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From Sun Peaks to Bougainville: the emerging indigenous youth movement.

Throughout the Pacific region today, indigenous peoples are facing an awesome challenge in confronting the forces that threaten the cultural, linguistic and biological diversity that exists within their territories. Global climate change is causing sea levels to rise, threatening to submerge many small Pacific island states and their inhabitants. Large scale, high impact fisheries are depleting fish stocks and causing irreparable damage to coral reefs. Mining and logging operations are degrading both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Many Pacific nations, such as the Solomon Islands, are becoming the dumping grounds of toxic and nuclear wastes generated by more developed countries. As a result, indigenous peoples are increasingly denied access to the land and marine resources that are so essential to the survival of their peoples and culture. This article explores the common struggles faced by indigenous peoples in two communities of the North and South Pacific and the ways in which the youth of these commu nities are responding to foreign economic development initiatives within their territories.

In British Columbia, Canada the Neskonlith Band of the Secwepemc Nation is fighting the expansion of Sun Peaks, a popular skiing and hiking resort owned by Japanese multinational corporation (MNC) Nippon Cable. On December 10, 2001 (ironically International Human Rights Day) Sun Peaks Resort Corporation took actions to force the removal of Secwepemc elders and peoples from their traditional land, and destroy their homes, sweat lodges, and other sacred sites. Many of the Neskonlith peoples of the Secwepemc hold British Columbia Assets and Lands (BCAL), a government agency which granted a lease to Sun Peaks Resort to expand into their unceded territory, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which upheld that lease, accountable for these actions. The lease provided Sun Peaks with the means to obtain a court injunction and enforcement order from the provincial courts that 'legalized' the measures taken to remove the Secwepemc peoples from their homes and lands.

Aboriginal rights (defined by the Canadian Courts as an activity that is an element of a practice, custom, or tradition integral to the distinctive culture of the aboriginal group claiming the right) and aboriginal title (a right to the land itself) are recognized in the 1982 Canadian Constitution and were reaffirmed by the 1997 Supreme Court of Canada Delagamuukw decision. Yet actions such as those taken on December 10th undermine the very essence and being of indigenous culture and environments and have served to factionalize once united peoples. Such circumstances have challenged indigenous peoples to reconcile the need for the recognition of their rights and title with the pressures for economic development of their territories. For instance, two bands of the Secwepemc Nation, the Little Shuswap and Whispering Pines, perceive the expansion as an opportunity for community economic growth and have chosen to invest in a commercial and staff housing development with Sun Peaks. In contrast, members of the Nesk onlith Band have chosen to assert their rights and title to the traditional Secwepemc lands and have reestablished their settlement in the area.

The youth of the Secwepemc are pursuing several avenues for change. Some have begun to access the Aboriginal Youth Network, an online forum created to unite youth and assist them in conquering the challenges they face as Aboriginal peoples. Others have linked with the Native Youth Movement (NYM). Founded in Winnipeg in 1991, the NYM has since evolved into a liberation movement with chapters across North America working to protect aboriginal sovereignty through peaceful demonstrations, organized marches, boycotts, and education. Members of the NYM have been working at the local, national, and international levels to increase awareness about the violations of their rights--including the development at Sun Peaks. Some are active in maintaining the Secwepemc settlement at MacGillvary Lake near Sun Peaks. NYM members are also networking nationally and internationally with other nongovernmental organizations, such as the German-based Action Group for Native Americans and Human Rights. The involvement of AGNAHR has been instrumental in generating international pressure on the Canadian government to address issues such as Sun Peaks. AGNAHR assisted in the organization of a protest for Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien's visit to Berlin earlier this year and has worked to inform the German business community of what they perceive to be the wrongdoings of the Canadian government.

As it stands now, the peace and security of the Secwepemc Peoples are in jeopardy. More than 50 Secwepemc have been arrested for the peaceful assertion of their rights. Those who continue to inhabit the area around Sun Peaks have been harassed and assaulted by non-Secwepemc peoples who oppose their occupation of the land. One can easily imagine the situation escalating into the pitched armed conflicts seen elsewhere in Canada in recent years (see the story on Burnt Church on page 17).

