Shortly after 2pm on May 7, an event of historic significance took place at the 11th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York.
Job Morris of the Kuru Family of Organisations stood and read out a statement on the Doctrine of Discovery drafted collectively by the San caucus of southern Africa - the first time a statement by the San and for the San has been delivered at this forum.
Job was supported by the fellow members of San caucus - namely Oma Tsamxao, Kgao Ghauz and Keikabile Mogodu - who stood sombrely in a dramatic and powerful display of San solidarity, which clearly moved the other indigenous activists from around the world.
For the San representatives this was truly momentous. And the significance was not lost on the indigenous people from other parts of the world, who immediately surrounded Job when he had finished to congratulate and embrace him.
The Permanent Forum meets annually at the UN in New York and is the most important international platform for indigenous people ‑ allowing them to engage with the UN system, multilateral bodies engaged with issues related to indigenous peoples, donors and their fellow activists from around the globe.
And while the San statement was historic, it also contained very powerful contemporary messages.
The theme for the 11th session is the Doctrine of Discovery and the related notion of ‘terra nullius’, which was used by colonial authorities to justify non-recognition of indigenous peoples’ territories and natural resource tenure and illegal land seizures.
A 2002 ruling of the International Criminal Court set aside the use of “terra nullius” as a justification of disenfranchisement or abrogation of rights but the decision has not yet been absorbed into African domestic legislation or consistently applied by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
Standing before the packed audience, Job made the San’s position on the concept very clear.
“San and other Africans reject the doctrine of discovery,” said Job. “We have lived on the African continent for millions of years and occupied and utilised all of the habitats of the continent thousands of years before Europeans arrived.
“We thus call on Southern African governments, SADC and the African Union and the African Commission to recognise our role as the stewards and the custodians of the Earth. Land and the protection of the environment are central to our culture, our dignity and to our existence as a people.”
The San statement called for the recognition of San land and resource rights in all the categories of land, including freehold land, communal (tribal) land, conservancies, wildlife management areas, and reserved areas.
It highlighted the damage caused by commercial agriculture and mining to their ancestral lands and demanded close consultation with San communities on all development projects, particularly those involving the exploitation of precious metals, gas and oil.
“In a world threatened by climate change, loss of biodiversity, water shortages and threats to food security for billions of people, we submit that our land use systems should be protected and supported in the legislative and policy frameworks on our continent and beyond,” said Job.
And the memorable statement concluded with four clear recommendations:
· Free, prior and informed consent should be observed in relation to the lands of the San, and their values of reciprocity and equitable sharing of resources should be embedded in policy;
· Southern African governments - in particular, Botswana, South Africa and Namibia - must be encouraged to hold proper continuous dialogue and consultation with the San on issues affecting their lands and livelihoods, especially in relation to development projects, extractive industries and the commercial farming sector;
· African governments must honour the rights of the San as embodied in the UNDRIP, particularly as these relate to our lands;
Programmes must be launched to promote food security, support livelihoods and mitigate the impact of climate change.
But while no-one who was at the Permanent Forum to witness Job’s statement on behalf of the San will ever forget it, others will - particularly governments, big business and big agriculture who have forgotten the San many times before.
So the challenge now is to ensure that the San - with the help of organisations such as OSISA that work to promote and protect their rights - build on this momentum, and make sure that the voice of the San will be amplified, sustained and heard in the future. - OSISA