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Indigineity and Human Rights (Blog Post #5)

Climate change and human rights form an interesting intersection that not many consider. Environmental issues such as extreme weather patterns and decreasing biodiversity can cause problems for countries such as displacement, infrastructure destruction and famine. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the following environmental problems are rampant, according to a 2008 Swedish policy analysis: “land degradation, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, water pollution, and in Kinshasa air pollution.” Water and air pollution are some of the biggest environmental threats to human rights because of the potential for disease. The UN Declaration of Human Rights lists “the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself”as one of its main tenants, and not having access to clean water and air makes it impossible for this standard to be attained. The DRC is also rich in natural resources, and environmental issues related to mining has led to a degradation of the rights of workers to proper conditions. Many of the mines have been in violation of such international standards, including during the privatization of mining in recent years as workers are laid off. The government, while it regulates many of these connected issues, is not in a place of political stability to be able to address the violated rights properly.

In the Congo, there are four main indigenous tribes: the Mbuti, the Baka, the east Batwa and the west Batwa. They make up between 1-3 percent of the population, depending on the estimate. All four are nomadic peoples who utilize the forest as a home and livelihood—hunting, fishing and gathering. However, due to deforestation and logging, the tribes have had to adapt to a lifestyle of landsquatting; many now live on former tribal lands in extreme poverty. They have also had to contend with conservation efforts—more land is being conglomerated and protected under national parks law, but the tribes are losing that land to the government too. Wade Davis, the TED speaker, discusses endangered cultures as those that are losing their language, land and way of being to “progress.” While the tribes of the Congo still make up a significant part of the population, they are worse off than other Congolese in terms of access to healthcare, education and quality standards of living. There is currently no Congolese law that protects indigenous people, though legislators have been working to secure their rights. The government acknowledges all four of the tribes as distinct people groups, which is an important step. One quote from Davis sticks out, because the annihilation of culture as they know it is happening to the tribes of the the DRC: “Well, the truth is the 20th century, 300 years from now, is not going to be remembered for its wars or its technological innovations, but rather as the era in which we stood by and either actively endorsed or passively accepted the massive destruction of both biological and cultural diversity on the planet.”

Farish Noor defines eurocentrism as “the emerging perception within the European cultural, historical experience of European identity as good and all other forms as less good or less advanced.” This stems from a Western perspective that we are all better than them, and has resulted in the genocide of different “ways of being” around the world. In order to go beyond eurocentrism, Noor argues, we must be willing to take a multicultural, universal look at human rights and consider things from not just a Western perspective. For the Congolese, this means coming to understand the European influence of colonization and then rising beyond it to celebrate Congolese culture. This includes in areas of environmental and human rights: if the government could look to the time-honored way of living of the indigenous people, it might find solutions to deforestation and famine that are not violent or politically unstable.

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