Perspective: Indigenous Peoples Advocate for Water at the United Nations

June, 2011

Tia Oros Peters at UNTia Oros Peters at UNThe UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues  (UNPFII), a subsidiary body of the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), provides an opportunity for Indigenous Peoples from nations and communities throughout the world to come together to build momentum and collective power on a global scale.

            The UNPFII, now in its tenth year, is one of three core mechanisms within the United Nations that brings forth the issues of the world’s nearly 400 Indigenous Peoples (IP’s).  For two weeks each year, this unique international venue provides a place for IP’s to join the global community—with governments, Indigenous nations, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations, and academia—in discussions and explorations of critical issues and concerns of the world’s nearly 400 million IP’s.

            Together, we discuss, negotiate and design collaborative strategies for advancing the sovereignty of indigenous nations, securing their human rights, protecting sacred ecosystems, and affirming the birthright of unborn generations to lives of honor, beauty, and cultural vitality.

            Many far ranging environmental issues have been brought forward to the UNPFII over the last ten years, including mining of ores and minerals, the nuclear stream, oil development, and more recently, the devastation of
hydrolic fracturing, or fracking.

            To Indigenous Peoples, all environmental issues are multi-faceted and intersect with other critical concerns—such as sacred sites, sacred species protection, and issues of pollutants and toxic contamination—regarding the continuity of ecosystem and cultural health.

 Water is Sacred

         Water is life. The Klamath River, for example, is a sacred waterway here in northern California. It is home to salmon and other sources of life that help to sustain and nurture families, communities, and nations, and holds the cultural and spiritual energy of the traditional Peoples of this region.

            During the recent UN Forum session in May, a half-day discussion was devoted to the protection of water. The Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development (SGF), a national non-profit philanthropic organization based in Arcata, has worked for seven years to advance the issue of water protection as critical for IP’s physical, cultural and spiritual survival.

             Over the years we have called for the recognition of Water as essential to Life,  emphasizing that it is crucial for bio-cultural diversity and for sustaining all aspects of Indigenous Peoples’ survival and well-being—assuring our physical health, nurturing us spiritually and central for the continued vitality of our cultures and
traditional livelihoods.

            We have advocated and worked hard, in close collaboration with other Indigenous nations, communities and organizations, and sister/ally organizations, for the human right to water; also, to honor and advance the right of water itself to live its life unencumbered, unpolluted,
and un-privatized.

            As different strategies are created to respond to the loss, contamination, or diversion of Water resources, Indigenous Peoples of the world firmly retain their right to free, prior, and informed consent before any development takes place on their territories. IP’s maintain that they have a right to say “no” to halt any development on their territories, because what some may consider “sustainable solutions” can, in fact, displace people, subvert Indigenous  cultures, and oppress the accessibility and health of water systems and homelands.


            As Indigenous Peoples, we recognize that Water is the most vulnerable element of all forms of Life in light of climate change and its impacts.

            Aquacide is a term meaning the killing of the waters of the world: death caused by dams, diversions, deprivations, extractive industrial and mega-agricultural developments, toxins and pollution, and other ways that inhibit or preclude Water’s ability to nurture and support Life.

             I had the honor of coining and advancing this term on behalf of the Seventh Generation Fund to the United Nations a couple of years ago during an intervention I offered, with the support of over 20 different co-signatories from Indigenous nations, communities and
advocacy organizations.

 A Declaration

            We have made an array of recommendations to the UNPFII, including that any initiatives related to Water must observe and recognize all articles of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted by the General Assembly in 2007, including treaty rights.

            Recognizing and implementing the Declaration is critical not only to issues of water, but also to respect and honor the sovereignty and human rights of Indigenous Peoples the world over. The Declaration is essentially a human rights document, establishing minimum standards for recognizing Indigenous Peoples as peoples, declaring their rights to their languages, cultures, education systems, lands, territories, traditional governance systems, and resources.  Water, of course, figures prominently in such discussions.

            In 2008, we urged the UNPFII to recommend to the UN ECOSOC, in coordination with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), a call for the coordination of an official UN Experts Meeting on Water that specifically initiates a close review and assessment of Water allocation, regulation, and access policies that affect the rights of Indigenous Nations, the health of our Peoples and ecosystems, and that of future generations. This high level Experts Meeting could explore and establish indicators of Water health for Indigenous Nations and the world community, particularly in light of increasing negative water impacts due to climate change.

            We have also requested that the Permanent Forum call for the immediate appointment of a Special Rapporteur for the Protection of Water and Water Catchment Areas, to gather testimony directly from world Indigenous Nations targeted for, or impacted by, water injustices, including: privatization and commodification; diversion and dams; pollution and toxic contamination; and mining, fracking and other non-sustainable energy development. This was first recommended by the Permanent Forum to the ECOSOC in 2005, and again this year to assure action. We do not yet know whether the UNPFII’s 10th session decided to promote this recommendation through it’s final
report to ECOSOC.

            Time is of the essence. Action must be taken now. We urgently reiterate the critical significance of protecting Water sources and Indigenous Peoples’ full, unencumbered access to clean Water on our territories for physical, cultural and spiritual sustenance.

 Tia Oros Peters, Executive Director of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development, recently returned from participating in the 10th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.