16 April 2005

Collective rights - and wrongs

By Marguerite Finn

"An Englishman's home is his castle". This old saying reflects an attitude towards property that is enshrined in the laws, customs and emotions not only of this country but in most countries throughout the western world.

Is it not remarkable then, that there are upwards of 300 million people in the world for whom the notion of individual property has no meaning at all? These are Indigenous Peoples such as the American Indian tribes, the Innuit and Innu of the circumpolar regions, the Masai of Tanzania, the Aborigines of Australia, the Sami of Finland and thousands of other groups, for whom the idea of 'land' is a collective notion. Many of these peoples live in western countries whose property laws are based upon individual rights and therefore have no meaning for them.

To Indigenous Peoples, their land is sacred as a 'communal whole' - not in individual patches. The land's sacred nature sustains them spiritually only if it remains intact and inviolate. Likewise for the produce of the land: it sustains them only if it is husbanded by collective agreement. Their law is based upon the indivisibility of the land therefore individual property ownership is unthinkable to them. Their housing, too, is often a communal unit - such as the 'yanos' - the huge communal building that is home to the Yanomami Tribe. Because they live in concord with their lands, Indigenous Communities have tremendous knowledge of the plants and animals with which they share their territories. Their knowledge of medicinal plants, hardy plant species and disease-resistant cattle, developed over generations, is shared and used collectively. Now these communities are vulnerable to corporate globalisation and "development". Their lands, rich in natural resources and biological diversity, present great opportunities for profit; and because their sovereignty is not recognised or protected by international trade agreements, corporations are not required to compensate or consult with Indigenous Peoples before coming on to their land, displacing them from their homes, destroying their way of life, to drill for oil, cut down forests or mine for minerals.

The World Trade Organisation's rule concerning intellectual property rights is particularly threatening because it does not recognise collective intellectual property. As a result, precious tribal knowledge is being appropriated by individuals and corporations, with a view to claiming patent rights. In addition to robbing Indigenous knowledge and wealth, current global trade agreements undermine the entire basis of Indigenous Knowledge by creating incentives for individuals to keep new knowledge for themselves rather than share it with the community. Indigenous Peoples have a completely different concept of knowledge, wealth, development and progress to that of non-indigenous people. They tend to value environmental sustainability, cultural preservation and spirituality over economic growth. They offer a radical alternative to mainstream individualism.

Some Indigenous Peoples have reached working agreements with their western-style governments, who recognise that they have collective rights, (mysterious though they may seem to a western capitalist society), upon which their survival depends and which governments must respect. A British Royal Proclamation of 1763 recognised the legality of Indian territorial possessions in Canada and Florida. The Waitangi Treaty of 1840 referred to lands in New Zealand that Maori Peoples "may collectively possess". Sometimes the arrangements have not been so satisfactory. The 1887 Dawes Act split US Indian land into individual plots which outsiders could obtain by trickery, bribery or violence. The plight of Australia's 450,000 Aborigines was significantly improved by two High Court Rulings in the 1990s, but fierce lobbying by the powerful mining and farming industries, forced the Australian government to undermine the Aboriginees' legal victories and render them meaningless.

Aborigines remain the most disadvantaged group in Australia's 20 million population. This month, Australian Premier, John Howard, raised the prospect of a major change to aboriginal land rights by replacing an ancient communal system with private ownership. In a wilful misunderstanding of the notion of collective rights, he insisted, "every Australian black or white, should be able to own their own home as a symbol of a person's worth."

A UN Working Group recently completed a draft Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, encompassing collective rights and sovereignty. But Britain, with Australia, Canada and the US, is blocking this new Declaration - insisting that 'collective' human rights don't exist. Where previously it accepted the concept of collective title to land, it now says this is an individual right "exercised collectively"! Norway, Denmark and 33 other countries have signed up unreservedly - only the post-colonialists prevaricate. Why? Survival International believes that the UK's actions in this case are reprehensible and should be firmly opposed.