'Indigenous peoples must overcome discrimination'
--advisor on indigenous rights

Stabroek News
June 21

Indigenous peoples must overcome discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion from many activities by the state to give their lives full meaning, said former United Nations officer, Augusto Willemsen Diaz.

Delivering a presentation on the "Rights of indigenous peoples and human rights in a plural society" at the Park Hotel last Tuesday afternoon, Diaz said that in dealing with the issue of the prevention and elimination of discrimination against indigenous peoples, the international instruments governing the full rights of peoples must be taken advantage of.

Diaz of Gautemala, worked along with the Constitutional Reform Commission as an advisor. He came to assist at the invitation of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the United Nations Association of Guyana (UNAG). Diaz was specially selected to speak at this time of the constitutional reform process, because of his work and his experience in the area of indigenous peoples' rights.

The aim of the international instruments, Diaz said, was to bring people who had been disadvantaged, such as indigenous peoples and women, to a position where they enjoyed the same equal rights and freedoms that everybody should enjoy.

On the issue of territory, Diaz said that indigenous peoples had a spiritual relationship to Mother Earth which they considered their own. They did not see land as a commodity. Their idea of territory was the land on which they lived and what was above and below the surface. It included the flora, fauna and resources on the land, its ecology and bio-diversity to which they had so handsomely contributed, and the environment as a whole concept, he said.

The indigenous peoples did not have private property but collective tenure of land, which was coupled with community which Diaz described as another pillar of their existence. These two aspects were essential to the subsistence of indigenous peoples.

On the socio-cultural level, they had rights to the spiritual beliefs, rights to own knowledge, science and technology. These rights, the human rights proponent said, were very much under attack by transnational efforts to control plants and this was being resisted by the indigenous peoples. The rights to medical practices should also be respected.

Education, Diaz said, had been seen as a process of alienating indigenous people from their traditional and special customs to bring them to modern life. While education was very important, Diaz said that they benefited from informal education and their forms and ways of teaching may differ. Nevertheless, this was something that had to be respected and incorporated into the teaching of indigenous peoples. Public schools, he continued, had to take into account the right of indigenous peoples to use their languages which they had used for centuries, noting that in some Latin American countries, the language of the indigenous peoples was an official language in addition to the country's national language.

In speaking about the rights of indigenous peoples to self-government within the state, Diaz said that indigenous peoples chose to remain in society as a distinct people and would not convert into something else because of their own systems which had been in place for centuries and with which they identified.

In the sociological and political areas, he said that the indigenous peoples had their own legal system that was harmonious with world views. This judicial system should be respected as so much depended on its application each day to solve problems and conflicts of a legal nature. These had been applied for centuries and had been successful in solving conflicts which arose in communities.

Giving a background into the status of indigenous peoples, Diaz said that just a few decades ago indigenous peoples had no consultative status at the United Nations (UN) and other international fora. They were forced to ask one of the consultative agencies established as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) to give them of their time in an oral presentation or a few lines in their documents. This was readily agreed to by an international commission of jurists and anti-slavery NGOs but better could have been done, he said.

Subsequently, "so-called discrimination studies on minorities" were undertaken and the focus on indigenous peoples began. The two main efforts were to get indigenous peoples included in the document on human rights and another endeavour was to have them appear before the organs of the UN. "These were the two processes started and which fortunately were brought to a good ending", Diaz said.

A voluntary fund for indigenous peoples was subsequently proposed in 1974 for a working group to take fully into account the views of the indigenous peoples as presented to them by those people themselves. The fund was subsequently established in 1985 and a working group set up. The working group ensured consultative status. The fund has since catered for over 900 representatives of indigenous peoples all over the world attending the working groups commission.

At present, there are about 300 to 350 million indigenous peoples around the world. They have a very active indigenous international movement which is actively representing their views before inter- governmental organisations around the world. (Miranda La Rose)

A page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples