MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

Voices: Three More Perspectives

  • EULYNDA TOLEDO-BENALLI, a Navajo Woman's Voice
  • ROBBY RODRIGUEZ on Environmental Racism
  • JOSELITO LAUDENCIA: the Asian and Pacific Islanders Perspective


EULYNDA

At the back of the Greyhound bus coming from Gallup, New Mexico to Albuquerque, New Mexico, the white immigration officer asked a brown-skinned gentleman for his "papers." He didn't respond. So he asked him in Spanish. He still didn't respond. The immigration officer handcuffed him and took him away. The officer approached my 20 year old daughter, asking for her papers. She responded, "I'm Navajo! Where's yours?!" He ignored her and went on to the next Navajo person, who replied, "I'm Navajo!"

Colonialization by Europeans and their descendants is simply history played over and over again. The Chair of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations, Madame Erica-Irene Daes, a Greek, acknowledges that in the eyes of the world she represents Europe, guilty of colonialism and "the center of global power and wealth, a country which most nations attribute a large share of their historical suffering" (Daes, 2000). Europeans dominated one another and them went on to dominate other peoples of the world. In regards to colonized indigenous peoples, she holds the experience of oppression as universal: "Europeans have the disease of oppressed consciousness for centuries, and, as a result, they have grown so used to this experience that they do not always appreciate the fact that they are ill." Likewise, I add to her insight, the same illness pervades Euro-American centric thought in the United States.

Five hundred years and more ago, the first European terrorists, later Euro-Americans, began their demolition against indigenous peoples of what our Six Nations relatives call Turtle Island (the Americas). Wave after wave of terrorism took its toll from gifts of small pox blankets to massacres.

In light of this, I found myself amazed at the numbers of Zulus, other Black indigenous peoples, and people of color in large numbers in residence while I visited their territories during the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) in South Africa. Victorious over apartheid, South Africans, black indigenous peoples, are beginning to thrive again with a black president and incredible role models as Nelson Mandela, his ex-wife Winnie Mandela, and Desmond Tutu. Leaving this colorful continent, I boarded my plane back to my homelands, my indigenous homelands, on which my ancestors and relatives once thrived for thousands of years, that numbered millions. I landed in the Albuquerque airport as the only brown person sitting on the plane. Another layer of tragic realization took hold of me. Colonization in the United States-being alone, invisible, unimportant, unheard. Colonizers isolated colonized people-a strategy that works.

But at the WCAR in South Africa, indigenous peoples of the world met, dialogued, cried, protested, sang, and embraced one another in their struggles as one - I was not alone there. We united at the Indigenous Caucus daily, under one of the hardest working, twenty-year leader for the rights of indigenous peoples, Rigoberta Menchu of the Maya-Quiche nation. The Indigenous Caucus worked against racist language in the WCAR Draft Declaration which United Nations (UN) High Commissioner Mary Robinson may have acknowledged in her opening address to UN delegates: "I believe this conference could mark a historic breakthrough of the struggle against racism, if agreement could be reached on language that could be reached, on historic injustices and expresses deep remorse of the crimes of the past."

Before work began, to change the language in the draft, indigenous peoples from all over the world echoed Ms. Robinson's acknowledgment of injustices about colonialism and racism, giving testimony at the Indigenous Caucus. Here are a few comments: from Australia: "In Australia, genocide is not a crime. The conventional courts do not recognize indigenous peoples." From the African Congo a Pygmy woman: "Pygmies do not deteriorate the forest. Western colonization has affected the Pygmies. They are losing their identity." From India: "Wherever the indigenous peoples are residing, the multinational companies and the colonizing forces and racism forces are concentrated to grab those lands because (of) the natural resources like precious minerals, forests are there." And, a South African: "The conventional courts do not recognize indigenous peoples. They will always argue that this land belongs to them."

By these testimonies, indigenous people at WCAR conveyed the very roots of colonialism existing today. Henderson (2000) says that modern European political thought is rooted in the "state of nature" theory espoused by seventeenth century English political philosopher Hobbes. Indigenous peoples have been subject to the concepts of slavery, colonization, imperialism as well as liberalism, socialism and communism. Yet the experiences derived by this cognitive imperialist thought is what brought us together as indigenous peoples under common struggles: our worldviews, our identities which is one and the same with our lands, our languages, our cultures, and our spirituality - basic human rights.

