Victoria Tauli Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, laughs out loud as she recalls reading about capacity-building programs on self-governance for indigenous peoples. “We’ve been governing ourselves long before nation states even existed!” In a conversation with Politically Speaking during a recent trip to New York, Ms. Tauli Corpuz talked about important role indigenous governance can play in achieving peaceful and inclusive societies by furthering cooperation and dialogue between indigenous peoples, the private sector and state actors.
Can you give us some examples of indigenous governance systems and how they have prevented and/or addressed conflict between indigenous communities and state/non-state actors?
Victoria Tauli Corpuz: Some of the examples that I have seen are examples in Mexico. I went to Guerrero [in central Mexico] for instance, which is one of the most drug-ridden places in Mexico. That’s where 43 students were disappeared in 2014. I talked to the autonomous municipalities and I met the community police and they said that because of the existence of their own self-protection systems, the community police managed to keep away some of these drug syndicates from coming into the communities. They are therefore able to ensure better peace and security for the indigenous peoples. That’s one example.
The other one is in Cheran, San Francisco, in Mexico as well, who they themselves have taken up the cudgels to govern themselves. Five years ago, they kicked out the municipal authorities, whom they have accused of colluding with the drug syndicates and illegal loggers, that had been destroying their forest. So, they went and kicked them out. They elected their own officials, and then they were challenged in the electoral tribunal as well as in the supreme court, but they won the cases, because the constitution of Mexico does recognize indigenous governance. So, in Mexico, because there is a constitutional provision that mentions that, it’s used by the people themselves in creating and crafting their own governance systems or invigorating their traditional systems of governance, but also to ensure peace and security in their communities and to reduce conflicts.
In Chiapas, of course we all know about the Zapatista uprising. Because of that, they managed to have the San Andrés Accords, which have created these autonomous municipalities. I met with some of these Caracoles, who are running the municipalities and they said that there is now lesser conflict. There isn’t much conflict anymore, the drug syndicates are not coming to their communities anymore. With regards to the armed conflict that was spurred by the Zapatista uprising, now they are doing more work in relations to strengthening governance.
I was also in Peru, and I met with these people from the Huambisa Nation. They mapped their territory – tens of thousands of hectares. They made a very sophisticated, very scientific map of what their territories are, they made their own customary protocols in terms of the role that external actors play, when they come into their territory, and then they went to the government and submitted their map as well as their by-laws and their constitution. They said, “We’re Peruvians, but we want to have our own nation as well.” And the government accepted that. At least they didn’t resist, they didn’t send military troops to stop them, so I think these are some of the good efforts that I have seen in terms of indigenous peoples self-asserting, but also in terms of using legal frameworks to further strengthen their own indigenous systems. Of course, these systems are hybrid systems, because they live in communities, where the modern governance system is in place, but they are able to configure this in a way to make sure that the indigenous leadership is more prominent.
Do you think that governments are more accepting of such self-governing initiatives?
Well, from what I have seen when I went to Mexico and asked them about these communities, which are self-governing, and whether it was true that the indicators of peace and security are better, they said yes, which for me is an affirmation that they recognize that if you are allowing indigenous peoples to govern themselves, then maybe they are in a better position to assert as well as protect their rights.
I think governments are being more accommodating in that sense, because, I think, they also have to deal with the reality that they cannot totally govern the whole country. In Brazil, for instance, the state is basically absent in some of the Amazon countries I went to. There’s no state there. So, it’s the indigenous peoples governing themselves and governing the relationship they have with their neighbors. So, I think there is more acceptance in a way, for as long as this doesn’t threaten national sovereignty, territorial integrity, which of course is very dear to most of these nation states.
But I think they are realizing that self-governance is not actually a threat, because the indigenous peoples themselves say “We are Peruvians, we are Mexicans, but we just want to make sure that we are able to do more in terms of governing ourselves.” Maybe there is much more acceptance now because of the realities of intractable conflicts, very high levels of insecurity. And if indeed there are some groups of people who are able to guarantee better peace, less conflicts and more security, then why shouldn’t we support those kinds of efforts?
