We use cookies for site personalization, analytics and advertising. You can opt out of third party cookies. More info in our privacy policy.   Got it


An adivasi woman listens to speaches at a rally against mining expansion in Orissa.

Photo: Stuar Freeman / Panos

Zapatistas and others

No-one can accuse Mexico’s indigenous activists of lacking imagination. These women from the ‘400 Pueblos’ movement were difficult to ignore when, in May 2006, they donned masks of the then President Vicente Fox and marched naked through central Mexico to draw attention to a land conflict they were having with the Government. Indigenous Mexicans have drawn inspiration, over the years, from the Zapatistas, who in 1994 launched a dramatic uprising in the southern region of Chiapas. Today, 14 years on, the Zapatistas might not have achieved the revolution they dreamed of, but the ‘liberated zones’ carry on attracting people with a desire for indigenous rights and participatory democracy, and more equitable health and education systems. In 2007 an international meeting brought together 4,000 grassroots Zapatista activists and 2,000 delegates from 47 countries. Increasingly, non-Zapatista communities are drawn to the autonomous justice system imparted by the Good Government Committees which provide a free and impartial conflict resolution service, in your own language. Paramilitary groups, with links to the Mexican army, launch repeated attacks against the Zapatistas, but have so far failed to break the movement.

For more, go to The Zapatista Network www.zapatistas.org
Or check out Zapatistas by Mihalis Mentinis (Pluto, 2006)

Garden furniture for Europeans

Since 2001 the World Bank has financed forestry reforms in the DR Congo, to stimulate the exploitation of timber. This is responsible for the rapid deforestation of the Congo Basin, and is having a devastating effect on 300,000-400,000 indigenous people, says Pygmy Dignity spokesperson Adrien Sinafasi Makelo (below).

‘The destruction of the forest is a real tragedy for Pygmies. The forest is our supermarket, our pharmacy, our school, our temple and our cemetery.’

He quotes a Pygmy villager from Yaimbo who says: ‘Now everything is disappearing: the forest, the wild game, the caterpillars, the mushrooms, even the honey… These things will not return. What will become of us and our children?’

Twenty-two million hectares of forest – almost the entire land surface of Britain – have been conceded to timber companies through 156 titles of which two-thirds – covering 15,416,252 hectares – are illegal. Both the World Bank and the Congolese Government have been breaking their own rules. The World Bank broke its moratorium on financing new forestry concessions by helping the multinational, Olam, which acquired 300,000 hectares. The Congolese forestry sector, ‘gangrenous with corruption’ according to the Pygmy spokesperson, has systematically violated the moratorium and its own laws over the years by granting new forestry concessions to European, Asian, US and other companies. The Bank’s silence, according to Adrien Sinafasi Makelo, is tantamount to complicity.

For four years the Pygmies, backed by the Rainforest Foundation and Greenpeace, complained to the World Bank. Finally, in October 2007, their complaints were upheld by the Bank’s own Inspection Panel.

A meeting with Bank chief Robert Zoellick and other high-ranking officials followed.

‘The management is embarrassed, abashed by the gap between its actions and its declarations of good intentions. It promises improvement in its Plan of Action.’

But it has yet to come up with what the Pygmies need, which is a plan that protects community rights, that is drawn up with their participation, and maintains a clear position on the moratorium.

‘The next time you see an item made out of tropical wood that comes from the DR Congo, or are considering buying it,’ suggests Adrien Sinafasi Makelo, ‘say to yourself: “the survival – physical, cultural or spiritual – of thousands of Pygmies, extremely dependant on the forests, is every day sacrificed for the comfort of rich consumers of tropical timber from the DR Congo!”’

