Native peoples left out in the cold at Rio+20

The Rio+20 Summit was largely inaccessible to those most impacted by socio-environmental destruction, says Jeff Conant

June 26, 2012
6 min read

Photo: Ben Powless

When Clayton Thomas-Muller, a Cree organiser from Canada, sat on a panel at Rio+20 to announce a campaign to prevent Shell Oil from drilling in the Arctic, he was accompanied by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International, and actress Lucy Lawless, (perhaps better known as Xena, Warrior Princess).

‘Resisting environmental destruction on indigenous lands is a movement of the Inupiak, Iliut, Gwich’in, Dene, Inuit, Tlingit, Yupik and Athabascan tribes, who have risen up to challenge the fossil fuel industry and demand our rights to an environment that is conducive to subsistence,’ he began.

Of the people on the panel, Thomas-Muller was the only one directly impacted by the issue. Yet, amidst the Hollywood glare, he was not the one to whom the media flocked.

After the media scrum followed the stars away, Thomas-Muller, in long black ponytail and t-shirt bearing the logo of his organisation, the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), told me, ‘The Greenpeace campaign is good, but it’s a symbolic campaign. What’s really going to make a difference is Alaska natives, Inuit living in Canada, strong social movement organising, civil disobedience, and the assertion of sovereignty by the people of the circumpolar regions who have taken care of the Arctic for the last 12,000 years.’

His point reflects one of the principles ceaselessly voiced by IEN and other groups that adhere to the tenets of environmental justice: ‘We speak for ourselves.’

Even in his opening statement, one imagines that Thomas-Muller felt compelled to list the Peoples of the Canadian Arctic to at least invoke their presence at a summit at which they were nowhere present. Unfortunately, Rio+20, like other global summits of this nature, is largely inaccessible to the people, and the Peoples, who are at once most impacted by socio-environmental destruction and most central to the struggle against it.

At Rio Centro, the vast conference center where Rio+20 took place last week, the food court was adorned with artful photos of Amazonian natives with bare chests and ceremonial paint and feathers scenically situated in their natural habitats. But nowhere in the conference were such people visible in flesh and blood.

Indeed, when 400 Indigenous representatives arrived en masse from the nearby Kari-Oca encampment to deliver a declaration to UN officials, they were rebuffed by Brazilian military police and prevented entrance by UN officials.

Only a handful of the Indigenous delegates were allowed to enter the summit grounds. When they did, it was far and away the most powerful statement in a week dominated by vague calls for “protecting our future,” a concerted push by governments and corporations for an ill-defined “green economy”, and widespread celebration of “public-private partnerships” that will bring ‘sustained and sustainable economic growth’.

At that ceremonial entrance, Lakota Chief Orville Looking-Horse in full war-bonnet, Windel Bolinget of the Igorot people in the Philippines, Mexican Nahua-Otomi native Berenice Sanchez of the Global Alliance Against REDD, Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, and Marcos Terrena, an indigenous leader from Brazil, came shaking rattles and ululating cries of war. The band of native warriors from many tribes was quickly and constantly swarmed by media and delegates alike. Everyone wanted a photograph of the procession, for their mother if not for their editor.

At a pre-arranged place in one of the outdoor areas of the summit, the Indigenous leaders presented the newly minted Declaration of Kari-Oca II to UN Director for Sustainable Development Nikhil Seth, and Gilberto Carvalho, the Chief Minister to the Presidency of Brazil. The two officials acted with grace and diplomacy. What else could they do?

After the hand-off of the document, Alberto Saldamando, Zapotec-Chicano, and the legal counsel for IEN, noted that, ‘The significance of this event was underscored by the flight of a condor overhead as the declaration was handed off.’

The Declaration of Kari-Oca, agreed to by over 500 grassroots Indigenous Peoples from many nations, is by far the strongest, clearest, and most purposeful statement made at Rio+20, and is worth quoting at length:

‘We see the goals of UNCSD Rio+20, the “Green Economy” and its premise that the world can only ‘save’ nature by commodifying its life-giving capacities as a continuation of the colonialism that Indigenous Peoples and our Mother Earth have faced and resisted for 520 years.’

‘Since Rio 1992,’ the Declaration states, ‘we as Indigenous Peoples see that colonisation has become the very basis of the globalisation of trade and the dominant capitalist global economy. The exploitation and plunder of the world’s ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as the violations of the inherent rights of Indigenous Peoples that depend on them, have intensified. Our rights to self-determination, to our own governance and own self-determined development, our inherent rights to our lands, territories and resources are increasingly and alarmingly under attack by the collaboration of governments and transnational corporations. Indigenous activists and leaders defending their territories continue to suffer repression, militarisation, including assassination, imprisonment, harassment and vilification as “terrorists.” The violation of our collective rights faces the same impunity. Forced relocation or assimilation assault our future generations, cultures, languages, spiritual ways and relationship to the earth, economically and politically.’

While the declaration will bear no political significance within the United Nations, this is beside the point. As Alberto Saldamando told me, ‘What they are doing here in the UN is to create more markets, and the fact is, the only resources that remain on this planet are on Indigenous Peoples’ lands. This is not a matter of words, it’s a matter of survival. What you see before you is a gathering of people who are under attack.’

Of course, the exclusion of native Peoples from the UN process comes as no surprise; this is, after all, the United Nations, not the United Peoples, and it is the nation-state itself that bears responsibility for five centuries of genocide.

So, amidst our common rubber-necking at the “failure of Rio,” the weak and bland final text, and the so-called crisis of multilateralism, (not to mention the crisis of capitalism and the crisis of global governance), it is worth remembering the Peoples whose very existence is erased, de facto, by the United Nations process – and upon whom the stewardship of the earth’s remaining resources largely depends.


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