The injustices committed against the Secwepemc Peoples are representative of a larger pattern in which the contemporary global development path has come to threaten the lives of indigenous peoples everywhere. In Bougainville, a Pacific island under the rule of Papua New Guinea, one sees the same primacy given to economic development over the rights and well-being of the indigenous population. In the early 1970s, the indigenous peoples of Bougainville bore witness to the destruction of large tracts of the ancient and intricately connected forests that they had inhabited and depended on for thousands of years. These forests were razed to make way for London-based mining company Rio Tinto to establish the world's largest open pit mine. At two kilometers across and half a kilometer deep, the Panguna mine extracted 300,000 tons of ore and water daily throughout its operation. According to Michael Renner of the Washington-based World Watch Institute, mine tailings and other pollutants damaged over one fifth of Boug ainville's total land area, decimating cash and food crops, contaminating rivers, and causing fish stocks to decline. The impacts on the inhabitants of Bougainville were devastating, and persist to this day.

Despite such extensive cultural and environmental destruction, the Bougainvilleans received a minuscule share of the $500 million generated annually by the mine. In addition, the PNG government did little to mitigate the negative impacts that the continued operation of the mine was having on the local population, their culture and their environment. The neglect of the Bougainvilleans led an organized group of landowners, later known as the Bougainville Revolutionary Army, to launch a sabotage attack on the mining operations. This quickly escalated into a guerrilla war that resulted in the closure of the mine in 1989. The government of PNG, Rio Tinto, and others fought for 12 long years to regain control of the mine and quash the independence movement; but these attempts failed. The Bougainvilleans refused to give up their struggle for self-determination and indigenous control of the land. It was not until 2001, after the deaths of approximately 12,000 people, that a peace agreement was reached. The election o f the first autonomous Bougainville government is to take place in 2003 and a referendum on the independence question is to follow within the next 10 to 15 years.

Beneath the surface of the Bougainville conflict, various organizations worked to assist the Bougainvilleans in overcoming the atrocities suffered by their people. Most notable among these has been the Leitana Nehan's Women's Development Agency, founded in 1992 under the slogan of "Women Weaving Together Bougainville." The organization's work has centered around empowering indigenous youth to speak out and to bridge the gaps between youth from different Bougainvillean communities. With the assistance of a strong volunteer network, Leitana Nehan carries out a broad array of activities, including anti-violence workshops, advocacy and leadership training, small-scale income generation programs, counseling, and the empowerment of women and youth directly affected by war. It is also responsible for Provincial Youth Workshops and Community Mobilization Training, both of which promote peace and reconciliation, youth leadership and the extension of youth networks throughout Bougainville. In 2001, the United Nations D evelopment Fund for Women recognized Leitana Nehan, among others, with the Millennium Peace Prize for Women, which acknowledges women's contributions to preventing war and building peace.

The indigenous youth of Bougainville are pursuing the opportunity to shape their common future and to ensure that future development projects are commensurate with their way of life and well being. But they are not working alone. A worldwide indigenous youth movement is emerging to counter the vulnerability of indigenous peoples in both developing and developed states to governments and MNCs in search of profit. This movement provides a venue for sharing information, formulating networks, and developing common solutions. Those involved in this movement are working to have the common roots of the issues that they face addressed at the international level such that the negative impacts of development projects are mitigated and indigenous rights and title are respected.

The survival of indigenous culture is dependent on the preservation of the environment that sustains it. Yet the youth of today are facing the seemingly overwhelming challenge of sorting through the complexities of the issues and determining which strategies are best for their communities. The emergence and consolidation of global indigenous youth networks will provide generations to come with a potent forum for articulating their struggles and working toward the development of common solutions.

Ginny Stratton currently works as an intern with One Sky: The Canadian Institute for Sustainable Living. Prior to this, she was involved in the development and implementation of the Indigenous Youth to Youth Project 2002 with Pacific Peoples' Partnership. She is currently based in Smithers, British Columbia, but will be travelling to Africa in the fall to work as an Environmental Programmer with Friends of the Earth Sierra Leone, one of One Sky's partner organizations.
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Author:Stratton, Ginny
Publication:Tok Blong Pacifik
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Words:1611
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