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The Cordillera Experience

Aeta Kid. (.bullish/Flickr)

Aeta Kid. (.bullish/Flickr)

Joan Carling
Chairperson, Cordillera Peoples Alliance-Philippines
October 2001

Background and Context 

Indigenous Peoples and the Environment

Indigenous peoples numbering more than 400 million at present have their own worldview or concept regarding man’s relation to the environment or ecological system. Since time immemorial, indigenous peoples’ lives have been interdependent with their natural environment or with mother earth. They have nurtured the land with hard labor, not only for their own survival, but also for generations yet to come. They regard the symbiotic relationship with the ecological system as something to be enhanced and nurtured for the common good and for the continued survival of all. From this historical perspective, indigenous peoples can be regarded as the original ecologists and environmentalists.

Because of the indigenous peoples regard for their natural environment, this has become the base of their life, spirituality, ethnicity, culture and identity as people and their distinct collectivity. Indigenous socio-cultural and political systems are largely based on the principles of collective peaceful coexistence, mutual respect, cooperation, collective work, selflessness for the common good and consensus building in decision-making processes. This indigenous worldview makes them distinct from the prevailing western oriented culture in regard to resources.

With the advent of colonialism, indigenous peoples were considered savages who were barbaric and uncivilized because they resisted assimilation to the mainstream colonized society. Later, they were subjected to forced assimilation and development aggression which in many instances resulted in their further isolation from the so-called mainstream society. The aggression to control the natural resources of the world through colonization has disenfranchised indigenous peoples the world over. Consequently, when nation-states were formed out of the formerly colonized societies, laws on the ownership of resources by States further aggravated the oppression of indigenous peoples.

Today, this oppression is being intensified by so-called development programs which are actually designed for resource extraction especially in the homelands of indigenous peoples. Bilateral and multilateral aid agencies and multinational companies are pushing projects such as large dams, corporate mining, commercial logging, and commercial agricultural production that completely disregards the rights of indigenous people as if their integral existence with nature were just incidental. As a result, they have put up resistance which in many instances has been met with force and deception, if not with the outright use of the military might of the State. 

Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

With the historical relations of indigenous peoples to their land and territory as the material base of their survival, they have the inherent right to their land.

Because of the historical injustices committed against indigenous peoples in taking away their land and resources, and in disregarding their interests, welfare and rights as human beings, their collective right to exist as indigenous peoples must be protected and guaranteed to ensure their continuing survival. For indigenous peoples, the right to life of every human being is the right to land. For without their territory, indigenous peoples collective well-being with their natural environment will also be gone. Without the material base of their existence, indigenous peoples will not be able practice their distinct culture, spirituality and ways of life.

Thus, indigenous people claim and assert their right to self-determination. This is their collective right in the same manner that every nation-states exercise the right to self-determination as their right to development. This collective right of indigenous peoples will guarantee them the right to define and pursue their development in accordance with their own culture and ways of life, which remains dynamic. Other collective rights of indigenous peoples include the practice of their culture and indigenous systems which should be respected; the development of their languages; and the promotion of their interest and welfare in matters affecting them.

These collective rights of indigenous peoples cannot be segregated from each other and from their fundamental rights as human beings like every one else. This is to ensure that indigenous peoples will have full control of their land and resources, and in charting their own development. These collective rights of indigenous peoples are now embodied in the draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples of the United Nations, a document that has been the result of years of struggle and lobbying of indigenous peoples all over the world.

Even with the growing popularization and recognition of indigenous peoples rights, these are still being violated with impunity in most countries with indigenous peoples among their population. Thus, more and more indigenous peoples are now putting stronger resistance, and forging solidarity relations, as well as intensifying their local struggles in defense of their land and their very survival.