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International Day of Indigenous Peoples 2008
PAHO: We can avoid the extinction of another endangered heritage

Washington, D. C., August 7, 2008 (PAHO)—For several hours on Wednesday, May 14, 2008, a news item occupied a prominent space in  almost all media outlets in the United States. That day, the federal government, through its Department of Interior, officially declared the polar bear an "endangered species."

The new official designation automatically prompted national, state and local authorities to implement and enforce related policies and programs for protecting critical polar bear habitats. These policies are intended to prevent the species from disappearing due to the environmental degradation and climatic changes that in recent years have managed to decimate the polar bear population.

Thanks to the extraordinary proliferation of this news item through newspapers, radio, television and the Internet, few corners of the U.S.-indeed of the world- were kept out of the loop regarding this new policy designation adopted at the highest levels of the American administration.

Cold reception

By contrast, seven years ago another official statement, related to the indigenous Zapara nationality, native to Ecuador and Peru, was unable to garner the media attention gained by the bears, let alone the legal mandate to remove earth and sky in an effort to avoid their extinction. Experts pointed out that the extinction of the Zapara people is much more imminent, certainly much more so than that of the bears, unless nothing short of a miracle happens by the way of making the protection of this population a mandate.

(Photo by José Carnevali/PAHO)

The declaration of the Zapara as a "Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity" by UNESCO in 2001 was received by veteran anthropologists and historians with skepticism, translating such a declaration as a rhetorical appeal of sorts; an elegant instrument exempt from muscle. For the Zapara of Ecuador and Peru, however, the new designation gave its members a breath of validation and the encouragement to continue fighting for their survival and identity.

UNESCO warned that the Zapara are faced with an imminent threat of extinction. In 2001, their population reached an estimate of only 300 members (200 in Ecuador and 100 in Peru). Other sources put the population estimate as high as 800 or 1000 max. UNESCO also stated that only 5 Zapara members, each over the age of 70, remain to this day as knowledgeable speakers of the Zapara language. (Various sources estimate that the population of polar bears revolves around 20,000 to 30,000).

As said by UNESCO, the Zapara "have developed an oral culture rich in knowledge of their natural environment, as evidenced by the abundance of its terminology on the flora and fauna and their knowledge of medicinal plants of the jungle." This cultural heritage, UNESCO added, "also expresses itself through myths, rituals, artistic practices and their language. This, which is the depository of their knowledge and their oral tradition, is also the memory of the entire region."

Balance and harmony

(Photo by José Carnevali/PAHO)

UNESCO pointed out that four centuries of history have decimated this indigenous nationality after being marked by Spanish conquest, slavery, epidemics, forced conversions, wars and deforestation. (This has not only happened to the Zapara, said experts from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO.) Nor is it something unique to Ecuador or Peru.

The commemoration of International Day of Indigenous Peoples 2008 on August 9, which PAHO joins in full support, always serves as a reminder of all historical vicissitudes that those groups have undergone throughout centuries.

In contrast to the situation which has led to the decrease in the population of polar bears, the disappearance of the Zapara people and of millions of natives in the Americas began in the late XV century with the arrival of the Spaniards. After 516 years, PAHO estimates that currently 45-50 million indigenous people belonging to over 600 different groups, represent important parts of the population of 24 countries in the Americas.

The Zapara are people with their own historical identity and politics, culture, long-held traditions and value system. The members have developed and maintained a complex and very well-structured set of practices and knowledge related to the human body, the coexistence with other human beings, and the relationships with nature and spiritual beings. Their strength and survival ability over the past centuries is largely a result of the effectiveness of their traditional health systems, PAHO said, coupled with a 'conceptual axis' or worldview based on balance, harmony and comprehensiveness. This worldview is necessary for what in the Andean and Amazonian peoples, and particularly in Ecuador, is known as the Sumak Kausay principle (a Quechua concept that translates into 'good living' or 'living good'.)

New historical approach

(Photo by José Carnevali/PAHO)

PAHO today openly speaks of "a new approach to history." The term refers to a holistic perspective and an intercultural approach that must be employed to comprehensively address the health and welfare needs of the indigenous population.

PAHO's Health of the Indigenous Peoples Initiative, which coincidentally is based in Ecuador, is led by Regional Advisor, Dr. Rocio Rojas. Dr. Rojas believes that the pursuit of joint strategies for addressing the nexus between health and disease involves a careful and embracing review of the practices used by "others." It also requires, she said, the meeting of two or more views on expanding and reaching possible solutions to health problems that begin from entirely different contextual frameworks.

In Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and other countries with a strong presence of indigenous populations, intercultural approaches in health are gradually being implemented within official health systems. However, the prevalence rates of illness among the indigenous as they compare to the non-indigenous are still gravely symptomatic of the high degrees of neglect and inequity across the Americas.

On the occasion of International Day of Indigenous Peoples 2008, PAHO stated that "recent and historical processes in the region have identified different cultures where coexist a range of relationships that, with regards to the indigenous in most societies, are asymmetric, subordinated and conflicted."

Studies and reports prepared by the hemispheric organization reiterate that most of the 45 million indigenous people living in the Americas today are confronted by a growing inequity in health and access to basic sanitation. Dr. Jose Luis Di Fabio, Area Manager of Technology and Health Services Delivery within PAHO, said that illiteracy, unemployment, lack of land and territory, high rates of morbidity and mortality from preventable causes, and limitations on access and utilization of basic health services, education, housing and others, "are problems that still affect the majority of indigenous communities and affect their quality of life and their health."

"Minimum results"

The International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004) was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 with the purpose and commitment to strengthen international cooperation to help solve the problems affecting indigenous peoples in areas such as human rights, environment, development, education and health.

(Photo by José Carnevali/PAHO)

In its assessment of the progress in health of indigenous populations since 1995, PAHO concluded that the results were "minimal" and that the most serious problems remained "still unresolved." PAHO indicates however, that it is also important to note that after these 10 years there are elements that indicate certain progress, albeit lower than the expected or desired levels, but nonetheless relevant to the new and necessary approaches towards the health of indigenous people.

On December 22, 2004, the UN General Assembly adopted another resolution (59/174) which proclaimed a Second International Decade (2005-2015) of the World's Indigenous People. The resolution echoed the deep concern for the precarious levels of economic and social development affecting indigenous people in many parts of the world as compared with the general population.

It was not easy to move from the observation, perhaps a bit abstract, that there are other needs, different thoughts and practices, and to take and embrace these as valid interlocutors with which it is possible and necessary to dialogue because the facts relate to their own health and their lives, stressed Dr. Rojas.

According to PAHO officials, many of these 'other', including the Zapara in Peru and Ecuador, will manage to avoid final extinction here and elsewhere only if the world reaches a higher degree of synchronization between what is said and what it is done.

PAHO, founded in 1902, works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of their peoples. It also serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).

Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization
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