Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous president, inaugurated the first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples at the UN on Monday and said he is living proof that the community can “govern and not just vote.”
Morales launched the two-day conference alongside UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, after a report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) praised his government and that of Ecuador for the progress made in guaranteeing basic rights to indigenous communities.
The ECLAC study recognized efforts made by La Paz and Quito to improve indigenous communities’ access to healthcare and education but highlighted that a lot remains to be done in Latin America to fully guarantee the rights of the 45-million strong indigenous population that inhabits the Southern Cone.
Nowadays, we talk about the Bolivian Plurinational State, which means to say that there is a recognition of the various indigenous nations in Bolivia from a constitutional perspective,” ECLAC’s Secretary-General Alicia Barcena said.
“But there is another very important aspect that is true in both these cases: the respect of the indigenous peoples’ cosmo-vision. Their ‘living well’ proposition — defending land, life and peace — is fully respected,” she underlined.
Morales also defended the “principles of the indigenous movement.”
“These principles — the protection of life, land and peace — are constantly threatened by a system and a model: capitalism and a model that seems to pursue the end of life and mother earth,” the president, who is running for a third term in office, told the audience.
During the conference — a gathering that brought together more than 1,000 delegates from indigenous communities along with various heads of state and UN officials — participants unanimously endorsed a document outlining the rights of indigenous peoples worldwide.
Ban said indigenous people are “central to our discourse of human rights and global development” and have an important role in the push for a more sustainable use of natural resources.
He insisted that indigenous people have the “full support” of the UN and welcomed delegates with greetings in indigenous languages from Latin America, South Africa, New Zealand, Malaysia, North America, Norway and Sweden.
However, indigenous activists also called on the world to pay attention to the high level of poverty in many indigenous regions.
“It is imperative for all the governments in the world to work to overcome and eradicate extreme poverty and discrimination against indigenous people,” Morales said.
Aili Keskitalo, president of the Sama Parliament in Norway, told the General Assembly that indigenous people have for decades been marginalized, discriminated against and ignored. She said this has begun to change since the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was approved in 2007.
“The challenge now remains to implement the provisions of the declaration, by closing the gaps between theory and practice, between inspiration and reality,” she said.
The primary goals, she said, are to prevent the loss of territory and resources, to end discrimination, to maintain cultural identity, and to help find solutions to climate change.
Keskitalo said the new Outcome Document is important because it recognizes that indigenous people and their institutions will be allowed to participate in UN debates and actions that affect their communities.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú of Guatemala told the Assembly that the rights of indigenous peoples have consistently been violated and called for a more rigorous program to make good on the promises of the 2007 declaration.
And even Ecuadorean activists, whose government was among those praised by ECLAC, raised their voices against oppression.
Patricia Gualinga — international relations leader for the Quichua people in Ecuador — said that Quito doesn’t respect the rights of indigenous communities.
“The fact that we’ve been included in the Constitution doesn’t mean that the government is really complying with it,”Gualinga told reporters. “The laws of collective indigenous rights have been manipulated, leaders have been slandered and when it comes to natural resources, the government actively campaigns to divide the communities,” she said.
Meanwhile, Franco Viteri — the president of the Confederation of Indigenous Nations from the Ecuadorean Amazon — said that the indigenous concept of “living well” is being used “by the capitalist way of living” in Bolivia and Ecuador.
“These concepts, which we created, have been kidnapped and incorporated in the 2008 Constitution in Ecuador. In the name of development, (the government) is expanding roads, polluting. They talk about extracting oil to protect the health of inhabitants but they don’t realize that when they extract the oil, they contaminate the river that is the source of life, of health, of many indigenous communities. It is contradictory,” he said.