Victoria Tauli-Corpuz was appointed the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People last year. A member of the Kankanaey Igorot people in the Philippines, she is one of the Indigenous leaders who helped draft the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 1993 and then lobbied for it for more than 20 years until the UN General Assembly finally adopted the treaty in 2007.
As a youth activist in the early 1970s, Tauli-Corpuz helped build the Indigenous peoples’ movement in the Philippines’ Cordillera region. She organized local Indigenous communities to fight against projects promoted by the Marcos dictatorship, such as the Chico River Hydroelectric Dam and the Cellophil Resources Corporation, which would have displaced several local tribes. An ardent human and women’s rights advocate as well, Tauli-Corpuz has founded and managed various nonprofits involved in raising awareness about social ills, climate change, and the advancement of Indigenous peoples’ and women’s rights. In 1996, she set up the Tebtebba Foundation, which seeks to promote Indigenous peoples’ perspectives on key issues such as human rights, sustainable development, and the environment. An expert for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Tauli-Corpuz says that at the heart of the many challenges Indigenous people still face is the so-called “mainstream world’s” failure to recognize that Indigenous groups should be able to determine the course of their own development.
What issues prompted your lobbying efforts prior to the UN General Assembly adopting the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007?
I am a proud member of the Kankanaey Igorot people in the Philippines. When I went to Manila as a high school student, I was shocked to realize that mainstream society looked down on us. This was when I started to educate myself about the discrimination faced by Indigenous peoples in the Philippines and around the world.
While I was in Manila, I learned that the Filipino government was planning the Chico River Hydroelectric Dam, which would have displaced 300,000 Kalinga and Bontoc Indigenous people. I joined the movement opposing the dam. Our activities were criminalized by the Filipino government, and our leaders and activists arrested, detained, and tortured. But we persisted. Eventually, the government gave in to public pressure and abandoned the project. During this struggle, we learned that the government hadn’t decided to build a dam on its own; the World Bank was funding the project. In order to secure our rights, we would have to deal with the international system.
We weren’t the only ones. Indigenous peoples around the world face many of the same problems, even today. Governments and international institutions fail to recognize us as distinct peoples with our own cultures and identities, and fail to respect our right to manage our lands and resources. Countless Indigenous peoples have been displaced from their resource-rich lands to make way for development projects, often plunging them into poverty.
At the heart of many of these challenges is a lack of recognition that we should be able to determine the course of our own development. The dominant belief then – which often still prevails – is that we should abandon our traditional ways of life and assimilate into modern society. Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable, facing discrimination on the grounds of both race and gender.
These issues drove myself and others to seek international recognition of our human rights. A necessary first step was the creation and adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which clearly states that Indigenous peoples should be allowed to determine the course of their own development.
You were chair of the UN Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues when the UNDRIP was finally adopted. Describe the activities that led up to this groundbreaking adoption.
Indigenous peoples tried for years to get the United Nations to address the widespread violations of our rights. In 1982, the UN finally set up the Working Group on Indigenous Populations and tasked it with drafting the Declaration. The drafting process included the full and effective participation of Indigenous peoples – including many women – and truly reflects their grievances.
In 1993, the draft was complete and negotiations between the world’s governments began. Initially, we were told that we could attend the negotiations only as observers, but we walked out and refused to come back until they let our voices be heard. Eventually they realized that a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples would never be considered legitimate if Indigenous peoples were absent or silent during the negotiations.
Some countries tried to block the declaration right up until its adoption in 2007. In the end, only four countries voted no: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, though all have since endorsed the Declaration. More than 20 years after we had started the process, our rights were finally codified at the international level.
What gains have been made for Indigenous peoples since the adoption of the UNDRIP?
Around the world, Indigenous peoples have used the Declaration as a tool to raise awareness and oppose rights violations. Since its adoption in 2007, there’s been much to cheer about it. Some countries, such as El Salvador and Bolivia, have incorporated UNDRIP into their constitutions. There have also been victories in international courts such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which has repeatedly ruled that nations must secure the free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC) of Indigenous peoples before using their lands. National courts too have sometimes ruled in favor of Indigenous rights. In 2014, the Canadian Supreme Court granted 1,750 square kilometers to the Tsilhqot’in First Nation.
Even corporations are beginning to recognize that they need to respect the rights of Indigenous peoples. Nestlé and Stora Enso, for example, have made commitments to clean up their supply chains and ensure respect for our rights in their land acquisitions around the world.
Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go before the rights codified in UNDRIP are fully implemented. Commitments must be translated into action. Indigenous peoples are still among the poorest and most marginalized people on earth, making up only 5 percent of the population but accounting for 15 percent of the world’s poorest people. We still face many challenges.
