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Uluru climbing ban takes effect as indigenous peoples make strides

Governments and business increasingly recognize rights of native populations

Indigenous people have fought for decades to halt climbing on Uluru.   © Reuters

SYDNEY -- A massive sandstone monolith set deep in Australia's outback has become a major tourism draw, attracting about 370,000 visitors last year. But starting Saturday, climbing Uluru -- as the iconic redstone rock is called -- will be banned.

The Anangu, a group of indigenous people on whose ancestral land Uluru is located, consider it sacred and have long requested visitors to refrain from climbing it.

"It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park like Disneyland," said Sammy Wilson, one of the Anangu owners.

The change is part of a global trend expressing heightened awareness of indigenous cultures. This is in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which call for stronger protections of the rights of indigenous peoples, who are described collectively as "among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world today."

Roughly 370 million indigenous people live in more than 70 countries, according to the U.N. Many have suffered from forced assimilation and discrimination, making preservation of language and culture a daunting task.

This new awareness partly reflects a rethink of modern society based on Western values like democracy and capitalism, according to Hideaki Uemura, a professor at Keisen University in Tokyo and expert on indigenous peoples' rights.

And the trend continues to grow as people associate climate change and other environmental issues with indigenous groups and their close ties to nature.

  © Kyodo

Governments and corporations are also on board. Air New Zealand last month abolished a rule that banned visible tattoos on employees. Prior to the change, the airline forbid Maori staff to display tribal tattoos -- an important cultural aspect of the native New Zelanders.

"[The change] reinforces our position at the forefront of the airline industry in embracing diversity and enabling employees to express individuality or cultural heritage," Air New Zealand said.

In Canada, with its 1.6 million indigenous people, or about 5% of the population, cultural events are used to boost tourism. The Indigenous Tourism Association of Canada, created in 2015, offers visitors the chance to watch native dances and craft making, stay overnight in tents, and go dog sledding. The association is estimated to have created more than 30,000 jobs.

Bodo, a city in northern Norway, was chosen last month as the European Capital of Culture for 2024. During that year, it will host a series of cultural events and has promised to feature the language of its Sami population, who are native to the region.

Meanwhile, Japan's parliament passed a law in April that formally recognizes as indigenous its Ainu people, who reside mainly on the northern island of Hokkaido. The measure includes an increase in subsidies to protect their culture and support tourism that benefits them.

Despite the progress, however, conflicts between businesses and governments with indigenous populations are far from over. The Thirty Meter Telescope project, planned to sit atop the dormant volcano Mauna Kea in Hawaii, is drawing flak from native Hawaiians, who deem the mountain sacred. In July, demonstrators against what will be the world's largest telescope staged a major protest.

The road to the site has been blocked and construction has stalled, delaying the finish date to fiscal 2027 from 2021.

Peru has also experienced push back from indigenous groups, who have filed at least eight lawsuits demanding the government revoke licenses issued to mining companies to extract resources from areas where they live, according to Reuters reports. The residents have won six of the eight cases.

"The problems different groups of indigenous peoples face vary widely," Keisen University's Uemura said. "But they all share a respect for self-determination. In other words, they want to be recognized as legitimate stakeholders in collective negotiations. I think we'll continue to see the voices of people who Westerners and their descendants labeled as 'uncivilized' or 'barbarians' take center stage."

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