For a longer article by Adrien Sinafasi Makelo, go to www.newint.org/features/special/2008/04/01/congoart/
To support the campaign go to www.rainforestfoundationuk.org, www.greenpeace.org

Divorcing the US

In December 2007 a delegation from the Lakota Freedom Movement announced that their nation was pulling out of all treaties signed with the US Government and was declaring independence, writes Shane Bauer. The new country, simply named Lakotah, would issue its own passports to anyone who wished to become a citizen – including non-natives – the only requirement being they give up their US citizenship. The country would be tax free, its political structure decentralized, and its borders would extend to the Lakota nation’s pre-treaty territory, encompassing swaths of North and South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska. The ‘face’ of the independence movement is Russell Means, the controversial Sioux activist cum Hollywood actor with a reputation for dramatizing native desire for self-determination. His actions have ranged from running for President to heading an armed takeover of Wounded Knee which led to a 71-day stand-off with the US Marshals and tribal police in 1973. From his Pine Ridge home of Porcupine, declared capital of the new republic, Means explains: ‘In the 20th century we tried armed struggle again. It didn’t work. We tried protesting. We tried petitioning. We tried voting for democrats. We tried the courts. We tried every way imaginable to try to get some kind of redress. We are at risk of disappearing as a people… The colonial apartheid system does not work for us.’

Not everyone sees the logic of withdrawal from treaties. Rodney Bordeaux, president of the neighbouring Rosebud reservation, says: ‘Our grandfathers fought and died for these treaties… Without these treaties, the United States Congress and the multinational corporations that control it will attempt to steal the remaining treaty lands and sovereignty we have left.’

But 48-year-old Oglala resident Arlette Loudhawk is just grateful that someone is doing something. She is angry that the conditions her children are growing up in are so bleak – the youth suicide rate of Native Americans is high and nearly a third of teenagers on the Pine Ridge Reservation don’t finish high school. The gutting of Indian Health Services means that the infant mortality rate is the highest on the continent; and that she herself is dying of a cancer that could have been cured.

For a fuller version of Shane Bauer’s story, see www.newint.org/features/special/2008/04/01/lakota/

Adivasis vs Big Al

Good news is in short supply for India’s thousands of adivasi (‘tribal’) people – especially during these times of economic boom. But tribal activists saw some reward for their efforts when the Canadian transnational Alcan pulled out of a project to create a vast aluminium smelter plant at Kashipur in the northern state of Orissa. The struggle against the Utkal project, in which Indian company Hidalco has a 55 per cent share, has rumbled on for some time. Eight years ago police opened fire on protesters opposed to the mine and smelter, killing three. One of the partners at that time, Norsk Hydro of Norway, immediately pulled out and sold its share to Alcan. The Canadian company had since been under pressure to withdraw as well.

Mukta Jhodia, a tribal woman leader who recently won an award for Women Fighting Corporate Crime, has been a key source of inspiration. A fiery speaker, she has tirelessly travelled to tribal villages, often by bicycle, informing them about plans to exploit bheeta mati – their motherland. ‘The Government has made its intentions of submitting to corporate-led globalization extremely clear. The coming years will see some of the world’s most powerful corporations pitted against some of the most marginalized people – adivasis, dalits and peasants – with the police playing hitman for the investors,’ she says. Meanwhile, activists from Alcan’t in India, a solidarity group based in Montreal, are pressuring Alcan to compensate people whose ‘lives have been ruined through jailings, beatings, displacement, and even death due to Alcan’s involvement’.

For more, see www.alcantinindia.org, www.corpwatch.org

I’m looking very closely

‘I’m looking very closely into your eyes so that you can listen to me,’ said indigenous leader Davi Kopenawa Yanomami to the Brazilian President when he met him recently. ‘Mr Lula, I don’t want mining to invade our Yanomani land because it will destroy the water we drink and the rivers we bath in. It will destroy our land. It will destroy the lungs of the earth. Mining won’t bring any good to Indians in Brazil. We don’t want any money. What we want is for you to respect the Yanomani people, respect for our land which has been demarcated as indigenous and ratified under Brazilian law.’ Many within the Brazilian political and business establishment are pushing for indigenous land in the demarcated ‘Yanomani Park’ to be opened up for mining and colonization. Recent months have seen renewed invasions by gold miners and ranchers – echoing those of the 1970s and 1980s when miners destroyed villages, shot Indians and exposed them to diseases, causing the Yanomani population to plummet by 20 per cent in seven years. In February this year, Yanomanis were once again forced to leave their village by invading miners and ranchers, Davi himself receiving death threats. Meanwhile, new threats are also coming from climate change ‘solutions’ such as biofuel development and the purchase of rainforest for conservation. ‘I think that buying up forest with money will not resolve anything,’ says Davi. ‘It is better for the white people to sit down and talk with Indians to find out what the solution is.’

