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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Fri Aug 11 15:44:51 2000
Date: Thu, 10 Aug 2000 21:36:13 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: POPULATION-LATAM: Racism Thwarts Indigenous Rights, Says Menchu
Article: 102273
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X-UIDL: 6ff90c0cd4db2513ac63ff5e88d69218

Racism Thwarts Indigenous Rights, Says Menchu

By Diego Cevallos, IPS, 9 August 2000

MEXICO CITY, Aug 9 (IPS) - There is not much to celebrate in the Americas on the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, because the fight for the rights of native peoples continues to run up against a racist culture, Guatemalan Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchú said Wednesday in Mexico.

Deep down, government resistance to recognising the rights of indigenous peoples and to clearing the way for their development arises from racism and xenophobia, sentiments that are not wiped away by naming a world day in their honour, Menchú said in an interview with IPS.

The International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, proclaimed by the United Nations, is a time for reflection, rather than celebration, said the Guatemalan Indian leader, who was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1993.

In some countries in the Americas, the day was commemorated Wednesday by cultural and academic events. But among the continent's indigenous peoples, the occasion went largely unnoticed.

This day is a political and bureaucratic affair, and what is said is pure rhetoric, Agust¡n Jim‚nez, president of the Association of Indigenous Writers of Mexico, told IPS. Most of us did not even know about it. I found out by chance, when I glanced at a calendar that marked the date.

Menchú agreed that few were aware of the occasion. However, she vindicated its importance as another front won by the world's indigenous peoples in the long and difficult struggle for their rights.

Although there are no specific census counts on indigenous people, native groups are estimated to account for 36 to 55 million people in Latin America, with most of them living in extreme poverty.

But even that number reveals the racism that exists, because these figures are manipulated according to political interests, said Menchú.

The Guatemalan activist, who is also a UN goodwill ambassador for the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples proclaimed in 1993, said strides had been made towards the recognition of the rights of native peoples, although most of them continued to be trampled.

Governments are opposed to almost all of the demands put forth by indigenous peoples, such as the right to land, autonomy, native cultures and political participation, she said.

There is a struggle between indigenous peoples and governments, but deep down what really exists is racism, she maintained.

The United Nations has been discussing indigenous rights for 18 years, although no consensus has yet been reached on a declaration on the question. Something similar has occurred in the debate on native rights in the Organisation of American States (OAS).

Late last month, the United Nations created a permanent forum on indigenous affairs, to begin functioning in 2002. The new body's task will be to promote effective measures against the exploitation and impoverishment of native peoples.

States exaggerate the demands we put forth, like the demand for autonomy, because they believe we will divide countries, said Menchú. But that is false. Their arguments are just another sign of the hatred felt for indigenous peoples.

She said the International Decade of Indigenous Peoples, declared amidst the uproar surrounding the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Spanish to the Americas, remained an empty decade, without fruits, and without financial support from the United Nations.

Nevertheless, she pointed to some strides made, such as new influence and leadership roles won by Ecuador's indigenous movement, the renown earned by the Zapatista guerrillas in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas, and awards of land to native groups in several countries.

She also pointed to efforts to clarify massacres of indigenous people in Guatemala.

But the scant progress is far outweighed by the marginalisation and poverty suffered by most indigenous peoples, she added.

Menchú, who has held meetings over the past few days with UN officials in Geneva, reported that she might be named to lead the Latin American regional conference to be held ahead of the World Summit Against Racism, scheduled for next year in South Africa.

The conference will provide a new opportunity to push for the elimination of racism, which thwarts the struggle for the rights of millions of indigenous peoples in the Americas, she concluded.