Wikileaks: UN Declaration Raised US Fears Over Indigenous Land Rights, Sovereignty, Anti-Free Market Movements

Gale Courey Toensing

The United States apparently feared that the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) would help Indigenous Peoples assert their right of sovereignty over their lands and resources, according to cables released by the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.

The cables also purport to reveal the federal government’s preoccupation with Bolivia’s democratically elected president, Evo Morales, and the indigenous leaders who admire him and oppose laws that would open Native territories to oil, mining and logging companies.

In August, WikiLeaks released hundreds of thousands of unredacted, classified U.S. government diplomatic cables. Though open to interpretation, they offer considerable insight into U.S. foreign policy and paint an unusually detailed picture of secret sources and political intrigue.

On January 28, 2008, the U.S. embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, sent a cable to the U.S. State Department titled “Bolivia; Repercussions of UN DRIP [sic],” regarding Morales’s signing of the declaration into Bolivian law on November 7, 2007. The cable appears to express concern over Morales’s approval: “The new law contradicts existing land laws, and therefore will be subject to judicial interpretation when it begins to be cited in legal cases.” The U.S. had voted against the General Assembly adoption of the declaration in September 2007.

According to WikiLeaks, the cable also examines how Morales’s Movement Towards Socialism party, which won an overwhelming majority in the 2005 elections—and would do so again in 2009 and 2010—had included indigenous rights in a draft national constitution. The constitution, the cable reportedly notes, “closely mirrors the U.N. declaration text, granting indigenous Bolivians rights to land and renewable resources on that land, rights to a share in the benefits of non-renewable resources, rights to be consulted on any law that ‘might affect them,’ rights to self-governance, rights to participation in all levels of government, and prioritized rights to state benefits.”

It continues, “If the draft constitution passes, it would take precedent over other Bolivian laws and could therefore carry more weight in judicial interpretation when it contradicts existing land laws. Although most indigenous leaders seem to view the U.N. declaration as a ‘feel good’ document that will give them more inclusion in the public sector, some leaders are citing the declaration in support of concrete aims like self-governance and control over land and resources.”

The embassy promised to “watch for further developments, particularly with regards to property rights and potential sovereignty or self-rule issues.”

The cable was signed by former U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, an appointee of former president George W. Bush. Bolivia expelled Goldberg in September 2008, accusing him of spying and “fomenting the civil unrest that threatens not only the country’s first indigenous Indian president, Evo Morales, but the unity of the nation itself,” according to The Telegraph of London. The U.S. has denied Morales’s allegations.

Another cable, with the subject line “?‘Evo Morales Is Our President’: The Anti-System Project,” may reflect U.S. concern over Bolivia’s popular indigenous leader. Sent from the embassy in Lima, Peru, to the State Department on June 26, 2009, it alludes to actions by former Peruvian President Alan García, who pushed through legislation in line with the U.S.-promoted Free Trade Area of the Americas in October 2007. The legislation placed foreign multinational mining companies at the center of García’s economic development program and awarded huge tracts of traditional indigenous lands in the Amazon region to foreign mining and energy interests.

The cable considers that the indigenous protests inspired by García’s legislation might foment anti-government criticism and a backlash against what the  cable calls the “pro-growth” or “neo-liberal economic model” favored by the U.S.   The communiqué characterizes opposing forces as “anti-system.”

“Whatever the legitimacy of the protesters’ disparate underlying grievances and aspirations,” the cable says, “anti-system elements have successfully used the protests to fan a growing chorus of criticism against President García, the entire government, private investment in general and the ‘neoliberal’ economic model.”

Despite Peru’s recent “economic success,” the cable reportedly says, “anti-system radicals” could take “political advantage” of the “persistent endemic poverty and social inequality, the absence of state from large swaths of national territory, and clumsy, sometimes jarring public action when the state does intervene…to undermine Peru’s progress, weaken the government and lay the groundwork for a more systematic assault on the pro-growth model. Public and private statements by the diverse and not necessarily unified leaders of the anti-system movement paint a compelling portrait of their real aims, which can be summarized in the words of one Peruvian indigenous leader that ‘Evo Morales is our president.’ Foreign participation in this anti-system movement, including from Bolivia, is real.”

The “jarring action” refers to a tragic encounter in June 2009, just weeks before the cable was written. Twenty-three police and at least 10 civilians in Bagua, north of the Amazonas region, died in clashes that had turned violent after months of protests by the indigenous Awajún or Aguaruna people. They rose up against García’s policy of giving contracts to private companies for oil, mining and logging on their lands without prior consultation.

While the embassy cable describes Peru as “a regional good news story,” citing its “sustained, solid economic growth, burgeoning trade and foreign investment,” it reportedly states that Peru’s “real agenda” has not overcome the country’s endemic poverty. “If poverty rates have fallen to below 40 percent,” the cable says conditionally, “a politically significant number of Peruvians continues to live in precarious conditions with close to 20 percent of the population at or near subsistence level.”

WikiLeaks also said the cable discusses the uneven distribution of wealth and how most of Peru’s poverty is found in indigenous regions: “One of García’s closest political advisors told us the president’s principal frustration relates to the institutional dysfunctionality [sic] and inefficiency of the state apparatus at all levels, which undermines the transition from political vision, plan or marching order to real progress on the ground.” The cable does not name the informant.