For more, and to support the Yanomani, see www.survival-international.org

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

‘We are really happy and thrilled to hear about the adoption of the Declaration,’ said San ‘Bushmen’ leader Juamanda Gakelebone of First People of Kalahari. ‘It recognizes that governments can no longer treat us as second-class citizens and it gives protection to tribal peoples so that they will not be thrown off their lands like we were.’

He was referring to Article 10 of the 46-article document, which states that ‘indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly removed from their land and territories’.

Other articles introduce, for the first time, collective as well as individual human rights. There is recognition of indigenous rights to ‘the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired’. And there is also recognition of the right to ‘self-determination’ (Article 3).

Twenty-two years in the making, the Declaration was finally adopted last September by a majority of 143 countries voting ‘yes’, 11 abstaining and 4 voting ‘no’. Those four were Australia, Canada, the US and New Zealand/Aotearoa. The reasons they gave were related to issues of ‘land and resources’ and ‘self-determination’ (Australia); ‘incompatibility with the constitutional framework’ (Canada); a lack of a clear definition of the term ‘indigenous peoples’ (US); and, ironically, the fact that it is not legally binding and thus ‘toothless’ (New Zealand/Aotearoa). However, Australia’s new government has since said it intends to reverse the ‘no’ decision; while the government of Canada’s North West Territories plans to recognize the declaration as an ‘aspirational document’.

Bolivia has said it will be turning the Declaration into law, while Ecuador indicated that it will be reflected in the country’s new constitution.

The hope is that the Declaration will raise international standards and usher in a new era in which abuse of indigenous people will no longer be tolerated.

To find out more about, and support the Kalahari Bushmen, see www.survival.org
For full text of the Declaration see http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2007/ga10612.doc.htm UN

Sorry... and

‘We apologize especially for the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, their communities and their country. For the pain, suffering and hurt of these Stolen Generations, their descendants and for their families left behind, we say sorry…’ said Australia’s new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd on 13 February 2008.

Nationwide, the long-awaited statement received an emotional welcome.

An ‘important step forward’ said Aboriginal lawyer and activist, Larissa Behrendt.

‘I do not know an Aboriginal family that was not touched in some way by the policy of removing Aboriginal children.’ She added: ‘My grandmother was taken away. She was 11 years old. My father was also brought up in a home… As I came to understand my own family’s history, I was shocked, disappointed and frustrated that the removal policy was not something the other children I went to school with knew anything about.’

This apology is an important part of the healing process; not only for the stolen generation – but also for the relationship ‘between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians that had broken down so much during the Howard years,’ comments Behrendt.

But there’s much work to be done. Inequalities are profound and across the board – relating to health, housing, education, employment. Indigenous people die at twice the rate of other Australians. As children they are 7 times more likely to be under protective orders; as adults they are 17.5 times more likely to be in jail. After ‘sorry day’ Rudd pledged to halve the gap in infant mortality rates between Indigenous and non-Indigenous children within a decade and to close the 17-year life expectancy gap within a generation.

For the full text of the apology, see http://news.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=379056, http://www.nit.com.au/
For Larissa Behrendt’s blog, see www.abc.net.au/unleashed/stories/s2161257.htm

Contacts and resources


International Workgroup for Indigenous Affairs (IGWIA)
Publishes Indigenous Affairs magazine and The Indigenous World annual report

Survival International

Cultural Survival

Resource Centre for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (GALDU)

Indigenous Environmental Network

The Rainforest Foundation


Reconciliation Australia


National Indigenous Times


Bolivia Information Forum

Democracy Centre www


Canada Assembly of First Nations (AFN)

Eastern Door


US National Congress of American Indians (NCAI)

Native American Times


Peace Movement Aotearoa

Te Puni Kokiri

New Internationalist issue 410 magazine cover This article is from the April 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Subscribe today »

Help us keep this site free for all

Editor Portrait New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.

Support us » payment methods

Subscribe   Ethical Shop