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UN Panel: Indigenous People Threatened By Biofuel Expansion

UNITED NATIONS, May 15 (AP)--Indigenous people are being pushed
off their lands to make way for an expansion of biofuel crops
around the world, threatening to destroy their native cultures
by forcing them into big cities, the head of a U.N. panel said.

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, chair of the U.N. Permanent Forum on
Indigenous Issues, said some of the native people most at risk
live in Indonesia and Malaysia, which together produce 80% of
the world's palm oil - one of the crops used to make biofuels.

She said there are few statistics showing how many people are at
risk of losing their lands, but in one Indonesian province -
West Kalimantan - the U.N. has identified 5 million indigenous
people who will likely be displaced because of biofuel crop

"The speed with which this is happening we don't really realize
in our part of the world," Ida Nicolaisen, an expert in
indigenous cultures and member of the U.N. forum, said at a news
conference Monday. "Because the technology we have today and the
economic resources that are at stake are so big, it happens

The Indonesian and Malaysian missions to the U.N. did not
immediately return calls seeking comment on the remarks.

Tauli-Corpuz said the forum will discuss the threat posed by
biofuel crop expansion during its annual, two-week meeting in
New York, which opened Monday with the blowing of a traditional
bocina horn from the Andes and a ceremonial dance by a group
from India.

Biofuels, which are made from corn, palm oil, sugar cane and
other agricultural products, have been seen by many as a cleaner
and cheaper way to meet the world's soaring energy needs than
with greenhouse-gas emitting fossil fuels.

In its first major report on biofuels last week, however, the
U.N. warned that the benefits of the alternative energy source
may be offset by serious environmental problems and increased
food prices for poor people in the developing world.

Many biofuel crops, the report said, require the best land to
grow, diverting food crops and causing prices for staples like
maize and sugar to rise. They also demand large amounts of water
and environment-damaging chemical fertilizers, the report said.

The clearing of forests to make room for these new crops is
putting at particular risk the 60 million indigenous people who
depend on forests almost entirely for their survival, according
to the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

They are being forced to migrate to already overcrowded cities,
where many of them end up living in slums with limited access to
services and poor housing, Nicolaisen said.

Tauli-Corpuz said the forum is pushing the General Assembly to
pass a long-delayed declaration on indigenous rights, which she
said will protect native peoples from being pushed off their
lands as the demand for these biofuel crops grows.

The declaration states that indigenous peoples have the right to
their own identity, culture and language, and to
self-determination. It also says governments should respect
their rights to traditional lands and resources, and that native
peoples have the right to decide on any development project in
their community.

The U.N. Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, approved the
declaration last June and recommended that the 192-member
General Assembly adopt it. But the draft failed to make it out
of the assembly's human rights committee in November due to
opposition from African countries who argued it contradicted
their national constitutions.

A handful of developed nations with large native populations -
New Zealand, Australia and Canada - also opposed the draft.

The U.S. abstained on the vote, but had signed a joint statement
with Australia and New Zealand last year calling the draft
"fundamentally flawed."

The three countries said self-determination could threaten the
"territorial integrity" of existing U.N. member states, and the
provisions on lands and resources appeared to recognize
indigenous rights to lands now lawfully owned by other citizens.

The African countries have been negotiating on a series of
amendments to the draft, but Tauli-Corpuz urged the General
Assembly to pass the original declaration during its current
session, which ends in September.