Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Pope, Indigenous Peoples and the Doctrine of Discovery

Margarita Warnholtz L 

In anticipation of the visit of Pope Francis I to Mexico, a gathering was held this week in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas of the Continental Commission Abya Yala, during which representatives of diverse indigenous peoples of the Americas participated basically to address the issue of the doctrine of discovery. In the final declaration of the event, a petition to the Pope was issued for a hearing in Rome to dialogue regarding the violations of their human rights and calling upon him to join with them in "dismantling of the Doctrine of Discovery".

This last request has precedent in similar messages by indigenous peoples to the Vatican going back some 30 years, and not without reason. It turns out that the papal bulls of Alexander VI issued in 1493 in which the “discoverers” were granted the right to exercise sovereignty on behalf of Christendom over the conquered territories and to dominate their peoples in order to "reduce" them to the Catholic faith remain in force until today.

These papal bulls were the starting point that gave the presumed legal and spiritual justification for colonization of indigenous peoples, which led to the loss of their freedom and their territories, and with the doctrine of discovery (which is supported by the bulls) continue as basis for the ongoing dispossession and domination of indigenous peoples. So much so, that the matter has been the subject of discussion in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, and in 2012 was treated as a special topic of the year. Among the recommendations made at that time "calls upon States to disavow these doctrines as a basis for denying human rights of indigenous peoples."

Incredibly, in the XXI century there are countries that continue to use this doctrine as an active legal principle. In the United States, according to a cite from the the UN, in the year 2005 the US Supreme Court ruled to resolve a dispute over taxes on ancestral lands of the Oneida Nation of New York, basing its decision on the Doctrine of Discovery.

As stated by Araceli Burguete in an article, the Holy See has a historical responsibility for the current situation of a pervasive internal colonialism which results in systemic violations of their human rights. For this reason, those attending the gathering of the Continental Commission Abya Yala have called upon Pope Francis to “take appropriate measures and carry out a process of international accountability for the role of the Catholic Church as intellectual author of the Doctrine of Discovery of Christendom, which continues to serve to normalize systemic human rights violations and colonization against our Indigenous Peoples in this continent Abya Yala [Americas].”

In spite of all the times which indigenous people’s organizations have called for the Holy See to dismantle the doctrine in question, these requests have not been answered. Now It seems that Pope Francis I is much more sensitive to these issues than his predecessors, as noted in the encyclical Laudato si "about caring for our common home" issued in May last year, paragraphs 145 and 146 which state:

Many intensive forms of environmental exploitation and degradation not only exhaust the resources which provide local communities with their livelihood, but also undo the social structures which, for a long time, shaped cultural identity and their sense of the meaning of life and community. The disappearance of a culture can be just as serious, or even more serious, than the disappearance of a species of plant or animal. The imposition of a dominant lifestyle linked to a single form of production can be just as harmful as the altering of ecosystems.

In this sense, it is essential to show special care for indigenous communities and their cultural traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed. For them, land is not a commodity but rather a gift from God and from their ancestors who rest there, a sacred space with which they need to interact if they are to maintain their identity and values. When they remain on their land, they themselves care for it best. Nevertheless, in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.

Definitely the words of this encyclical are contrary to the doctrine of discovery. Based on this contradiction, can it be expected that finally the Indigenous peoples will receive a positive response to their request to Dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery?

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