As a Diné woman, my very being is rooted in Changing Woman or Mother Earth, who gave us our clans, our identity. I come from a specific part of Mother Earth, where the Holy People placed me. No one has the right to take away who I am as a human being - as my people say, Nihookáá' Diné, or Earth Surface People. Yet, in the WCAR Draft Declaration, paragraphs 26, 27, and 51 subject indigenous peoples to the self-interest of nation states, and indigenous peoples are "subject to negotiations" under international law - under international law, we have no human rights.

Indigenous and Eurocentric worldviews clash. All peoples have to learn to decolonize our minds. Indigenous peoples must re-evaluate their political, social, economic and judicial structures that exist today. That is what the Indigenous Caucus did at WCAR. We confronted colonialist attitudes, seeking to have the same status and level of recognition as all other peoples. Our worldviews are just as valid as European and Euro-American worldviews. As Mililani Trask, and indigenous Hawaiian said, "Our human rights are not negotiable."


References:
Daes, Erica-Irene (2000). Prologue: the experience of colonization around the world. In Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision. Ed., Battiste, Marie. University of British Columbia Press.

Henderson, James (Sakej) Youngblood, (2000). Postcolonial ghost dancing: diagnosing european colonialism. In Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision. Ed., Battiste, Marie. University of British Columbia Press.

EULYNDA TOLEDO-BENALLI is an award-winning radio journalist, independent radio producer, and a member of the Navajo nation. She is also a teacher and President of the activist group First Nations North & South. First Nations North & South is an Indian-run organization of Albuquerque, N.M., that works on building bridges to exchange culture, art and music with indigenous people from north to south. They also support the indigenous people of Chiapas, Mexico, in their struggle to maintain their homelands and way of life.



ROBBY

My mother was a migrant farm worker. The Estradas were Mexican-Americans working along the border in Texas and Arizona. Segregated in school and forbidden to speak her native tongue, she was determined her children would not face the same type of racial discrimination. We would not speak Spanish.

As a community organizer with the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) in Albuquerque, New Mexico, we work for Environmental Justice. Our people are victims of Environmental Racism-the deliberate sighting of toxic activity where people of color live, work and play. New Mexico is home to the nuclear cycle: nuclear bombs were first developed in Los Alamos; the uranium mined to make the bombs came from the Laguna Pueblo; bombs were first tested at White Sands; and the nuclear waste is now stored in Carlsbad. New Mexico is a majority people of color State.

The legacy of racism and colonialism runs deep. These are some of the experiences I brought with me to Durban, South Africa.

I, along with three others represented the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice (SNEEJ) at the World Conference Against Racism as part of larger Environmental Justice delegation. SNEEJ is a bi-national network of approximately 60 organizations in the southwestern United States and northern states of Mexico. SWOP is an affiliate and founding member of SNEEJ.

Our purpose during the WCAR was to raise the issue of Environmental Racism to an international level. Founded in the U.S., the Environmental Justice movement has spread internationally. However the phenomenon of environmental racism has a long history. In the past, forms of environmental racism were often described as issues of globalization, indigenous sovereignty, militarization or sustainable development. Clear cutting rainforests in South America where indigenous peoples have for centuries made their home; the bombing of Vieques, Puerto Rico by the U.S. Navy; contamination of the land and water in Ecuador & Nigeria by oil multinationals are all cases of environmental racism-cases of people sacrificed for profit. The WCAR provided the forum to unify NGOs working on these issues under the banner of Environmental Justice.

We also went to South Africa to learn about the struggles against racism around the world and especially in the global south. We listened to the Dalits of India-so called 'untouchables'-talk about casteism; the Palestinians explain the reality of living under foreign occupation; of indigenous peoples struggling for sovereignty and self-preservation. We heard the world speak about reparations for slavery, colonialism and genocide. Most importantly we shared our thoughts and visions of what a just society would look like-where people are not just bodies but beings with souls. We shared our stories of struggle and built the foundations of lasting relationships. The U.S. government delegation walked out.

I arrived back in Albuquerque less than one week before the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The World Conference Against Racism prepared me to better understand the events of September 11, 2001. I was shocked but not surprised.

Participating in the WCAR and hearing first hand the pain our government has caused from those on the receiving end only reinforced what I have relearned-U.S. military 'interventions' in Central and South America, Africa and Asia are nothing more than State sponsored terrorism. Innocent people died in Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, Grenada, Palestine, Libya, and Iraq-to name a few--at the hands of U.S. weaponry or foreign policy. Economic sanctions, embargoes and blockades-the denial or restriction of capital to build infrastructure, food and medical supplies-are forms of terrorism.