According to WikiLeaks, the cable further states that the embassy monitored indigenous leaders, including Miguel Palacin, a leader of Coordinadora Andina de Organizaciones Indigenas (CAOI), or the Andean Coordination of Indigenous Organizations, a pan-Andean indigenous group based in Lima. Palacin was described as having organized “parallel anti-summits” against the European Union and Latin America and Caribbean summits in 2008.

“Tellingly, Palacin’s office displays Bolivian flags and a presidential portrait of Evo Morales. Palacin recently told us he sees Bolivia as a model for Peru, and that indigenous people consider Morales ‘our president,’?” the cable says. It notes that Palacin had told the embassy his goal was to “overhaul” García’s pro-growth cabinet and procure “property titles for all indigenous land (hinting that once this had occurred there would be no land left for private development), and ultimately to write a new constitution incorporating language from the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

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beaver's picture
Submitted by beaver on
Just so you know, serious advocates of open government are of the view that Wikileaks is a CIA project that leaks material that mainly embarrasses foreign governments, while leaking nothing new about America. Wikileaks is by our very own CIA boys. Google it!

dbender's picture
Submitted by dbender on
And this is all because capitalism = exploitation. Exploitation in the name of consumerism; which all comes down to an America programmed to be obsessed with vanity and prestige. Fuel is power; especially for these capitalists who are nothing more than intra-species predators. I think Henry Kissinger unwittingly summed up capitalism when he said "Who controls the food supply controls the people; who controls the energy can control whole continents; who controls money can control the world." But these Indigenous Peoples would rather walk away from that culture of personality mindset and they just hate it; because that means that we as a people are the ones who give them power! That also means we could take it away. The ability to walk away and turn your back on technology and ornamental novelties in favor of our natural habitat and our Mother Earth is truly an amazing feat of solidarity and community. We could all learn so much from the Awajún people and the treacherous capitalists who seek to destroy their home. This story is nothing new. Its tragic and we shouldn't just sit passively as this continues.

rudolphryser's picture
Submitted by rudolphryser on
Thank you Gale Courey Toensing for a fine exposé. We at the Center for World Indigenous Studies saw patterns of US policy evidently suggesting US fear of Morales and fear of native land claims as the basis of its vote against the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. Indeed, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand "English Speaking Symposium" as we called them stood as obstacles to progress on the UNDRIP from the time the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations began drafting that document in 1986. The US government has had a dual policy (one domestic and one international) regarding indigenous peoples for a vary long time. It has been and remains fundamentally opposed to indigenous peoples exercising self-determination and self-government as a matter of recognized policy internationally. Meanwhile, it gives lip service to self-determination and sovereignty domestically even as it continues its opposition. We should know this has been the US policy for generations. The US has remained one of most important opponents to self-determination at the United Nations. Their "corporate support" and "growth policies" are the center piece of US international policy. Not surprisingly, those policies are also the center piece of domestic Indian Affairs.

michaelmack's picture
Submitted by michaelmack on
Whatever its source, this article simply states what many in Indian Country intuitively know, yet rarely do we see it affirmed in print. Yes, although official U.S. policies profess to respect to us, it has rarely if ever been honest with itself or with us in public ways about how it really regards us. Since 1492 Euros have always regarded us as threats and we remain so today because - to be blunt - our existence, our independence remains in opposition to their colonialism (which has never really changed) and because Federal Indian law exists solely to justify, retain, and glorify the land grab that IS U.S. history. When they're honest with themselves about us (which I believe is also a rare event) our status/out existence is a constant reminder of the lying, thieving, and murdering they perpetrated in order to subdue us, indoctrinate us, and work to keep control over us. Today U.S. colonialism is just done in a more politically correct ways - to them we still remain threats, because we know the truth of the U.S.'s white-washed version of its history. I have always felt that the only REAL regret the U.S. has about us, is that they didn't finish us off while they had the chance. I believe the only real reasons they didn't finish us off was because their internal political bickering (e.g. the Civil War) and other colonial goals (e.g. the Spanish American war, etc. etc) distracted them, and because of the small but influential groups of Christian reformers such as the Quakers who worked for world peace, starting at home. Still we have to put ourselves in their shoes - stuck with the reality of a group of people they can no longer outright exterminate (because of political correctness and potential loss of world political economic influence if for no other reasons), and stuck with their own legal system that regards treaties as part of the law of the land and which initially acknowedged our legal rights to exist here. Now they are left with few options but to get rid of us piece-meal and behind the scenes in the least obvious ways as possible, like making our lands worthless, getting us hooked on disease producing diets, separating us into groups of haves and have-nots, making us use our limited resources on issues like mascots, etc. Yes, the outright extermination has stopped, but it goes on nonetheless.

ndnlady's picture
Submitted by ndnlady on
Despite President Obama's announcement that the United States has reversed its position on the UNDRIP and will "endorse it," the true implementation of key provisions regarding self-determination are nowhere in sight. Especially when the head of the BIA still feels free to intervene in a tribal nation's right to exercise one of the most basic rights: the right to exist as a distinct people and the right to determine its own identity