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UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In 2007, a number of countries signed the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. In collaboration with academics and activists in the field, Leiden researchers help to bring these agreements to life. They are mapping indigenous languages for educational purposes and defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples by entering into dialogue with policy makers and transnational companies.

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The Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples helps peoples such as the Huitol in Mexico. They have been able to bring attention to mining activities in one of their holy places, Wirikuta.

Interpreting the spiritual connection

The signing of the UN declaration does not mean that all the problems facing Indigenous Peoples have now been resolved. ‘This document contains many terms that mean completely different things to the various parties concerned,’ explains Professor Maarten Jansen; he was himself involved in developing the declaration. ‘For example: one of the articles in the treaty states that Indigenous Peoples have a right to create a “spiritual connection” with the area they inhabit. From a Western perspective, this is a rather non-binding article since it’s unclear what “spiritual connection” actually means. For Indigenous Peoples, on the other hand, “spiritual connection” means a promise that no mining activities or other destructive activities will take place in the area in question, and that respect will be shown for the way in which Indigenous People inhabit this area.’ This is the kind of difference in interpretation that policy makers are often unaware of.

Thousands of undescribed languages

A second element of the UN declaration in which researchers have an important role to play is the article stating that Indigenous Peoples have a right to education in their own language. This is easier said than done. Jansen: ‘We are talking about thousands of languages that have been insufficiently described, for which we have no dictionary or grammar, no written records of oral literature. You cannot simply go to a village and say to the local teacher: teach the language. It requires incredible effort on the part of researchers to document even one such language. I myself am currently involved in a project to create a contextual dictionary of Mixtec (which provides sentences for the registered Mixtec words). This project has been going on for more than ten years.’

‘Furthermore, in order to learn words you need an alphabet. Then you have to ask yourself: Where do words begin? Where do they end? Words come with different prefixes, suffixes, plural changes etc. There are tonal languages in which the meaning of a word changes with a change in pitch. This is a phenomenon we do not have in our own writing. How do you handle this kind of element? It all requires an incredible investment of time and resources.’

Conflicts with transnational companies

Leiden researchers are also defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples in conflicts with transnational companies. Jansen: ‘Indigenous Peoples, the poorest people in their own country and the poorest in developing countries generally, are the victims of exploitation because they literally live on top of gold mines. Transnational companies earn fortunes in these mines. The situation poses a real challenge to the academic community: How can we contribute to improving this situation? Collaboration between archaeologists, anthropologists, legal experts and linguists can help to make the law more accessible to Indigenous Peoples. Leiden University is doing its utmost to facilitate these kinds of contacts through conferences on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples for experts from across the world.’

Leiden researchers also have other opportunities for coming into direct contact with policy makers. For example, last year, Maarten Jansen attended the permanent forum on the rights of Indigenous Peoples at the UN headquarters in New York. ‘Policy makers are often advised by researchers, such as anthropologists, who are hired by governments. Especially if the setting is informal, these are great opportunities for exchanging ideas with these researchers.’ Leiden University lecturer Manuel May Castillo, a Maya himself and an expert on Mayan cultural heritage, is in contact with legal experts to try and influence local Mexican policies on the preservation of cultural heritage.


All these efforts are effective on a modest scale. Jansen: ‘Indigenous Peoples use the Declaration (as well as a comparable document, Convention 169, created by the International Labour Organisation) in their negotiations with transnational mining companies and local authorities. In this way, the Huichol people in Mexico have been able to bring attention to mining activities in one of their sacred places, Wirikuta. In addition, governments seem now to at least be open to dialogue on these matters. Mixtec is now for instance seen as a language in its own right and not, as was the case thirty years ago, as a dialect. This is a step towards making discussion possible.’
Leiden researcher Eithne Carlin, a specialist in the peoples of the Amazon, also sees a shift in the attitude of policy makers. ‘In Guyana the Ministry of Culture is currently writing its policy on cultural heritage for the coming ten years and has asked researchers for input in formulating this policy. The President of Guyana has also announced that he wants to have educational material for all the indigenous languages of the country.’

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