The horror we witnessed on September 11 are images that replay themselves on a daily basis throughout the Third World. Old Glory has waved over the blood shed by thousands-not in the name of freedom or democracy but in the name of greed and power. The undercurrent of racism cannot be denied. Those we bomb don't have the complexion for protection.



JOSELITO

In the many months before the United Nations World Conference Against Racism (WCAR), we at the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) debated whether to participate in the conference. Although we recognize our work as anti-racist, we questioned: What direct impact will the conference have to advancing anti-racist policies that fundamentally change the rules of the game and not just mitigate the problems? How will this conference lend to a strategy that allows people of color and indigenous peoples to ultimately change power-relations so that we have a direct say in decisions affecting our communities? How do we directly connect the conference to our grassroots organizing among Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States?

In the end, APEN decided to participate in the WCAR as part of a primarily U.S.-based environmental justice (EJ) delegation. Although we still had questions, APEN sent Pamela Chiang and I to achieve a set of goals: 1) To impact the environmental justice and environmental racism dialogue to be inclusive of the experiences of Asians and Pacific Islanders; 2) To build and deepen relationships with EJ groups from all over the world, and; 3) To deepen our understanding of race and racism with the goal of expanding APEN's political framework back home.

From our perspective, Pamela and I achieved our goals. But in the larger scheme of things, we learned much more than we anticipated. And in light of the September 11th tragic events and the war-driven aftermath, we affirmed that our work at APEN is more important now than ever. The recent racial profiling and attacks against South Asians and West Asians in the United States show that racism is still alive and well, and the call for non-violence in these times is portrayed as a marginalized opinion. As the political climate shifts dramatically to the right and as multinational corporations and global financial institutions reinforce their stronghold, we must push to build a mass-based organized movement that challenges racism, sexism, classism, caste-ism, neo-liberalism, environmental injustices and the many inter-linked oppressions that harm and kill our communities.

Two key lessons emerge for me in these times:

Because we are all different, whether it's by racial group, by country or by movement, we need to share our particular experiences and issues; at the same time, we each must work collaboratively to advance a comprehensive agenda for systemic change that elevates and embraces all our diverse experiences. With approximately 25% of the NGO participants from the U.S., many of the conversations in Durban displayed a disgusting arrogance to frame issues from a strictly U.S. perspective that downplayed and disregarded the experiences of other countries. For EJ, the conference was a milestone in bringing EJ groups together to craft strong declarations and plans of action from a global perspective. However, when approaching other conference groups (such as the migrant rights group or the Asians & Asian descendants group), it was a struggle to have them include specific EJ language as their concerns. Clearly, we need to intersect more explicitly with other movements and other countries, and expand our notion of what are "our" issues so that we all carry each other's agendas in our different arenas.

As the corporate globalization (and supportive military) movement grows, the ability of countering forces to come together, share and strategize worldwide becomes more important. For many groups in South Africa and throughout the world, the WCAR represented one of the rare moments they were able to share their experiences and connect with others engaged in similar struggles. I learned more about the Dalits (the "Untouchables") in India and their relegation by birth to the bottom in a caste system. I learned about the life and death struggles of Palestinians, and why they equate Zionism with racism. I learned about the tensions in South Africa between the ANC and COSATU, two groups that organized masses hand-in-hand to dismantle apartheid but now increasingly divided on economic and globalization issues even though black Africans are in power. Especially in this post-9/11 context, we are experiencing a unique moment where masses of people are being forced to look at their communities and countries from a global perspective. A collective response to racism, neoliberalism and militarism needs to be global in nature, which heightens the need to come together in these international settings.

Ultimately, the questions we asked ourselves at APEN to determine our involvement with the WCAR are still the right questions. In the end, our work is about building grassroots power among those most impacted by these issues. It's about connecting these communities and forging strategic alliances to build the power necessary to advance systemic change on a global level. The WCAR helped APEN to move a step closer to these goals, by sharpening our framework to intersect and "own" each other's issues and by providing an opportunity to build relationships that hopefully become long-term alliances against global racism and neoliberalism.


JOSELITO LAUDENCIA is the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, based in Oakland, California.

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"As we see all around us, racism and racial discrimination continue unabated. Although we refer to our world as a global village, it is a world sadly lacking in the sense of closeness towards neighbour and community which the word village implies. In each region, and within all countries, there are problems stemming from either a lack of respect for, or lack of acceptance of, the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings. Our world is witness to serious ethnic conflicts; to discrimination against minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants workers; the accusation of institutionalized racism in police forces; harsh immigration and asylum policies; hate sites on the Internet and youth groups promoting intolerance and xenophobia."
– Mary Robinson,
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
24 March 1999



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