Interview with Mirna Cunningham, outgoing UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Chair

Mirna Cunningham, the outgoing Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. UN/P. Filgueiras

7 May 2012 – Close to 2,000 indigenous representatives from around the world have gathered at UN Headquarters for the latest session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, aimed at advancing the rights and well-being of indigenous peoples, who number some 370 million worldwide.

Established by the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in 2000, the Forum is comprised of 16 independent experts who provide advice and recommendations on indigenous issues to the UN system, raises awareness and promote integration within the UN system, and disseminate information on indigenous issues.

One of those experts, Mirna Cunningham – who hails from the indigenous Miskita people of the Waspan community in Nicaragua and served as the Forum’s Chair until this past weekend – spoke with the UN News Centre about the session and the issues to be discussed.

UN News Centre: What will be the main focus of the discussions at this year’s session of the Forum?

Mirna Cunningham: The main theme of this session is the 'Doctrine of Discovery.' Although we recognize the importance of analyzing the philosophies and ideology that oriented or supported the colonization of indigenous territories, we believe that the main focus should be on what are the good practices that we are promoting in countries to change this historical relationship of oppression against indigenous people.

We will be focusing on constitutional reforms and what are the challenges that we are facing to make these constitutiona... the main focus should be on what are the good practices that we are promoting in countries to change this historical relationship of oppression against indigenous people.l reforms be respected, be implemented, be enforced; but also, in countries in which there are still no reforms, how we can promote them.

The second aspect that we trying to highlight in the session is related [to] processes of peace, negotiation and reconciliation. There are very good practices in regions in different parts of the world in which indigenous peoples have played a very important role in peacebuilding, in reconciliation-building, in trying to build a dialogue between indigenous people and governments.

The other aspect that we will be discussing in this session is related [to] violence against indigenous women and girls. This is a theme that we included as a priority for this year, and our expert group meeting in January was focused on this theme. We will be sharing the results of this meeting.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (right) visits an indigenous community affected by deforestation in Indonesia. UN/M. Garten

One of the things that I would like to highlight is that from the point of view of indigenous peoples and especially indigenous women, we do not want to focus the discussion on violence against indigenous women only on domestic violence because we see that violence is related to globalization, to colonization, to racism, to structural changes that need to be improved in different countries. Because of that, there are conditions that increase violence against women – economic measures, militarization, lack of security, ecological problems, contamination – a lot of these affect indigenous women, and these increase violence.

We will also be discussing the right to food and food sovereignty. This is a very important problem in communities especially because it is related to land rights, to the control of indigenous peoples over natural resources, to self-determination. We do not believe in the concept of food security. We promote the concept of food sovereignty. We believe we should have, as indigenous people, control over all of the different steps that guarantee food in homes.

And of course related to food, there are some emerging problems. For diabetes in indigenous communities, it is a pandemic… this is related to the fact that we are not using traditional foods any more. So nutrition, diabetes and non-communicable diseases [form] an area that is related to food and the right to food.

The existence of some indigenous peoples is threatened, such as that of the forest-dwelling Baaka people of the Republic of Congo. Photo: UNFPA/Nicolas Guyot

We will also be discussing intellectual property rights and indigenous peoples. There will be an in-depth discussion with WIPO [UN World Intellectual Property Organization]. Our indigenous communities are so rich in arts, in knowledge, but there are no measures at the international level to protect this knowledge, to protect these arts, to protect a lot of the things that communities are producing.

UN News Centre: How has the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples advanced issues of concern to indigenous communities globally?

Mirna Cunningham: The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is becoming like an international customary law, because although it is a declaration, it has enormous weight at the international level – what we are trying to do is to promote the use of the UN Declaration as an international standard.

The second thing we are trying to promote is that parliaments use the declaration as an instrument when they are approving legislation. Only two governments have recognized the Declaration as a national legislation – Bolivia and Nicaragua – but we want other governments, other parliaments, to recognize the UN Declaration.

UN human rights chief Navi Pillay receiving petitions from indigenous authorities at a meeting in Guatemala. Photo: OHCHR/R. Alfaro

I would say the biggest advance is at the community level. Indigenous people from different parts of the world are using the Declaration to promote their self-determined development models, and I would like this to be something that we are trying to promote that is related to the next [UN] Conference on Sustainable Development, in Rio. This is the concept and practice of self-determined development that is promoted by indigenous people in which we are trying not only to challenge the conventional model of development, but also to make people understand that if they listen to our point of view on development, they can also change the situation globally and locally.

I do believe that we have an opportunity to continue promoting our model of self-determined development, but we are facing big challenges… The Permanent Forum is so important because it is a forum that brings governments, UN agencies and indigenous people together to discuss issues that are so relevant, not only for indigenous people but for everybody else.

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