Celebration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
Celebration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples
Adv Jacques du Preez, FW de Klerk Foundation
The 9th of August 2012 is International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. This day is observed worldwide annually to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous population.
Indigenous populations are the numerous communities that live within, or are attached to, geographically distinct traditional regions or territories, and who identify themselves as being part of a very distinct cultural group, descended from groups present in specific areas before many of the modern states today were created and modern geographical borders defined. They generally maintain unique cultural and social identities as well as social, economic, cultural and political institutions which are often very separate from mainstream or dominant society or culture.
The question arises, of course, as to who constitutes ‘indigenous populations’? Some of South Africa’s black peoples have been occupying parts of the country for 1000 - 1 600 years. Afrikaners have been in South Africa for more than 350 years and have developed an indigenous culture and language that is found nowhere else in the world. However, we believe that the focus of the International Day is on the original populations of countries - which in South Africa’s case would be the Khoikhoi, the Nama and the Bushmen/ San.
Other well-known examples include the Aboriginals and Maori of Australasia, the Inuit, Kalaallit and Yupik in Canada, the numerous indigenous Indians and peoples of North, Central and South America, the Tuareg of the Sahel and the Pygmy people of the Western and Central Africa - to name but a few.
Given that the theme of the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) - regarding the world’s indigenous peoples - for 2005 - 2015 is “A Decade for Action and Dignity”, we could ask whether the indigenous peoples of the world are faring as well as their ‘non-indigenous’ counterparts?
According to the UN, there are currently an estimated 370 million indigenous people worldwide (over 5000 distinct peoples living in over 72 countries).
The UN and the Unrepresented Nations and People’s Organisation (UNPO) indicate that although indigenous peoples make up around 370 million of the world’s population - almost 6% per cent - they constitute almost one-third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people and daily face problems as a result of large-scale development, violence, brutality, continued assimilation policies, dispossession of land, marginalization, forced removal or relocation, denial of land rights and abuses by military forces.
Numerous international legal instruments recognise the rights of indigenous peoples. Articles 26 and 31 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples addresses lands, territories and natural resources, including the right to maintain spiritual relationships with the land, the right not to be forcibly removed or dispossessed, the right for indigenous peoples to have their own land tenure systems, the right to redress for land that has been taken or damaged and the right to conservation and protection of the environment. The sections also make it clear that States shall give legal recognition and protection to the lands of indigenous peoples, as well as their territories and resources.
UNESCO has also adopted two conventions of relevance for indigenous cultures and traditional knowledge: the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage (2003), and the Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions (2005). Other international organisations concerned with issues confronting indigenous people include the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR) and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Be this as it may, indigenous people worldwide continue to be among the world's poorest and most marginalized populations and are increasingly confronted by issues ranging from poverty, health, education, employment and human rights to environmental issues (including land).
In Southern Africa, the situation pertaining to indigenous peoples and land as well as collective land rights and access to land remains particularly sensitive, although significant progress has been made. In 2002, Kalahari Bushmen known as the San were expelled by the Botswana Government from lands on which they had been living for at least twenty thousand years, and were described as "Stone Age creatures”. In 2006, the Botswana High Court ruled that the Bushmen/ San had a right to return to their land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
In South Africa in 1995, the Khomani San community lodged a claim for the restitution of 400 000 hectares of land in the Kalahari Gemsbok Park. After negotiations, the claims were settled on 21 March 1999, with the official transfer of title of six Kalahari farms (approximately 34 728 hectares) to the Khomani San Common Property Association (CPA), a form of collective trust allowed by the Communal Property Associations Act (No 28 of 1996) for use by communities that have benefited from land restitution under the Restitution of Land Rights Act (No. 22 of 1994). A further 6 020 hectares were also transferred to the Khomani San CPA in 2007.
Similar claims have been settled in Canada, New Zealand, the Russian Federation and Australia and in South America (for example Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru) one can find some of the most advanced legal frameworks for indigenous land tenure enshrined in legislation and often in constitutions as well.
The South African Constitution recognises that South Africa belongs to all who live in it and takes cognisance of our unique diversity and cultural richness as a nation, which includes all people regardless of race, culture, belief, group or community. All people in South Africa are afforded constitutional rights which include equality, human dignity, and freedom of religion, belief and opinion. The Constitution also protects cultural, religious and linguistic communities, as well as everyone’s right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice, and embraces the role of traditional leadership in the Republic.
In a verse by Paulus Utsi - a Sami poet - (the Sami are the indigenous people inhabiting the Arctic area of Sápmi which today encompasses parts of far northern Sweden, Norway and Finland) it is stated:
As long as we have waters where the fish can swim
As long as we have land where the reindeer can graze
As long as we have woods where wild animals can hide
we are safe on this earth.
As the world develops and the indigenous cultures and peoples of the world allow the modern world to do so - often at the cost of their traditional lands, customs, languages and cultures - we should honour not only our international and national obligations relating to indigenous peoples as a matter of law, but also out of mutual respect, recognition and as a matter of common and shared world citizenship.
Published in: FW de Klerk Foundation