, but I want them to know about it”.
In the context of Indigenous Networks, this was a truly grass-roots example of Indigenous people spreading their knowledge to Australia’s Prime Minister. It will therefore be critically important to see what Julia Gillard now does with the document.
It is one thing to promote Indigenous knowledge sharing, but will Julia Gillard recognise knowledge when it is shared with her?
About the authorChris Wright
Climate researcher, political ecologist, activist and an award-winning slam poet from Australia.