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Africa And Aboriginal Tuesdays: Indigenous Peoples Speak Up For Nature by Amanda Suutari

"In my community," says Roy Laifungbam of the Meitei people in northern India, "water is part of our daily ritual worship, as well as our annual spring festival. And this relationship is totally disregarded when you talk about water as a commodity."
Laifungbam is part of the Caucus of Indigenous People, who attended the recent World Water Forum in Kansai to offer a spiritual perspective many members felt was absent from the discussions.

"We're being treated like we're invisible," complains Santos Norato, a Mayan from Guatemala. "Everybody's more interested in modernity and how to take advantage of nature rather than how to care for it. We think that money takes priority over nature here . . . "

According to UNEP (United Nations Environmental Protection), more than 80 percent of the world's remaining biodiversity, and 90 percent of human cultural diversity, are found in indigenous territories. This highlights their role in caring for the world's last wild areas. Caucus members came with a wide variety of stories -- of coal-mining that is degrading springs in Arizona, desertification affecting Saharan nomads, rising sea levels threatening South Pacific islanders, rivers being dammed in native territories of India, and tourist resorts impacting communities in the Philippines -- but what they shared was a traditional reverence for this basic element.

"The water, the trees, and the forests are all sacred to [the Mayans]," explains Norato. "We are part of nature. So we also have water committees who plant the trees and take care of the areas near the sources for water. These services are unpaid, but we believe that it's a useful natural resource that we all have to care for . . ."

Richard Deertrack, a Pueblo from New Mexico, fears that modern life has threatened the intimate relationship many indigenous people have with water. "I come from a people whose only source of water was a stream, some springs, and hand-dug wells. When I first came into contact with a shower, I thought it was never-ending. So we're probably using 100 times more water than before we had all the infrastructure. If you turn on your water, somehow you lose reverence for it."

But modernity has also inspired many communities to revitalize old customs. "Marine life has diminished in our lagoon," says Te Tika Mataiapo, of the Koutu Nui of the Cook Islands. "A lot of it has to do with irresponsible fishing. We have brought back a traditional method called raui, which we haven't practiced for over 50 years. And it's amazing. We've witnessed the growth of marine life, in fact, we're seeing species we haven't seen for a while. And not only have the fish returned, it has brought back a new consciousness of environmental protection and respect."

For the caucus, their challenge is simply to be heard. "At the first Earth Summit in Rio, after a lot of lobbying and protest, we were finally recognized [in the concluding declaration] as a major group that had an important stake in the discussion," says Maifungbam. "But in Johannesburg [at the second Earth Summit, last summer], this was dropped completely from the declaration. So we had to fight again, right from scratch, to get indigenous peoples back on the agenda. We are still being marginalized even though we still play a very central role in the world's water resources."

Although Maifungbam remains upbeat, pointing to the media attention they received, he stresses that much remains to be done.

"I think that for indigenous peoples, everything is in the future. We have so much to do, and our struggle will still be long."

This article first appeared in The Japan Times

Tuesday, April 1, 2003

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