Violating Indigenous Peoples’ Rights

Catalino L Corpuz Jr


In 9-10 August 1999, some 300 Indigenous People from different parts of the world gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York to commemorate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. This is the fifth year that the NGO Committee on the Decade of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, in cooperation with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNCHR), International Labour Office (ILO) and United National Development Programme (UNDP), has held this activity with the increasing participation of Indigenous Peoples themselves.


Last year’s theme, ‘Indigenous Peoples and their Relationship to Land’, was very timely. For the Indigenous Peoples’ movement the basic issue is the gross violation of their right to own and control their territories and resources. Transnational corporations involved in the mining and dam industries are among those guilty of such violations, in most cases in collusion with national governments.


Advances in technology in recent years have benefited the mining industry. It has lessened the cost of mining from the exploration to the production phase. Sophisticated equipment has made it possible to pinpoint accurately the location of mineral deposits, effciently analyse the quality of these minerals and determine the quantity of extractable are reserves within a site. Tele-mining is one such advance in technology. This allows the entire of mining to be performed by remote operation. The application of bio-leaching in gold, copper and uranium mining is another technological advance.


Technical advances in the past few years have also made it possible for transnational mining corporations to open new frontiers in mining by moving into areas too difficult to explore before. As a consequence a significant number of new mines have opened on Indigenous People’s territories since 1980—within established developed mining nations (the USA, Australia and Canada), in former or current colonies (the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil, Burma) and in states newly recruited to the mining fraternity (Papua New Guinea, Guyana, West Papua).


While transnational mining companies such as Freeport Mc Moran and Rio Tinto Zinc wreak havoc on Indigenous People’s lands, even junior Canadian mining companies have been aggressively exploring new mining areas. Between 100,000 and 500,000 Indigenous People have been directly and adversely affected or had their territorial land claims compromised by Canadian juniors alone in the past decade.


When new mining areas are discovered political barriers must be removed so that transnational mining corporations can gain easy access to large areas of mineral lands and be assured of continuity in their operations.


As a result of active promotion of deregulation policies, privatisation and liberalisation by major mining companies through the ‘chambers of mines’ of their respective countries, mining codes in about 70 Southern countries have been changed. For instance, a strong mining industry lobby in the Philippines leading up to the enactment of the 1995 Mining Act guaranteed legislation ensuring the profitability of its operations. The industry obtained numerous tax benefits, such as tax exemptions, tax holidays and free importation of capital goods.


Thus the recolonisation of sovereign Indigenous states is taking place, with the transnational corporations playing the lead roles. This is facilitated by the process of globalisation under the direction of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and now the World Trade Organisation. The main thrust of these institutions is to remove all barriers to the free entry of corporations to exploit primary resources, to free trade and entry of investments.


‘New resource wars’ are being waged on Indigenous frontiers. It has been calculated, based on the industry’s own projected capital expenditure until AD 2010, that 90% of all the world’s ‘new gold’, around 80% of its nickel, more than 60%, of its copper and around half of its coal, will all be derived from Indigenous Peoples’ lands.

There are currently 1,600 dams under construction in 42 countries worldwide. According to the World Bank, the construction of 300 large dams each year will mean the displacement of more than four million Indigenous People from their territories. The World Commission on Dams is leading international activities to highlight the issue of dams and their impact on Indigenous Peoples.


In India, where more than 600 out of a planned 1,600 dams are currently under construction, 40% of the people displaced are Adivasis, or Indigenous People. Almost all the larger dam schemes built and proposed in the Philippines are on the land of the country’s 6.5 million Indigenous People. The majority of the 58,000 people evicted to make way for Vieteam’s dam, Hoa Binh, come from ethnic minority groups, as are most of the 112,000 who will be displaced by the even bigger Ta Bu  dam planned further downstream.

These dams are important to the mining industry, which consumes a lot of power. Aluminium production is particularly energy-intensive. The world aluminium industry uses an estimated 290 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. This is more than enough to provide power for the entire African continent. While hydropower energy supplies 20% of global power needs, a substantial proportion is being used by the mines, especially in countries that are highly dependent on such energy.


More Indigenous Peoples are expected to be displaced as dams on major river basins throughout the world are being planned: the Mekong Delta in Indo-China, the Narmada project in India, the Three Gorges Dam in the People’s Republic of China and the Tucurui Dam Project on the Amazon river.


Indigenous Peoples throughout the world are becoming apprehensive what it might take for the United Nations to finally adopt the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Their apprehension is based on the fact that, within the process of globalisation, transnational corporations have become more aggressive in entering Indigenous Peoples’ lands. Laws and policies on the national and international levels are already biased in their favour. These are not just. The development agenda of most governments is actually ‘development aggression’ as far as Indigenous Peoples are concerned.


Indigenous Peoples are fiercely defending their territories. At the same time, they are bringing their urgent concerns and issues to international bodies. During the fifth year of the commemoration of the International Day of Indigenous Peoples, their representatives adopted three important resolutions :


— That land rights be made a regular agenda of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations.


— That the Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples be adopted even before the Indigenous Decade ends in 2004, and


— That sessions of the UN Working Group be increased to last two weeks to give more time for all Indigenous Peoples to bring out their issues and concerns.


The worldwide trend to promote Codes of Conduct is also being regarded more critically by Indigenous Peopls. There are now 270 proposed voluntary codes of conduct for transnational corporations. For Indigenous Peoples, such codes should not be used as substitutes for national legislation to protect their rights. The Draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples should be the main framework underpinning codes of conduct guiding all governments and transnational corporations in dealing with Indigenous Peoples.


The focus of Indigenous Peoples’ energies at the international level should be in pushing for the adoption of the Draft Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. On the national level, it should be on getting governments genuinely to promote and protect the rights of Indigenous Peoples rather than giving transnational corporations, such as mining companies, more rights over the stewards and custodians of the land and its resources.