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Indigenous Peoples' Literature

Despite Everything, We Are Moving Forward

by Rigoberta Menchu Tum

The International Decade proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly represents an opportunity to find viable solutions to the inherited problems of marginalization, exclusion and racism under which the indigenous peoples continue to live in the majority of our planet's countries.

On the threshold of the third millennium, we can say with profound sadness that the serious and systematic violation of the inalienable rights of the indigenous peoples, including their basic human rights, continues. In some countries, indigenous communities and whole peoples are in danger of extinction, and in others, they suffer the painful impact of armed conflicts as one more expression of persistent intolerance.

Similarly, there are indigenous peoples who suffer from hunger, which also implies a violent threat to their rights, and in most cases they are excluded from national development programs. Facing this shameful situation requires that the international community admit this situation represents a state of emergency that requires forceful action to guarantee that these peoples not be exterminated before the century ends. Preventing the disappearance of the indigenous peoples, and therefore our centuries-old cultures, is a contribution to peace, a concrete contribution to the very life of humanity.


It is nevertheless necessary to recognize that, in some countries, the indigenous peoples are flourishing. They constitute the majority of the local population and, despite conditions of marginalization, segregation, racism and the persistence of armed conflict, they reckon with notable advances in the affirmation of their economic, political, social and cultural rights. Through the years, they have sown many initiatives that are now bearing fruit in valuable experiences on the road toward a multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual future that will be the guarantee of a peaceful existence for these pluralist societies.

Guatemala, my country, has faced over 34 years of war with the consequent spilling of our blood and the sorrow of mothers, widows, children and a whole people. This constitutes an irredeemable moral debt in the history of the world's peoples; despite this, the present is witness to dialog and negotiation to reach a political solution, with the hope that this process will translate into the integral acceptance of the identity and rights of the indigenous peoples.

For the advances made in the lives of these peoples not to retrogress, it is fundamental to unite and strengthen their organizing experiences, their existing institutions, and generally mollify their condition so that they may play a full and active part in the building of their peoples' future.

Despite the enormous difficulties and the long and painful road that remains before us to effectuate our rights, an evident success of recent times is the greater diffusion of information about the rights and values of indigenous peoples to national and international public opinion.

Likewise, in an important number of countries, there have been some important constitutional advances that recognize the linguistic and cultural diversity of their people. Mutual respect between indigenous and non-indigenous people is increasingly fostered, making use of the technical and scientific knowledge of the indigenous peoples in the service of the whole society.

These hopeful facts demonstrate that the presence of indigenous peoples in a country is not necessarily synonymous with conflict, but is rather a source of a wealth of national identity and the fulcrum of an integral development of humanity.


In Chiapas, Mexico, we are witnessing a new armed conflict in a region inhabited mostly by indigenous people, in particular the Mayas, which presents us with the challenge of eradicating the causes that gave rise to this conflict. In this sense, it has become necessary to retake the path of dialog and political solutions, taking into account the integral participation of the indigenous peoples.

Likewise, the frontier between Peru and Ecuador has been the scene of a war that directly affects the indigenous peoples. It is urgent to end this war and repair the damage caused to the population in general and the indigenous peoples in particular. In both cases, it is necessary to evaluate the impact of armed conflicts on the indigenous peoples and indispensable to establish a precise mechanism for monitoring violations of their rights and finding peaceful solutions to such conflicts.


I resolutely belief that respect for diversity is a fundamental pillar in the eradication of racism, xenophobia and intolerance. There is no excuse for evading the responsibility of finding the most suitable path toward the elimination of any expression of discrimination against indigenous peoples.

From the 13th to 17th of February, 55 indigenous leaders from 25 countries around the world celebrated the Second Assembly of the Indigenous Initiative for Peace at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, France. We established three central objectives for taking advantage of the historic opportunity that the International Decade represents for us.

The first objective is "to promote the establishment of a new order in the relations between the indigenous peoples, governments and society in general, based upon mutual respect and the recognition and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples, both on the national and international level."

