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April 26, 2010 | by  | in Opinion | [ssba]

Do more indigenous rights make a wrong?

Let’s say we have a rainforest; a big lush rainforest, full of shiny plate-sized leaves and bright parrots who rival Lady Gaga in dress code. There’s one group of people who have lived in this rainforest for thousands of years. It’s their supermarket, office, home, church and playground.

There’s also a group of newer people who are cutting down the rainforest to plant corn. Maybe they want to be rich, maybe they just want to eat the corn. This deforestation will threaten species living in our rainforest’s ecosystem and the initial group’s livelihoods and culture. Land-use conversion from forest to agriculture will also contribute to climate change when the carbon stored in the trees is emitted into the atmosphere.
Now imagine you’re an environmentalist. Maybe you have a beard and wear polar fleece on an everyday basis. What do you do about the rainforest? Historically you’d grab a fat red vivid and circle an area on a map. Then you’d try to kick everyone out of that area, including the indigenous people. You’d put in fences and guards and you’d arrest or injure poachers attempting to harvest food and supplies.
Here we wake up sticky and dehydrated, feeling ominous dread about something we can’t quite remember. Did we drink too many colonialist gin and tonics last night?
It’s amazing how many people think removing all people is the ultimate method of slowing extinctions and deforestation. I’m not sure why this hypothetical polar fleece-clad environmentalist even gets to decide. If someone must, then perhaps it should be those who have lived in the rainforest for thousands of years. If they want to plant corn, it’s their decision. We can’t dictate, after destroying our own backyards, that all other gardens should be protected forever in their picket-fence glory. Our imperialist hangover is both embarrassing and unjust.
Personally, I’m uncertain how to navigate the waters of indigenous rights. Growing up pakeha in Dunedin, I had friends whose grandparents were from China, friends born in Sri Lanka and Somalia, friends who spoke with accents and in different languages, but apart from ‘Tutira mai nga iwi’ and biannual trips to the museum, my childhood was relatively devoid of influences from indigenous Aotearoa. But I can still make the links between indigenous people’s struggles and environmental or climate struggles. These social and ecological crises appear to stem from the same root problem: western economic and social systems.
There are alternatives. Last week the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth was held in Bolivia. In reaction to the disastrous Copenhagen talks which occurred last December, Bolivia asked governments, organisations and individuals to join their super-posse in finding just climate change solutions. The focus was on learning and sharing with global movements to show solidarity and develop alternative measures. It sounds like a luxurious eco-holiday compared with Copenhagen, where the G77 countries were largely ignored. To add a kick in the teeth to a metaphorical mugging, the US recently announced that they would not give climate aid to the countries which had opposed the Copenhagen Accord. Not cool.
Miles away from Bolivia, the New Zealand government has finally agreed to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This should have been a big deal. New Zealand had been one of four countries to reject the declaration when it was adopted by the UN in 2007. Apparently the then-Labour government thought something amiss with recognising the rights of indigenous people to self-determination, to maintain their own languages and cultures, to protect their natural and cultural heritage and manage their own affairs.

John Key called the signing “symbolic”, i.e., it doesn’t really mean anything. Apparently the National Government will let people know areas where it won’t follow the declaration. It’s not legally binding, so who cares.

If the goal is to appear like New Zealand is doing something while it’s actually doing nothing (or alternatively, making it worse), then we’re right on track.


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