By JUSTIN BERGMAN 05.15.07, 7:23 AM ET
Indigenous people are being pushed off their lands to make way for an expansion of biofuel crops around the world, threatening to destroy their cultures by forcing them into big cities, the head of a U.N. panel said Monday.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said some of the native people most at risk live in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce 80 percent of the world's palm oil - one of the crops used to make biofuels.
She said there are few statistics showing how many people are at risk of losing their lands, but in one Indonesian province - West Kalimantan - the U.N. has identified 5 million indigenous people who will likely be displaced because of biofuel crop expansion.
"The speed with which this is happening we don't really realize in our part of the world," Ida Nicolaisen, an expert in indigenous cultures and member of the U.N. forum, said at a news conference. "Because the technology we have today and the economic resources that are at stake are so big, it happens overnight."
The Indonesian and Malaysian missions to the U.N. did not immediately return calls seeking comment on the remarks.
Tauli-Corpuz said the forum will discuss the threat posed by biofuel crop expansion during its annual, two-week meeting in New York, which opened Monday with the blowing of a traditional bocina horn from the Andes and a ceremonial dance by a group from India.
Biofuels, which are made from corn, palm oil, sugar cane and other agricultural products, have been seen by many as a cleaner and cheaper way to meet the world's soaring energy needs than with greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels.
In its first major report on biofuels last week, however, the U.N. warned that the benefits of the alternative energy source may be offset by serious environmental problems and increased food prices for poor people in the developing world.
Many biofuel crops, the report said, require the best land to grow, diverting food crops and causing prices for staples like maize and sugar to rise. They also demand large amounts of water and environment-damaging chemical fertilizers, the report said.
The clearing of forests to make room for these new crops is putting at particular risk the 60 million indigenous people who depend on forests almost entirely for their survival, according to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
They are being forced to migrate to already overcrowded cities, where many of them end up living in slums with poor housing and limited access to services, Nicolaisen said.
Tauli-Corpuz said the forum is pushing the General Assembly to pass a long-delayed declaration on indigenous rights, which she said will protect native peoples from being pushed off their lands as the demand for biofuel crops grows.
The declaration states that indigenous peoples have the right to their own identity, culture and language, and to self-determination. It also says governments should respect their rights to traditional lands and resources, and that native peoples have the right to decide on any development project in their community.
The U.N. Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, approved the declaration last June and recommended that the 192-member General Assembly adopt it. But the draft failed to make it out of the assembly's human rights committee in November due to opposition from African countries who argued it contradicted their national constitutions.
A handful of developed nations with large native populations - New Zealand, Australia and Canada - also opposed the draft.
The U.S. abstained on the vote, but had signed a joint statement with Australia and New Zealand last year calling the draft "fundamentally flawed."
The three countries said self-determination could threaten the "territorial integrity" of U.N. member states, and the provisions on lands and resources appeared to recognize indigenous rights to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens.
The African countries have been negotiating on a series of amendments to the draft, but Tauli-Corpuz urged the General Assembly to pass the original declaration during its current session, which ends in September.
Copyright 2007 Associated Press.