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The Japan Times

Indigenous peoples speak up for nature

                   By AMANDA SUUTARI

                   Special to The Japan Times

                   "In my community," says Roy Laifungbam of the Meitei people in northern India, "water

                   is part of our daily ritual worship, as well as our annual spring festival. And this

                   relationship is totally disregarded when you talk about water as a commodity."

                   Laifungbam is part of the Caucus of Indigenous People, who attended the recent World

                   Water Forum in Kansai to offer a spiritual perspective many members felt was absent

                   from the discussions.

                   "We're being treated like we're invisible," complains Santos Norato, a Mayan from

                   Guatemala. "Everybody's more interested in modernity and how to take advantage of

                   nature rather than how to care for it. We think that money takes priority over nature here

                   . . . "

                   According to UNEP (United Nations Environmental Protection), more than 80 percent of

                   the world's remaining biodiversity, and 90 percent of human cultural diversity, are found

                   in indigenous territories. This highlights their role in caring for the world's last wild areas.

                   Caucus members came with a wide variety of stories -- of coal-mining that is degrading

                   springs in Arizona, desertification affecting Saharan nomads, rising sea levels

                   threatening South Pacific islanders, rivers being dammed in native territories of India, and

                   tourist resorts impacting communities in the Philippines -- but what they shared was a

                   traditional reverence for this basic element.

                   "The water, the trees, and the forests are all sacred to [the Mayans]," explains Norato.

                   "We are part of nature. So we also have water committees who plant the trees and take

                   care of the areas near the sources for water. These services are unpaid, but we believe

                   that it's a useful natural resource that we all have to care for . . ."

                   Richard Deertrack, a Pueblo from New Mexico, fears that modern life has threatened the

                   intimate relationship many indigenous people have with water. "I come from a people

                   whose only source of water was a stream, some springs, and hand-dug wells. When I

                   first came into contact with a shower, I thought it was never-ending. So we're probably

                   using 100 times more water than before we had all the infrastructure. If you turn on your

                   water, somehow you lose reverence for it."

                   But modernity has also inspired many communities to revitalize old customs. "Marine life

                   has diminished in our lagoon," says Te Tika Mataiapo, of the Koutu Nui of the Cook

                   Islands. "A lot of it has to do with irresponsible fishing. We have brought back a

                   traditional method called raui, which we haven't practiced for over 50 years. And it's

                   amazing. We've witnessed the growth of marine life, in fact, we're seeing species we

                   haven't seen for a while. And not only have the fish returned, it has brought back a new

                   consciousness of environmental protection and respect."

                   Recognition dropped

                   For the caucus, their challenge is simply to be heard.

                   "At the first Earth Summit in Rio, after a lot of lobbying and protest, we were finally

                   recognized [in the concluding declaration] as a major group that had an important stake

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