To fulfill this objective, we consider it necessary to establish and homogenize the instruments for verifying indigenous rights and their violation, so that their language be universal. It is necessary to ensure the rights of indigenous peoples through the modification and effective fulfillment of national constitutions, as well as respect for treaties, conventions and other international instruments on these matters. But it is also necessary to elaborate proposals on social policies that put forward models of pluralistic existence based on the development of the indigenous peoples, as well as to establish relations of equality with non-governmental organizations and international agencies in order to eliminate all colonialist, authoritarian and paternalistic practices.

The second objective is "to support the material and spiritual progress and development of indigenous peoples, rescuing and empowering their own cultural values and traditions, as well as promoting solidarity and communication among them and their diverse cultures both at the national and international level." For this purpose, it is necessary to support the development, strengthening and consolidation of indigenous organizations on all levels, as well as the communication between individuals, communities, organizations and all the world's peoples, taking into account that we seek to break the silence and make known our ancient values and knowledge so as to contribute to the construction of a new ethics that can orient these new relations between the indigenous and non- indigenous elements in our pluralistic societies and support solutions to international problems.

The third objective is "to contribute to the prevention of conflicts that involve indigenous peoples, as well as promoting peaceful solution to these anywhere in the world." For this, it is fundamental to exercise a special vigilance, integrating commissions of verification and mediation in cases that require them and making sure to prevent the outbreak of human rights violations in potentially conflicted zones. And, obviously, it is therefore indispensable to elaborate proposals for the acceptable handling of border conflicts between different states that affect the indigenous peoples living in these areas.

We indigenous leaders who have voluntarily gathered on our personal account in the Indigenous Initiative for Peace commit ourselves to contribute to the promotion of the International Decade, as well as brotherhood between all our planet's cultures.


At the request of the Human Rights Commission, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations has completed its twelve years of careful and comprehensive investigation and deliberation, recommending norms for the promotion and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples that we call the Proposal for a Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which has been approved by the Subcommission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities and is now before the aforesaid commission for its approval.

The right to self-determination is the fundamental part of the Proposal for a Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and is the prerequisite for the respect of all other rights. Among the essential rights derived from self- determination is the right to development. Today, the world's indigenous peoples are confronted by innumerable problems provoked by the application of development models foreign to their world view, values and self-managed procedures.

The majority of conflicts occurring in territories inhabited by indigenous peoples are actually struggles for the control of natural resources such as wood, minerals, oil and biodiversity. Self-determination and development are only two of the international norms that ought to be practiced so that indigenous peoples can gain the conditions for a life of dignity.

The proposal for a Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples is the result of many years of work, of consultation with governments, UN agencies, intergovernmental organizations, and with indigenous communities, peoples, organizations and leaders, for whom there is a close relationship between human rights, peace and development. To achieve peace, the impulse of development must harmonize the economic factor with social, political, environmental and cultural dimensions and with a real respect for the rights of self-determination, justice and freedom. One cannot speak of development when a people is illiterate, malnourished and even starving. Peace cannot be made while racism still persists and grows.

We hope for support from The Human Rights Commission for this proposed declaration as one of its first measures during the International Decade. This proposal is the product of discussions and debates between indigenous peoples, governments and experts, following the practice of full participation. All of this practice has shown us that broad cooperation between all parties can help in the search for solutions. I hope that the need for continuing this tradition is taken into account, both in the Commission and the other governmental bodies in which the proposal will be analyzed; and that in each of them, the necessary procedural steps are taken to effectuate the full participation of indigenous peoples, organizations and leaders in the consolidation of this document.

It is also necessary to reaffirm the importance of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations as the only current possibility for indigenous peoples to declare themselves and interchange their ideas with other peoples and governments. This Working Group should be reinforced, which is why I find interesting the idea of some delegations that have suggested that representatives of indigenous people be included. The discussion in the Permanent Forum began some months ago, which I consider an important initiative. I understand that many brothers and sisters are interested in developing a forum where they can participate on an equal footing with governments.

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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.