First World Conference on Indigenous Peoples: Governments pledge action to advance indigenous rights

27 September 2014

Scattered across the globe, indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations on earth. Braving injustice and discrimination, many have been deprived of their human rights, their ancestral lands and the natural resources that are essential to their survival.

Scattered across the globe, indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable populations on earth. Braving injustice and discrimination, many are forced to struggle to remain on their ancestral lands and retain the right to their natural resources that are essential to their survival. Others have long since been removed from their lands and denied their languages and traditional ways.

Indigenous peoples face distinct development challenges and fare worse in terms of social and economic development than do non-indigenous populations in the countries in which they live, says the UN. Yet with their traditional knowledge of natural resource management, which has long sustained some of the world’s most diverse ecosystems, they can contribute significantly to achieving the objectives of sustainable development. The new Sustainable Development Goals which countries are in the process of negotiating “present a unique opportunity to remedy these shortcomings and the historical injustices resulting from racism, discrimination and inequalities long suffered by indigenous peoples across the world,” according to UN experts on the rights of the indigenous.

As the first-ever World Conference on Indigenous Peoples opened in New York, indigenous delegates, Heads of State and Government, UN officials and representatives of national human rights institutions sat down to share perspectives and best practices in order to address inequalities that adversely affect indigenous communities.

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A Maasai pastoralist in Olekimunke village, Kajiado county, Kenya. IWGIA/Christian Erni

Comprising more than five per cent of the global population, the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples identify themselves as distinct peoples with their own social, economic, and political systems, and unique languages, cultures and beliefs.

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A session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. UN/Eskinder Debebe

Indigenous peoples are effective advocates for their rights, and have engaged the UN since its inception. In 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted the landmark Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which sets minimum standards for their survival, dignity and well-being. Countries are beginning to reflect these principles in their laws, but there is a long road ahead.

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Loggers clear indigenous lands in the Congo. IWGIA/Marianne Jensen

In fact, a substantial gap remains between the formal recognition of indigenous peoples and the implementation of policies on the ground. While a number of countries have constitutional and legislative frameworks that take indigenous rights into account, many others do not, leaving their lives and lands open to threats.

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In Kenya, peaceful demonstrators from the Maasai community defend their rights to their lands. MPIDO

The UN Declaration stresses that indigenous peoples shall not be forcibly relocated from their lands or territories without their “free, prior and informed consent,” and their agreement to “fair and just compensation.” But many are extremely vulnerable to land grabbing, forced displacement and involuntary resettlement.

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Opening of the first-ever World Conference of Indigenous Peoples in September 2014. UN Photo/Cia Pak

To forge new ways to advance the rights of the indigenous, including the objectives of the UN Declaration, more than a thousand participants from every corner of the globe gathered at UN Headquarters in New York for the first-ever World Conference on Indigenous Peoples – convened in September 2014 as a high-level meeting of the General Assembly.

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A woman and young girl from the Awajun People in the Peruvian Amazon. IWGIA/Alejandro Parellada

The Conference adopted an action-oriented Outcome Document , negotiated in advance by indigenous groups and Member States, which, when implemented, “will bring about “sweeping changes for current and future generations of indigenous peoples,” said General Assembly President Sam Kutesa.

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Gold mining in the Madre de Dios River, Peru. IWGIA/Alejandro Parellada

In Peru, gold mining – a process that involves the use of mercury – is destroying the region’s biodiversity and poisoning rivers such as the Madre de Dios, a tributary of the Amazon, that are a lifeline for many indigenous people. At the World Conference, Governments pledged to consult in good faith with indigenous peoples in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of projects that affect their lands and resources.

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A woman of the Moken people repairs her fishing net in her village along the Andaman Sea in Thailand. IWGIA/Christian Erni

Climate change is taking its toll on indigenous communities, like the Moken people (above) who live on islands in the Andaman Sea and depend on the ocean for their survival. But as water temperatures rise, bleaching the coral reefs that sustain underwater biodiversity, marine life is dwindling, making it harder to fish. More frequent and more severe storms also pose a threat to the Moken dwellings as well as to their boats, without which they cannot survive.

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In Manipur, India, a party of Tangkhul Naga people plants trees under a government-backed rural employment scheme. IWGIA/Christian Erni

As the world hammers out a fresh agenda for sustainable development, and lays the groundwork for a new legal climate agreement in 2015, indigenous peoples can act as powerful agents of progress, says the UN.

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Child labour in Nepal. OHCHR/Robert Few

When it comes to education, indigenous children are often left behind. For indigenous minorities in countries such as Nepal, for example, child labour is common, schooling is not, says the UN human rights office - OHCHR. The Government has ratified ILO Convention 169 - an international legal instrument that guarantees the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples – but has not yet implemented all its provisions.

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Women of the Tzotzil people learn to write at a UN-backed literacy programme for artisans in Chiapas, Mexico. UNESCO/Victor M. Camacho Victoria

At the World Conference, Governments pledged to ensure equal access to high-quality education for indigenous peoples that recognizes the diversity of their culture.

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Mothers and babies from the Lisu tribe in the Doi Lan mountains of Chiang Rai, Thailand. IWGIA/Christian Erni

Around the world, indigenous peoples suffer from poor health. Women and children are particularly vulnerable, experiencing high levels of maternal and infant mortality, says the UN. By the Outcome Document, Governments committed to ensuring the health of indigenous populations and also, to preventing all forms of violence against them.

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In Bukuya village, Fiji, a man checks on dried Kava roots, used to make a brew with relaxing properties. IWGIA/Christian Erni

Through the Outcome Document, Governments also recognized the importance of indigenous peoples’ health practices and their traditional medicine and knowledge.

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In Bolivia, an Uru-Chipaya man contemplates a lagoon that gives life to the desert-like habitat of his people. UNIC La Paz/Noelia Zelaya

“Unless we mainstream the rights of indigenous peoples, unless we are serious about their empowerment, unless we work with them as equal partners – then any global development agenda we conceive will be a hollow exercise, empty, because it will not reach the most disadvantaged,” said IFAD President Kanayo Nwanze at the Conference.

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An indigenous participant at the World Conference. UN/Yubi Hoffmann

“The World Conference should serve as a turning point for translating the UN Declaration into concrete action,” Assembly President Kutesa said. “This will require Member States to make greater efforts to translate [the] Outcome Document into reality and demonstrate resolve in addressing inequalities that adversely affect indigenous communities,” he added.

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Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú. UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

“Issues related to… our natural resources, territories, seas [and] rivers are today like the soul of indigenous rights,” said Nobel Peace laureate Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous Guatemalan activist, in an interview with UN TV and Radio. “We have set an important precedent with regard to our rights,” she added. “The dream is that it will allow us to have a prosperous life for all the peoples benefited by this day.”