They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

About libraries, native peoples and Declarations

About libraries, native peoples and Declarations

By Edgardo Civallero
Translated by Sara Plaza

After 22 years of strong opposition on the part of a great number of so-called "developed" countries, the UN publicly announced on Wednesday, 12th September 2007, the "Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples", a group of 46 articles concerning 360 million people all over the world, which is similar to the "Universal Declaration on Human Rights" but related to the Indigenous Peoples. In this new Declaration are recognized their basic rights to their own culture and identity, but are also acknowledged their right to self-determination, to the management of their lands, to their own socio-political organization and to the governmental consultation before making any decision about the use of their resources.

Maybe, these last few guarantees –above all, those facilitating self-determination– were the ones that fostered such fierce opposition along these years, and perhaps, they continue to be the reason for the 11 abstentions and the 4 against –USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia– inside the UN, in spite of the 143 countries voting in favor. Those four countries have a very strong presence of indigenous people among their population and, regretfully enough, are famous for the unfair and unreasonable treatment that they give to those communities, which has been denounced as such to the existing international organisms on many occasions (if you take a look to some reports written by the Indigenous Peoples Committee of the UN, you will discover unimaginable cases concerning this fact). Since this Declaration has, for its signatories, higher status than the one given to the national laws, to sign it implies the acknowledgment of some rights that the non-signatories do not want to guarantee, for they would disagree with the (o)pression, discrimination and socio-cultural exclusion policies that continue being in force within their borders.

The enforcement of this international tool does not mean that its principles will be put into effect inside the territories of all their signatories. It will be necessary that the regional indigenous organizations continue to struggle and claim for the recognition of their rights and the fulfillment of laws that deal with them. It will be a path similar to the one trodden after ILO's Convention 169, which acknowledges many indigenous rights but, up to the present day, continues being just another piece of paper.

My work in LIS –theoretical as well as practical– has been focused, from the very beginning of my career, on the libraries placed in indigenous communities, covering all aspects of this topic. Through my work, I came into contact with a reality that clearly presented the violations and abuses I have mentioned in the paragraphs above. Those situations are not too far from our daily reality: they are in front of us, no matter how distant they seem to be.

Oblivion, exclusion, and discrimination towards indigenous societies are not away from our professional environment. A few days ago I did present, in the Latin American professional forums, a proposal which is being currently reviewed by the Revision Advisory Committee of the UDC (Universal Decimal Classification), for adding almost 400 native ethnical groups and languages of our continent to the tables 1c and 1f (languages and ethnics groups). Those peoples –our peoples, part of our history and our identity– had never been included in indexing and classification languages. There are very few thesauri with indigenous terms and they hardly collect or normalize the names of each people.

Regretfully, it does not only consist of a documental forgetfulness. There are almost not LIS high education programs in Latin America that include specific information concerning services to the native peoples, or the indigenous languages, especially in regions where those idioms are spoken by a high percentage of the population (a good example to follow might be Bolivia). Neither can we find more than a small number of papers, books, handbooks, guidelines, national proposals or searching programs related to this topic...

However, in spite of not having accurate or enough information, and considering the scarcity of resources highlighted in the previous paragraphs –which should not be overlooked– it is noticeable, when one works within this field, how many voices are risen above the silence and make noises about this subject. In a certain number of particular cases, they remind me of those "experts" who, as were defined by the management specialist Henry Mintzberg, "every time know more about fewer things, until they finish knowing everything about nothing" [1]. Perhaps, thanks to the existence of those characters –and to the credibility and support given to them– we are where we stand and have what we deserve, since we would be ensuring "apparent consistency to the wind", as was told by George Orwell. And while we continue listening to empty words, great discourses, and keep on attending courses, seminars and workshops on the topic, presented by individuals who know nothing about what they are talking about, and neither have any related experience, there is a growing number of problems around us at very different levels.

It happened while I was working on the proposal of languages and ethnics that I considered should be included in the UDC –whose Revision Advisory Committee I belong to, since 2005– that I became conscious of realities that made a strong impression on me: dozens of languages and peoples have disappeared in the last decade (no, I am not talking about the XVIII century or about any European conquest, I am talking about our most recent history); histories and memories that will not sound anymore; slaughtered populations, forced to leave their own lands because they inhabit in areas where oil, minerals, water, forests, etc., have been found; human rights systematically violated; libraries that do not serve to their users and collaborate actively or passively in their acculturation... One of the examples that impressed me the most was that of an indigenous people from the Peruvian eastern rainforest, to whom a bilingual and intercultural education program was designed... Shamefully, the project was set up in a language and from a cultural context that were not their own ones.

[In my conferences I use to put an emphasis upon the great amount of money and resources which are spent in projects doomed to failure because nobody did in advance an assessment of the situation, including the users and their needs. The case that I have mentioned above can be an excellent example of it].

All walks of life continue, with or without us treading them... It is in our hands to take and be part of that life constantly moving in front of us, to stop listening to sirens voices and work for what we believe that is worthy. For many of us it can be referred to indigenous peoples or rural communities; for others it might have to do with children, women or the elders; for another group, it might mean to be in contact with students and teachers; for many others, with people with special needs... Behind the "Declarations of..." –which, perhaps, will be of little use, but are a step forward anyway– we have to be made aware of the opportunity that each of us has to change reality and to turn our work worthwhile.

[1] The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning: Reconceiving Roles for Planning, Plans, Planners. Free Press, New York, 1994.