The world’s indigenous peoples held their first official forum at the United Nations last week and demanded the collective ownership of land and payment for their medicinal knowledge.
According to an Associated Press report, representatives of more than 900 indigenous peoples – living in regions from the tropical forests of Amazonia to the Australian desert – gathered in a main UN conference hall to complain of land confiscations and Western drug companies’ profiting from native medicinal remedies.
AP quotes Kahnawake publisher Kenneth Deer as saying the world’s 5,000 indigenous groups face a similar plight. “All of us have been dispossessed, oppressed, and marginalized. We are the poorest of the poor in every country,” said Deer, who publishes and edits the Mohawk newspaper, The Eastern Door.
In 2000, the UN Economic and Social Council, one of the world body’s six primary organs, agreed to create a Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues at the recommendation of the Commission on Human Rights – but over the objections of the U.S. and Canada, which both have large native Indian populations.
“For too long, indigenous peoples were justified in saying their voices were smothered by the darkness of intolerance and neglect,” said UN deputy secretary-general Louise Frechette. “From now on this forum will be there to bring their concerns to light. One thing indigenous peoples do share is a terrible history of injustice. Indigenous people have been killed, tortured and enslaved. They have been deprived of their political rights, such as the right to vote. Their lands have been taken over by conquest and colonization, or claimed for ‘national’ development.” This first session of indigenous peoples is drafting a resolution demanding communal ownership of land and just remuneration for medicinal knowledge they say drug companies use without compensating Native peoples.