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United Nations Commission on Human Rights

Fifty-ninth Session

March 17-April 25, 2003

Written intervention by the International Indian Treaty Council

Agenda Item #10: Economic, Social and Cultural Rights


For Indigenous Peoples, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are fundamentally interrelated and interdependent.  These rights are linked in Article 1 in common of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which recognizes that all (not some) peoples, by virtue of their right to Self-Determination, may establish and implement their own economic, social and cultural development.  Article 1 also states that “in no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence,” which relates directly to the Right to Food. 


In this regard, the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) would like to express our appreciation to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for its engagement with civil society and Indigenous Peoples, through long-standing relationships and through follow-up activities to the Commission on Sustainable Development/World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD).  In addition to offering technical support for community projects, FAO welcomed and facilitated the participation of Indigenous Peoples in the World Food Summit +5, its parallel events and subsequent meetings. 


In April, 2002, FAO assisted the IITC in facilitating the first Indigenous Peoples’ Global Consultation on Food Security issues, which produced the “Declaration of Atitlán” as a statement of principles and action proposals adopted by consensus by 125 Indigenous delegates from 28 countries.  Its recommendations are directed towards states, industry and multilateral institutions, as well as towards Indigenous Peoples.  We urge the members of the Commission to review this Declaration as a record of Indigenous Peoples’ positions on the Right to Food in the context of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and as a global and regional analysis of the barriers to the full enjoyment of these Rights.


The Declaration underscores in its preamble that, “the means of subsistence of Indigenous Peoples nourishes our cultures, languages, social life, worldview, and especially our relationship with Mother Earth,” and emphasizes, “that the denial of the Right to Food for Indigenous Peoples not only denies us our physical survival, but also denies us our social organization, our cultures, traditions, languages, spirituality, sovereignty, and total identity; it is a denial of our collective indigenous existence”.


Traditional social and economic/trade structures and systems, subsistence practices and livelihoods, medicinal treatments, language systems and the observation of millennial spiritual practices are central to the diverse identities and very survival of Indigenous Peoples.  Indigenous Peoples’ traditional food systems in particular exemplify the degree to which Economic, Social and Cultural Rights are linked.


In 2001, during WSSD Prep Com I, the IITC proposed that the WSSD emphasize the link between biodiversity and cultural diversity as a means toward measurable progress in sustainable development. While we commend France as one of a handful of states to begin discussing this issue through the WSSD High Level Roundtable on Biological and Cultural Diversity in 2002, we urge governments to move from words to deeds in all of their policies. We also commend the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) for its discussion of the cultural impacts of large development projects.


New technologies, developed in a bioethical vacuum and imposed as the only solution to poverty and hunger, cause irreversible impacts to Indigenous Peoples’ cultures.  On March 13, 2002, Indian Country Today, a national Native newspaper in the United States, reported that approximately 50 million acres of genetically engineered corn are growing in the United States, including near traditional Indian farms in North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Arizona and New Mexico.


Commenting on the need to protect traditional subsistence foods from agro-industrial practices, and alarmed by the genetic drift that contaminates the traditional Native crops, a traditional Native farmer and member of the Mohawk Nation and Tesuque Pueblo stated,


"When I first heard about the corruption of the genes of our Corn Mother,

it frightened me because corn is at the heart of our survival as Indigenous

peoples of North, South and Central America.  Corn is our Mother.  She

nourishes us and takes care of us.  Our Creator gave it to us as a gift and

instructed us on how to care for the corn so that it will care for us.  It is

our first medicine, and our people and corn are one in the same.  Our mother

is being corrupted by scientists and corporations, and if we don’t stop it,

she won’t have the ability to heal us any longer."


Unfortunately, the United States government does not consider the right to food as an enforceable human right in and of itself under international law. Isolating itself from most other counties in the United Nations system, the United States maintains that the responsibility (as distinct from the legal obligation) of States is to “provide conditions whereby the individual is able to meet his or her own economic needs, including obtaining adequate food, through his or her own initiative.”  Asserting precisely that position during 57th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, it was the only State out of 53 to vote against a Commission Resolution on the Right to Food.  It took a similar stance during the World Food Summit +5 by lodging a formal reservation to the inclusion of the Right to Food in the final declaration of the Summit, further indicating that it prioritizes trade liberalization over a human rights approach to food security.


A variety of development practices are imposed under the framework of globalization on or near Indigenous Peoples’ communities worldwide, resulting in environmental degradation of lands and waters essential for the gathering of traditional medicines, ceremonial and subsistence foods, and violating Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determined economic, social and cultural activities in these rural areas.  Furthermore, family and societal structures are destroyed when these rural community members are forced to migrate to urban areas in search of some form of livelihood, only to wind up homeless and unemployed. As the World Bank reports in its study on “Indigenous Peoples and Poverty,” Indigenous Peoples are the poorest of the poor.


Extractive industries such as mining and oil development always leave a significant “environmental footprint.”  When imposed on or near Indigenous Peoples’ lands or territories, they violate Indigenous Peoples’ human rights and often lead to the extermination of entire Peoples.


The Gwich’in Nation of Northeast Alaska and Northwest Canada are embroiled in one of the most controversial environmental and human rights issues to be fought in the United Stated in decades.  The Gwich’in seek permanent protection of Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins” -coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  Multi-national oil companies, the Bush Administration, the State of Alaska, the Department of Interior and Native Corporations continue to infringe upon the rights of the Gwich’in Nation by seeking oil development in the Arctic Refuge.  The current United States National Budget Bill once again contains provisions to allow oil and gas exploration and development of the “1002 area” coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  The Gwich’in have fought relentlessly since 1988 to maintain protection of this sacred and vital area. 


The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the birthplace and nursery for the 123,000-member Porcupine Caribou Herd, which is central to the Gwich’in culture, and livelihood to meet all the primary physical, cultural, spiritual, social and economic needs of the Gwich’in.  Any provision to open the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development is a direct threat to the inherent and fundamental human right of the Gwich’in to live their ancestral way of life and pass it on to future generations.  It would be comparable to the historically genocidal acts that brought the Plains buffalo to the brink of extinction, and violated the very heart of the Plains Tribes’ ancestral way of life


The United States Government, as party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, must be held accountable to its international legal obligations and to upholding the Gwich’in culture and way of life.  The Gwich’in would also like to point out that the United States government is in violation of the July 17, 1987 International Agreement between the Government of the United States of America and the Government of Canada on the Conservation of the Porcupine Caribou Herd, through which it made the following, unconditional commitment: “To conserve the Porcupine Caribou Herd and it’s habitat through international co-operation and co-ordination so that the risk of irreversible damage or long-term affects  as a result of use of caribou or their habitat is minimized.”


We would like to conclude by urging member states to recognize the Right to Food as a human right.  Also, we appreciate the interest that the Rapporteur on the Right to Food has expressed in Indigenous Peoples’ concerns.  We strongly encourage him take these concerns, including the links between food security and the traditional cultures of Indigenous Peoples, into account when reviewing cases put before him, and to work in close collaboration with other Rapporteurs whose specialties are relevant to the cultural survival of Indigenous Peoples and, indeed, to all humanity.


All my relations.


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