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06 / 08 / 2004
Julian Burger: “Indigenous peoples want to be partners not colonizers"

Julian Burger runs the program for indigenous peoples at the High Commissioner of the United Nations and has been researching the indigenous reality for years. Indigenous peoples are a heterogeneous collective of over 300 million people 300 in over 70 countries, who have shared one characteristic: being the first inhabitants and suffering the abuses of colonialism. As part of the Universal Forum of Cultures-2004 Burger will meet with some 50 young indigenous leaders, among whom there will be representatives from almost all of Latin America in order to break down stereotypes and create synergy with international youth. The goal is to achieve a better future for indigenous peoples.

How will these young indigenous participate in the Forum?
We're going to organize various cultural activities for the International Day of Indigenous Peoples (August 9) such as dances and concerts. There will also be workshops at the World Youth Festival (August 8-14) about cultural aspects like the situation of indigenous women, land and sustainable development.

What will they contribute to the debate on sustainable development, one the Forum's core themes?
From their perspective development has different principals than ours. They do not talk so much about gain; they talk about respecting the land and natural resources. Land is not for exploitation but rather it should protected as to benefit future generations.

So, is the stereotype true that the world’s indigenous people pose an obstacle for development?
Indigenous peoples want to develop better living conditions, certainly. But they want to control the process and not just do it any cost. They don't accept being invaded. They want to be consulted. The authentic debate is deciding who control development. And that's a political question. Sustainable development, therefore, is not about protecting a few trees—it is about politics.

Let’s talk about another Forum core theme: cultural diversity.
I was thrilled to learn that Forum Barcelona 2004 had decided to include a section on indigenous people. I was very excited about it, if we want to protect the world’s cultures, we have to start with indigenous cultures, which are an enormous source of wealth for the world. The indigenous are concerned with protecting their languages from absorbed by the dominating culture, as is the case with Spanish in Latin America.

Isn’t it a very unbalanced struggle?
A Maori aboriginal from New Zealand will come to the Forum. The Maori’s have a very interesting history. Some 30 or 40 years ago, their language had completely disappeared. A few years ago, a program was launched to integrate young people into elderly groups to promote a natural learning process of the language. Today, the language is spoken by the majority of the Maori population.

Any other cultural claim?
The indigenous complain that companies approach their communities to seek out their ancient knowledge. For example, they are interested in what the chaman, or tribal chieftains, know about pharmacopoeia; they steel this knowledge and use it to do business. These indigenous communities have no problem with sharing their knowledge, but, in exchange, they demand recognition and protection of their intellectual property.

These are cultural goals. What about the political goals?
At Forum Barcelona 2004, we intend to meet to identify what we want to achieve over the next ten years. The International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995-2004) is about to conclude. It has yielded some success, such as the creation of the Permanent Forum of the World’s Indigenous People. This is a triumph because it has turned them into authorized speakers at international forums. Yet there is also a negative side, the slow drafting of the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The document is comprised of 45 articles, on which we have been working for years. So far, only 2 articles have been passed.

As for the case of Latin America, could we say that progress has been made in the acknowledgement of the political rights of indigenous people?
In terms of legislation, positive changes have been made. They now recognize indigenous peoples’ territories and identity. The end of the dictatorships has also helped. The problem lies in turning the theory into practice. In many counties, the rights that are recognized on paper are not actually applied.

And how is globalization affecting the indigenous people of America?
I’ll answer by giving you an example. In July of last year, we met with a working group of a thousand people, most of them indigenous. The topic of the meeting was: “Globalization and Indigenous People”. The indigenous people of Latin America were very critical of certain aspects of globalization, such as the environmental impact of the oil and mining companies that have set up in their territory. They also complained about human rights violations, because these companies hire private security or paramilitary guards. They are not opposed to their presence. They only want to be asked for their consent. The attitude of colonizer needs to become one of associate.

What are the effects of globalization in conjunction with the financial crises that has swept Latin America?
When I travel, I realize how noticeable the grave immigration problem is. At present, 50% of the indigenous people live in urban areas. In Chile, for example, half of the Mapuche population lives in Santiago. They move there to for better education and training but also because they cannot survive in their own territories. This phenomenon is also taking place in Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico. We nothing is to done to intervene in the indigenous communities, young men and women will continue to leave in search of employment, thus leaving the children and elderly behind. The social fabric is being torn apart.

You mentioned education as one of the causes of emigration. Is it something the indigenous people have easy access to?
There is no specific data about it. The United Nations held a workshop for experts in January to address the lack of information available of the world’s indigenous people. It is a grave problem because, without information, it is difficult to design social policies. On the whole, I can say that not everyone has access to education, but it is also true that many indigenous people attend university. Education is a priority for them, because it is a means to participating in the life of the nation, in economics and politics.

How do you see the future of this participation?
The future lies in an agreement between states, society and the indigenous people within a legal framework that establishes a new relationship. The world’s indigenous people share a common vision of the world, whereas governments would share responsibilities. In Ecuador, this has already become a reality thanks to the increasing efforts of the indigenous movement. There has even been an indigenous minister. In Canada, there has been a considerable volume of business between the government and the indigenous since several years ago. This future participation is already a reality.