By Fr. Oswald Firth, O.M.I. Director of the Oblate Institute for Higher Learning in Sri Lanka
To the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, living and working with indigenous people is akin to second nature. From their very inception they have been close to the Inuk, the indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic. There is many an idyllic story being told of the travels and travails of the Oblates among these indigenous people. They accustomed themselves not only to the Arctic climate, but also to the eating habits of the Eskimos who often lived a wandering life in search of seal, salmon and caribou.
Then there were the ‘First-Nation People,’ the Amerindians among whom the Oblates worked, providing them with education, health and other humanitarian assistance. Perhaps the violation of their fundamental rights, particularly the right to their land, resources, culture and their human persons never figured prominently in the minds of the colonizers of these people as it does today in a post-colonial era. These aberrations are now being brought to light. Consciousness is also being raised among nations through the United Nations.
In more recent times, Oblates have been in the forefront during the struggle of the indigenous people of Bangladesh to overcome ostracism and regain their land rights. Working outside of the din of media fanfare, where indigenous people and their cultural practices have become museum exhibits or tourist attractions, the Oblates have helped the beetle now the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracks to gain recognition at the United Nations. Their representatives today are carrying their cause to the UN Economic and Social Council with compelling evidence, resilience and inner courage of their right to land, cultural values, language, resources and life itself.
Whether we are speaking of the Campesinos of Bolivia, or the Chiapas and Sapatistas of Mexico, or the Mochicas of Peru, or even the Guaranis of Brazil who suffered under colonial exploitation, humanity needs to realize that it is these people of the land who have safeguarded the environment and cared for and cultivated the most precious elements of nature – namely: earth, air, fire and water – so much needed for our life. In modern man’s frenzied attempt to fight pollution, we tend to forget that the secret of life for centuries was preserved by indigenous people as the following lines remind us, not without a sense of irony.