Caribbean Indigenous Peoples call for "a seat at the table"
BELIZE CITY– The Caribbean's indigenous people have urged that they be given a seat at the political table so as to safeguard their rights to their ancestral lands and resources, as they wrapped up an historic University of the West Indies conference of indigenous peoples here over the Labour Day weekend.
The call for political representation for the minority first peoples of the region is one of a slew of recommendations on health, education, gender, sustainable livelihoods, land rights and access to justice, drafted after three days of deliberations by the leaders and representatives of indigenous peoples from six CARICOM nations. Host country Belize is home to more than 50,000 Maya and Garifuna peoples, roughly one-tenth of the population.
The conference, organised by UWI IMPACT Justice, a Canadian-funded project to improve access to justice in the Caribbean, has been hailed as a rare, unique and historic gathering of the region's indigenous peoples and a recognition of the need to redress centuries of degradation and discrimination.
"The Indigenous People should have a seat at the table," Louis Patrick Hill, a representative of Dominica's Kalinago chief, who is a former senator in the US Virgin Islands legislature. "They have very little representation at the levels of government because of the political party system that exists in most of the Caribbean and Latin American countries, and because the indigenous peoples are a minority in those countries we find that the political representation is almost not there."
"There are sometimes (indigenous) people who serve governments but they do not always represent the interests of the indigenous people. It is often-times that they represent the interests of the political party rather that the interests of the indigenous people of their communities. So we want to highly recommend that a process be put in place that allows for audacious representation and not all party politician representation."
The conference proposed that New Zealand's model of representation for its indigenous Māori people, which reserves seats for representatives of Māori in parliament. Each electoral district is covered by both a general and a Māori electorate.
"It is something that the governments in the region could study to see how indigenous peoples acquire and achieve true representation in the development progress so their voices are heard, that their issues are always front and centre and they have ability to actually make a case for the issues that confront them," Hill continued.
Beyond direct political representation, the conference also called for a formal consultative process which gives voice to indigenous peoples' rights and concerns in the clash with governments over exploitation of their lands.
"We highly recommend... a very extensive, formal, consultation with the peoples who are being affected and for whom solutions are being proposed," said Laura George of Guyana's Amerindian Peoples Association.
At the level of international law, there was a call for CARICOM governments to ratify Article 169 of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), considered the most important international law guaranteeing the rights of indigenous peoples. The 1989 convention depends on a high number of states ratifying it to give it greater power. So far, only a score of nations worldwide have adopted the convention.
Dominica, which ratified the convention in 2002 is to date the only CARICOM member state to do so.
George also urged the Indigenous People to examine the existing commitments made by CARICOM member states in the regional and international treaties they have ratified, including the Revised CARICOM Treaty and the Convention on Biodiversity as they affect indigenous peoples' rights.
"Member States have signed on to the Sustainable Development Goals. It might be very broad but I think it's very key … to truly work towards identifying the challenges of indigenous peoples' rights… to their resources and the lands and the waters, and to hold governments accountable as a unified body of indigenous peoples."
"This forum has truly created a space where we could work and come together and work towards our indigenous peoples' civil society to really push for government and the states to work to protect and define, to respect indigenous peoples' rights to (their) lands and resources."