Can indigenous governance promote inclusive mediation processes to achieve a more sustainable and durable peace?
Yes, of course. That’s really something that is at the core of the efforts of indigenous peoples, to assert their right to govern themselves. Mainly because of the kind of insecurity and lack of peace that is happening in their territories. From what I have seen, indigenous peoples would say that before there was any government to speak of, before nation states were created, they have been governing themselves. Of course, there were conflicts with neighbors, but there are mediation processes. We have peace mediation processes, which are traditional, which we use to bring about a kind of peace. I can speak of my own country, the Philippines as I am an Igorot. We used to have tribal wars in our region, but part of these tribal wars was what we call the peace pact mechanisms, where the warring tribes come together and agree to a peace pact, which will define exactly how to resolve the issues of boundaries, because usually that’s the issue that makes them fight with each other. The issue of sharing water, sharing forests. These are the kinds of issues that are negotiated in these peace pact negotiations. I think we should seek far and wide for these conflict mediation and resolution processes that have been in place and which work. I think, if we are able to find them, even enhance them, reinforce them further, then maybe there’s a better scenario in terms of addressing the situations of conflict.
What are some of the main challenges relating to indigenous governance systems?
Well, several. First of all, of course, national laws in many cases don’t really recognize indigenous governance. It’s like a monolithic system, where the modern, western system of governance is imposed on everybody. It doesn’t recognize that there are other forms of governance that exist. That’s one: The lack of a legal framework, that recognizes that. Of course, in some countries, as I said in Mexico, there are those legal frameworks. And in the Philippines, for instance.
The other challenge are the resources, that are made available to indigenous governance systems. Because, if you want to govern yourself, the government will say “OK, so you will run your own education system, your health system, your justice system, and we are not going to support you in that way.” But that’s not right. If the government really wants to bring about peace and security, and of course better education and health results, then of course it’s their obligation to support these communities. But because indigenous peoples are asserting their rights, the natural reaction of many governments is to deprive them of those resources, that would allow them to self-govern. I think the government should continue to support those efforts, especially if indeed they bring better indicators. Especially in the era of sustainable development goals: I think that if the government supports the indigenous peoples, the goals will have a better chance of being achieved. Because if you give them the responsibility of reducing maternal mortality, ensuring better integration for their children, sustaining the life on land and if they come up with better results, then why not?
All people are desirous of achieving these goals, but they should be given the possibility to continue achieving these goals and that means support: technical support, financial support, political support from the side of the state.
I think, that’s what’s important. And, of course also the research that’s needed to show that indeed the indicators are there. Just using the indicators of the sustainable development goals in itself will bring about a lot of data that we won’t normally see. In my institution (Tebtebba, an indigenous peoples research and advocacy center), we have done work on setting up community monitoring systems, where the indigenous peoples themselves are monitoring how the situation in their own communities is improving or worsening. They make maps of their own communities, they develop three-dimensional maps to understand exactly what their territories are all about, the boundaries, the forest, etc. And then they monitor, they do resource inventory, where they make an inventory of the biodiversity in the communities as well as the traditional knowledge systems that are in place. And these community monitoring systems work, because they understand better what their territory is, they will know exactly the state of the health of the ecosystem and then on that basis, they develop their own land use development plans and influence the municipal and local governments to use these plans. I think that’s the way it should work, because at national level, you can only do so much. In the end, it’s the local communities themselves that are going to really implement and achieve these goals. It’s in their own interest to achieve these goals for themselves. So, I think those are some of the things that need to come much more into the public discourse as well as into the awareness, so that we are able to really support the agency of people to really take their destiny into their hands and shape the kind of future they would like to have.
Title picture: Squamish Nation canoe approaching Bella Bella, Canada. UN Photo/John Isaac
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent positions of the Department of Political Affairs.
You might also be interested in our interview with Albert Barume, Chairperson of the UN Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples from December 2017: “Peace also Depends on the Respect for Indigenous Rights”