Annotate This: The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Last month, after 30 years of advocacy by Indigenous Peoples, the United Nations finally passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This Declaration is more than a hard-won victory for Indigenous rights. It embodies a progressive global approach to issues that confront us all, including the environmental crisis that is poised to spiral into ecological collapse if we do not slow global warming.

The Declaration reflects an Indigenous approach to economics and resource management, one that contrasts sharply with the dominant model of the global economy. Now that this ideology has exploited people and the planet to their breaking points, we are in a race to find viable alternatives. The Declaration — with its attention to equitable and sustainable development, protecting the Earth’s dwindling natural resources and biodiversity, and human rights — may prove to be a blueprint for us all. Four of the principles embraced by the Declaration have particular relevance for supporting environmentally sustainable policies. As much of the United States takes off for Columbus Day, it is worthwhile to look at this Indigenous alternative.

Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (Articles 10, 19, 28, and 29)

Indigenous territories have been degraded by large-scale extraction of natural resources, industrial agriculture, and “development projects” such as huge dams, roadways, and other infrastructure usually built to facilitate resource extraction. Rarely have Indigenous Peoples been consulted or compensated for these activities. The principle of free, prior and informed consent aims to end and redress this pattern by ensuring that Indigenous Peoples be consulted in all matters that affect them — with sufficient time and information to make a decision about a proposed activity on their territory and without coercion of any kind. This precedent could be a boon to all communities seeking to counter destructive environmental practices, particularly those chosen to be sites of waste dumps, superhighways, or oil refineries.

Indigenous Development (Article 32)

This article affirms Indigenous Peoples’ right to determine their own priorities for the use of their lands and natural resources. Unlike most governments, which view development as a function of Gross National Product, Indigenous Peoples tend to define development according to practices that nurture their cultural heritages and ecosystems. Article 32 would protect sustainable Indigenous farming methods that offer a viable alternative to the destructive practices of agribusinesses. These practices include mono-crop production that destroys biodiversity, and the use of toxic pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetic engineering of plant and animal species, all of which threaten the health of humans and agricultural ecosystems.

Collective Indigenous Land Rights (Article 26)

Article 26 upholds Indigenous Peoples’ claims to their territories and all the resources they contain, stipulating their right to “own, use, develop, and control the lands, territories, and resources that they possess.” About half the world’s untapped fossil fuels and most of its threatened natural resources — including the biodiversity that sustains life on the planet and the forests that stabilize our climate — are located on Indigenous territories. Article 26 could therefore strengthen efforts to conserve and protect natural resources for the common global good and regulate extractive industries such as timber, mining, and oil exploration.

The Rights of Indigenous Women (Article 21)

Passage of the Declaration was propelled and informed by the perspectives of Indigenous women, whose priorities are reflected throughout the text. The result is a Declaration that links the economic and social well-being of Indigenous Peoples at large to the rights of Indigenous “elders, women, youth, children and persons with disabilities.” The understanding that economic viability depends on broad recognition of human rights is one that could benefit all people working to build a more sustainable future.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the UN on September 13, 2007, and now the challenge is to ensure that the world’s governments enact the Declaration. This will not be easy. Powerful governments with large populations of Indigenous Peoples, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, worked hard to block passage. These governments worry that recognition of collective Indigenous rights could impinge on corporate exploitation of Indigenous resources such as oil, natural gas, coal, timber, fresh water, diamonds, gold, industrial minerals, and diverse plant and animal life considered the raw materials of profit-making for some of the world’s leading industries.

The international Indigenous movement is now focused on using the Declaration, which is not legally binding on governments, to raise awareness about Indigenous rights, win legal precedents, and ultimately, win passage of a binding UN Convention on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The challenge is critical: to uphold the rights of Indigenous Peoples and to jumpstart a much-needed transformation of global values and legal norms that can support more responsible and cooperative development policies for all of us.

Yifat Susskind is the communications director of MADRE, an international women