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Human rights violations against indigenous peoples higher than other communities

By Bharat Dogra 

During the last 550 years or so some of the worst injustices ever seen in human history have been inflicted on indigenous people. Some were so destructive that perhaps no compensatory action can come even close to making up for what happened. Despite this, urgent efforts must nevertheless be made to achieve what can still be done in the interests of justice.
After Columbus opened up the new American world to Europeans in 1492, waves of settlers and traders started coming here with modern arms to plunder or drive away the native people.
Columbus forced the Taino ‘Indians’ in Hispaniaola to bring him an ounce of gold every three months. Those who did not, had their hands chopped off while escapees were hunted down with dogs.
A priest Bartoleme de Las Casas was very distressed by what he saw of the interactions of the newcomer ‘civilizers’ with indigenous people. He wrote, “For 40 years, they have done nothing but torture, murder, harass, afflict, torment and destroy them with extraordinary, incredible, ‘innovative’, and previously unheard of cruelty.”
Las Casas estimated that about 50 million Indians perished in Latin America and the Caribbean within 50 years of Columbus’ landing. ( Quoted in Third World Resurgence, No. 5—Genocide of the Indians).
The New Internationalist journal prepared a special issue (No. 226) on ‘Hidden History—Columbus and the Colonial Legacy). Here in the cover story Wayne Ellwood has written after examining the available historical evidence, “Scholars now reckon that 90 per cent of the indigenous population of the Americas was wiped out in a century and a half—the greatest demographic collapse in the history of the planet and the proportional equivalent of nearly half a billion people today.”
While in some places the native ‘Indian’ population recovered partially, in other places the recovery was almost non-existent. The New Internationalist compared the population of these indigenous people over a period of 500 years from 1492 to 1992.
In Mexico there were 21.4 million Indians in 1492, 8 million in 1992. In the Caribbean there were were 5.85 million Indians in 1492, but only 0.001 million in 1992. In Lowland S. America there were 8.50 million Indians in 1492, but only 0.90 million in 1992. In North America there were 4.40 million Indians, but only 2.54 million in 1992.
A somewhat similar tragedy was later repeated later in Australia and its nearby areas. Robert Hughes writes in his book The Fatal Shore—“ It took less than 75 years of white settlement to wipe out most of the people who had occupied Tasmania for some 20,000 years.”
What is more, in some places some of the most terrible atrocities inflicted on the indigenous people continued right into the 20th century. For example let us compare more recent accounts from Guatemala with what was happening a few hundred years back.
First let us see Bob Carty’s account of the 16th century regarding a conqueror Pedro Alvarado’s atrocities in Guatemala—“He directed eight major massacres killing up to 3000 Indians at a time. Mayan chiefs were incinerated alive as Catholic priests burned Mayan historical records. Alvarado rewarded his soldiers with the right to enslave the survivors. Mayan lands were appropriated, the people herded into towns and forced to work the Spanish Estates.”
Now compare this with a more recent account from Guatemala in the 1980s—“In the early 1980s it was as if the new conquistador Pedro Alvarado was back in power. All Mayans were seen as supporters of the guerillas, the military set out to destroy the people as well as their culture. Mayans were burned alive, babies murdered and women raped. The dictator Rios Mantt wiped 440 Mayan villages off the face of the earth. Soldiers are so brutalized in their training that they follow orders to kill their people as enemies.” ( New Internationalist)
This account indicates the shocking reality that terrible atrocities have continued against indigenous people till recent times in many countries. These are in fact aggravated whenever indigenous people offer resistance to injustice or demand justice and restoration/protection of land rights much beyond the small concessions the existing regimes are willing to offer.
While some sincere initiatives for their welfare have indeed been taken up in various parts of world, generally the human development indicators for them remain much lower. Their human rights violations and imprisonment rates are generally higher than those suffered by other communities. They often experience discrimination and loss of dignity. Appreciation of their different world view, which may be better than those dominant views which have entangled our world in a web of environment ruin and wars and violence, is generally least appreciated, something which is not just their loss but the loss of the entire humanity. A much better appreciation of the thinking, culture and life-views of indigenous people as well as many-sided, overdue justice for them should be an essential part of the world’s future agenda.
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The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Planet in Peril', ‘Earth without Borders' and ‘A Day in 2071’

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