What are some of the most inspiring stories of Indigenous resistance to fossil fuel extraction or mega development projects?
Indigenous peoples around the world are fighting back against fossil fuel and development projects that threaten their communities and livelihoods. I am constantly inspired by their determination and ingenuity in protecting their lands.
In 2012, when the government of Belize granted US Capital Energy the right to drill for oil in Sarstoon-Temash National Park without the consent of the Indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ who lived there, the Maya Q’eqchi’ gathered evidence, organized a national media campaign, and sought legal counsel to defend against the government and the oil company, which had already destroyed at least 400 acres of forest during their “exploratory activities” alone. In 2014, after a year-long legal battle, the Supreme Court of Belize cited a violation of UNDRIP and ordered the government to obtain the free, prior, and informed consent from the Maya Q’eqchi’ before allowing companies to drill in the park.
We know that ignoring the rights of Indigenous peoples can be very bad for business. A report prepared by The Munden Project for the Rights and Resources Initiative found that ignoring local land rights issues could increase operating costs up to 29 times the projected baseline cost of a new project – and even lead to outright abandonment of functional operations.
Just this year in Colombia, the U’wa defeated the oil company Ecopetrol, who set up a drill in their territory. After a year-long media campaign and legal challenges, Ecopetrol dismantled their drill overnight rather than continue to face disruptions to its operations and negative publicity.
What are some of the most powerful stories of Indigenous land management and ecosystem restoration?
Indigenous peoples and local communities are the proven “best managers” of many of the world’s most intact and biodiverse ecosystems. Research by the Rights and Resources Initiative and the World Resources Institute shows that in countries with secure legal protections for community land rights, deforestation rates are significantly lower in community-managed forests than outside them. In the Brazilian Amazon, the deforestation rate is 11 times lower in Indigenous and community forests. In the Guatemalan Petén it is 20 times lower, and in the Mexican Yucatán it is 350 times lower.
When our rights are respected, deforestation can be reversed and forest health restored. In Niger, for example, the government’s conservation policy for much of the twentieth century prohibited Indigenous peoples from using the forests they had been protecting and managing for generations, resulting in widespread deforestation and land degradation. In the 1990s, the government reversed course, recognizing and strengthening communities’ forest rights. By 2010, communities were able to regrow some 200 million trees, absorbing 30 million tons of carbon.
How can the sacred relationship of Indigenous peoples to the land serve as an antidote to Western thinking and corporate capitalism?
Indigenous peoples’ sustainable resource management holds important lessons for a world that is ruled by short-term use and financial capital speculation, and rapidly destroying its most vital resources. We bring a different perspective on development; we believe that the land can provide all that we need but that it must be cared for, not exploited and destroyed. Many Indigenous peoples judge their actions based on the effects they will have on the next seven generations.
Indigenous peoples hold important lessons for a world ruled by short-term use.
It is an uphill struggle to put human rights into finance and trade agreements, but many Indigenous peoples are engaging with the private sector in an attempt to protect their homes and protect the world’s forests and biodiversity, and companies are starting to realize the benefits of respecting rights. Disputed tenure, social conflicts, and environmental disasters pose a risk to their bottom lines. In addition, as more consumers take an interest in buying products that weren’t produced on stolen land and that haven’t resulted in environmental destruction, companies are promising to do better. Many companies and investors signed the New York Declaration on Forests last September, promising to end deforestation in their supply chains by 2030.
What are some of the most impressive campaigns for ancestral lands and Indigenous rights?
Around the world, Indigenous peoples are standing up and claiming their rights, and while their battles are often long and hard, they can be won. Indigenous peoples are making use of community mapping, legal strategies, and media campaigns to secure their rights. Increasingly, they are becoming involved at the national and global levels to inspire change. They are also drawing more on the international mechanisms now available, including the UNDRIP and International Labor Convention Number 169.
How can non-natives act in solidarity with efforts for Indigenous self-determination?
Everyone has a part to play in the battle against discrimination. It is important for non-Indigenous peoples to recognize that development takes many forms, and not impose their own views and values on others when trying to “help” – and many around the world do this very well. Moreover, many of the issues confronting Indigenous peoples, such as climate change and our disappearing forests, affect all of us. Standing in solidarity with those who are the proven best protectors of the world’s forests is not just an Indigenous rights issue, but a human rights issue that will affect the world’s vital resources for all of us for generations to come.
Terri Hansen (Winnebago) is an independent journalist who focuses primarily on environmental and scientific issues affecting North American tribal nations and Indigenous communities worldwide.
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