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A Hummingbird at the United Nations Human Rights Council

Constanza Sánchez image6 m read - 25.12.2018

 A few weeks ago, I heard Erika Oblak, a Slovenian expert based in Peru, say that while indigenous cultures account for 5 percent of the world’s population, they hold 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, stewarding it as a treasure. Those of us in the room were astonished by this statement. Erika, continued, asking the audience – don’t we, the remaining 95 percent, perhaps have something to learn from these indigenous cultures? We most certainly do – and a lot.

Over the years, while working at the intersection of human rights, the globalization of traditional plant practices, and drug policy, one of the points of view I have criticized and questioned most has been that of reductionism among of the people who make decisions and formulate drug policies. Reductionism is employed both when addressing the issue of drug policies in general, and when discussing traditional psychoactive plants in particular. It is often said that what we criticize and question in others is indeed what bothers us most about ourselves, or said another way, a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

In critiquing the reductionism heard within the United Nations drug control forums, we had forgotten (or rather, overlooked) our own. To illustrate, I share this example. Our naivety was so great that we thought that one of the best ways to reverse the arrests related to traditional plants was simply to remove their psychoactive ingredients, which are scheduled in the 1971 Convention, from the lists of controlled substances. That is to say, let’s stop controlling DMT and mescaline, and we will be protecting ayahuasca and peyote (for example). In a way, this is true.

The Transformational Journey: From Vienna to Geneva

We had to travel to Geneva to see our blindspots – to realize that the fastest way between two points is not always a straight line. While our advocacy activities were focused on the drug control mechanisms discussed in Vienna, we had not noticed the multiple opportunities available by engaging with the United Nations’ Human Rights bodies. Thus, in September 2017, ICEERS initiated a new journey that began at the Human Rights Councilsession and at the Colombian examination by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. And, the journey continued until July 2018 during the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), which meets every July is a subsidiary body of the United Nations Human Rights Council responsible for ensuring the application of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples of 2007.

It’s important to note that although the Declaration has guiding criteria, it is not a proper international treaty with binding effects for states, and its adoption was not possible until the year 2007. This is rather late when we take into consideration that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was approved in 1948 – which although it includes the right to collective property, it excludes other collective rights for indigenous peoples, such as the right to self-determination, to preserve and strengthen their own institutions, to not be displaced from their territories by force, to their own traditional medicines and health practices, and so on.

For a week each year, the EMRIP session gathers specialists in the field, civil society organizations, representatives of indigenous peoples coming from all corners of the world, as well as numerous artists and media outlets. The key theme for this year (the 11th session) was the right to free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples in the decisions that affect them. This was a particularly interesting theme for our group, who sought to bring the topic of traditional plants to the table.

Talking Circles at the Place des Nations

We organized a week of activities, the highlight of which was the installation of a tipi in the Place des Nations. It was our pleasure to collaborate with Maloca Internationale, who have been working for several years on the subject of culturally adapted prior consultation – including the traditional use of psychoactive plants in contexts where community decisions are made using these ethnobotanical tools – and the Swiss organization Mos Espa,  group dedicated to engaged art and cultural events.

Located next to the famous Broken chair, we organized daily talking circles that included ceremony with sacred tobacco plant, that were held concurrently with the meetings of the Expert Mechanism happening inside the UN headquarters. Our objective was deeply symbolic: to bring the form of community decision-making of certain Colombian indigenous peoples to the front door of the UN – bringing a culture balance the format of the debates happening on site and raising the visibility of indigenous protocols and ceremony, in addition to their knowledge and demands.

Indigenous Advocacy at UN headquarters

We also engaged with UN agencies, with Maloca Internationale, taking advantage of the multiple formal channels for civil society participation. We presented several formal written declarations and read various oral statements in the Plenary.

Especially moving was the declaration on the subject of Article 24 from the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which recognizes indigenous peoples’ right to their “own traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their medicinal plants, animals and minerals” and to enjoy “the highest possible level of physical and mental health.”

In this context, we raised the critical issue of the detentions of indigenous people who travel with their traditional medicines – many of whom are at risk of legal challenges, since many of these medicines get caught within the net of the drug control system (such as ayahuasca, mambe, San Pedro…). Our delegation spoke passionately about the work of the Ayahuasca Defense Fund and shared data on global arrests and trends.

Our parallel event co-organized with Maloca, entitled “Sacred plants and implementation of the right to prior, free and informed consultation and consent of indigenous peoples” was well attended and contributed to expanding the dialogue.

The event was moderated by Olmer Torrejón, delegate of the Plurinational State of Bolivia, including the participation of Leonardo Pérez and Sonia Murcia from Maloca, as well as José Carlos Bouso and myself on behalf of ICEERS, and the filmmaker Henry Deletra, who screened and commented on an excerpt of his documentaryAbuelo, abuela, Cuéntenme (Grandfather, grandmother, tell me). Sonia words illustrated the heart of the issue – she spoke to how tobacco, an important sacred plant, is used in talking circles and decision-making in some indigenous communities in Colombia. Building on her example, José Carlos Bouso spoke of the importance of dialogue between ancestral and western scientific ways of knowing.

Doing Our Part …

We hope to return to Geneva and to continue sharing our vision and working with the largest human rights forum in the world, supporting indigenous communities to have their voices, experiences and knowledge heard t the United Nations. This is longterm work, and it is only a small piece in the great puzzle of challenges faced daily by the 5 percent of the world’s population that is stewarding our planet’s biodiversity.

But being small in number does not make them unimportant. To end, I’d like to share a legend that I find especially inspiring: The legend of the hummingbird.

One day, fire took over the forest. The fire spread, destroying everything in its path: the trees, the animals, the river, the flowers, and the bees. A small hummingbird decided to go to the river, and taking a few little drops of water with its beak, began to do one, two, three, … thousands of flights back and forth to the source of the fire to drop them there. The biggest animals, the lion, the leopard, the hippopotamus, and the elephant … they looked at him with astonishment: “But what are you doing? You alone are not going to achieve anything! “They exclaimed. “I know,” the hummingbird replied. “I know that I alone can not achieve it. But me, I’m doing my part.”

– Sacred plants and implementation of the right to free, prior and informed consent and consultation. Full Intervention [ENG – 1h10m]

 

Categories: HUMAN RIGHTS
Tags: united nations

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