The Indigenous Declarations of the Rio+20 Conference

At the United Nations Rio+20 Conference, participants said many things about environmental protection and Indigenous Peoples but there were two major declarations issued by the people themselves on June 19th and 22nd respectively.

The larger document was the International Declaration of Indigenous People on Sustainable Development and Self-Determination, which was signed by more than 70 organizations and a few individuals including several of the largest indigenous groups and communities in Latin America.

The drafters started the declaration by thanking their Brazilian hosts, making mention of the international indigenous support of the fight against the Belo Monte project, and then proceeding to explain how respect and protection of indigenous cultures was the connecting theme of all the main points, and the crucial element for achieving sustainable development.

The three page declaration listed five major areas: culture as a fundamental dimension of sustainable development; full exercise of our human and collective rights; strengthening diverse local economies and territorial management; within and among indigenous communities, peoples and nations; regarding actions of states and corporations; and at the United Nations.

The first section announced the cultural theme: “As Indigenous Peoples, our fundamental cultural belief systems and world views based on our sacred relationships to each other and Mother Earth have sustained our peoples through time…We believe that all societies must foster cultures of sustainability, and that Rio+20 should highlight the cultural, moral and ethical dimensions, as the most fundamental dimension of sustainable development.”

Following the first emphasis on culture is the issue of protection of rights that are crucial for sustainability in general. The drafters, along with many other indigenous activists, have been critical of some so-called green projects that infringe on sovereignty and cause environmental problems.

“We see that Mother Earth and all life is in a serious state of peril. We see the current model of sustainable development continues to proceed on the road to peril. … Sustainable development is realized through the full exercise and fulfillment of human rights. Indigenous people see sustainable development and self-determination as complementary. Progress in various countries has happened to the extent that States have fulfilled their duties to respect, protect and promote human rights, while conflicts have escalated where governments have imposed top-down development, whether labeled “sustainable,” “pro-poor” or “green.”

Many of the signatories on the declaration – such as the Interethnic Association of Development of the Peruvian Rainforest (IADPR), the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (CONFENIAE) and the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB) – have stated that they are in conflicts with governments and corporations that have infringed on their rights to self-determination and prior consultation.

“We will continue to strengthen and defend our economies and rights to our lands, territories and resources, against extractive industries, predatory investments, land-grabbing, forced relocation and unsustainable development projects,” the Declaration states in section three. “These include large scale dams, plantations, large-scale infrastructure, tar sands extraction and other mega-projects, as well as the theft and appropriation of our biodiversity and traditional knowledge.”

During and after the conference, indigenous Brazilian leaders received vocal support from many Indigenous Peoples in regards to the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Project and others. This pledge of support is described in the fourth section of the document, entitled “Within and among indigenous communities, Peoples and Nations.”

“We will stand in firm solidarity with each other’s struggles to oppose projects that threaten our lands, forests, waters, cultural practices, food sovereignty, traditional livelihoods, ecosystems, rights and ways of life. We also stand in solidarity with others whose rights are being violated, including campesinos, fishers and pastoralists.”

The other publicized declaration was issued by a gathering of more than 1,800 leaders and representatives of Indigenous Peoples in Brazil on June 22nd. The “Rio de Janeiro Letter/Final Declaration of Free Land Camp IX – Living Well/Healthy Full Life” highlighted the many tragedies facing indigenous communities throughout Latin America and elsewhere.

The Rio Letter included the largest indigenous organizations in the country such as the Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon and the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil.

While the two declarations share many points in common, the Rio Letter makes a few more specific references to current struggles throughout the continent.

“We reject impunity and violence, imprisonment and murder of indigenous leaders in Brazil the Kayowá-Guarani, Argentina, Bolivia, Guatemala and Paraguay, among others. … We reject REDD contracts, and carbon credits that are false solutions that do not solve environmental problems but seek to commodify nature and ignore the traditional knowledge and ancient wisdom of our peoples.”

The Rio Letter also ends with a sentiment shared by many people throughout the world, “The salvation of the planet is in the ancient wisdom of Indigenous Peoples.”


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The Indigenous Declarations of the Rio+20 Conference