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25 January 2010

The State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

On 14 January 2010, the first edition of The State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples was launched. Its preparation, overseen by the Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues of UN-DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development, was a collaborative effort in which a wide range of experts and organizations participated.

The report finds that the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples suffer from disproportionately, often exponentially, higher rates of poverty, health problems, crime and human rights abuses; furthermore self-determination and land rights are vital for their survival. Although indigenous peoples make up only 5% of the global population, they constitute around one third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people.

“Every day, indigenous communities all over the world face issues of violence and brutality, continuing assimilation policies, dispossession of land, marginalization, forced removal or relocation, denial of land rights, impacts of large-scale development, abuses by military forces and a host of other abuses,” the report’s authors said in a news release. At the report’s launch at UN Headquarters in New York, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Chairperson Vicki Tauli-Corpuz said its value would be far-reaching because it comprises for the first time very clearly aggregated data.

“We believe this is going to be crucial for Governments and for the UN to address more seriously and comprehensively the issues of indigenous people,” she said. “It’s very daring and bold in a sense because it does identify countries and the situation of indigenous peoples in various countries both in the developed world as well as in the developing world.” The publication discusses many of the issues addressed by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in September 2007, and is divided into seven chapters, based on the six mandated areas of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in addition to a chapter on emerging issues.

The first chapter emphasizes both self determination and the principle of free, prior and informed consent, which in practice, means that indigenous peoples themselves must be free to determine their own development. This entails that indigenous peoples’ rights to their own lands and territories must be respected and that indigenous peoples need to develop their own definitions and indicators of poverty and wellbeing. Although global statistics on the situation of indigenous peoples are not readily available, it is clear that indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately from poverty, marginalization, lack of adequate housing and income inequality. Traditional modes of livelihood, such as fishing, hunting and gathering, livestock cultivation or small scale agriculture are under a great amount of stress from phenomena such as neo-liberalism and commodification, privatization, climate change and conflict. Many of these challenges are faced not only by indigenous peoples, but by all of humanity, the report warns.

The second chapter discusses various definitions of culture, emphasising the remarkable contribution that indigenous peoples make to cultural diversity across the globe. Although it is estimated that indigenous peoples are some 370 million, or less than 6% of the global population, they speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages, and are the stewards of some of the most biologically diverse areas accumulating an immeasurable amount of traditional knowledge about their ecosystems. Indigenous cultures face the dual and somewhat contradictory threats of discrimination and commodification. On the one hand, indigenous peoples continue to face racism and discrimination that sees them as inferior to non-indigenous communities and their culture as a hindrance to their development. On the other hand, indigenous peoples are increasingly recognized for their unique relationship with their environment, their traditional knowledge and their spirituality, leading to a commodification of their culture which is frequently out of their control, providing them no benefits, and often a great deal of harm.

The third chapter, on Environment, begins by looking at the major environmental issues that indigenous peoples are currently facing. The chapter emphasizes indigenous peoples’ spiritual, cultural, social and economic connection with their traditional lands and their tradition of collective rights to land in contrast with dominant models of individual land ownership, privatization and development which frequently lead to dispossession of indigenous peoples’ land. In addition to these threats, indigenous peoples face the consequences of rapid climate change, especially in the Arctic and the Pacific islands, while mitigation efforts have exacerbated the situation, putting increased pressure on their lands, such as deforestation for biofuel plantations. The chapter reviews some of the international legal frameworks and mechanisms for environmental protection, from the Rio Summit in 1992 to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and how indigenous peoples have used these mechanisms. A final section of the chapter looks at how international environmental law is being implemented, and which are the major gaps and challenges indigenous peoples have to confront at the local and national levels.

The fourth chapter, on Education, illustrates the stark contrast in access to education between indigenous and non-indigenous students. At all levels, and in all regions of the world, indigenous peoples tend to have lower levels of literacy, enjoy fewer years at school and are more likely to drop out of school. Education is seldom provided to indigenous children in their native languages and it is frequently offered in a context that is culturally inappropriate and has few and inadequate facilities. Far too often, those who do get an education are forced to assimilate within the dominant culture, unable to find jobs in their communities. Despite discouraging overall trends, there are a great number of initiatives that point the way forward for indigenous education, where the community as a whole is involved, where teachers speak both the dominant language and the relevant indigenous language, where ultimately indigenous peoples have the freedom to choose whether they pursue their careers in their own communities or elsewhere.

The fifth chapter, on Health, emphasizes the interdependence between health and other factors, such as poverty, illiteracy, marginalization, environmental degradation and (the lack of) self-determination. These forces, inherited from colonization, make indigenous peoples in general, and indigenous women and children in particular, vulnerable to poor health. The result is that indigenous peoples experience disproportionately high levels of maternal and infant mortality, malnutrition, cardiovascular illnesses, HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, diabetes, and in virtually all other indicators of poor health, including mental health. Indigenous peoples have poor access to state health systems while there is a palpable lack of recognition and support for indigenous peoples’ own health systems. Any successful plan to provide health care for indigenous peoples must involve intercultural health system where Western and indigenous health systems are practiced with equal human, technological and financial resources and where indigenous peoples are involved in all decision making processes involving their health and health care provisions.

The sixth chapter addresses Human Rights, stressing the indivisibility and interrelatedness of indigenous peoples’ rights and how their human rights are intrinsically related to their right to self-determination, self-determination being a pre-condition to the exercise of all other rights. From the Universal Declaration on Human Rights to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, there are a significant number of international instruments that protect the human rights of indigenous peoples, and there have been marked improvements in recent years. However, indigenous peoples continue to face grave human rights abuses on a daily basis, from dispossession of land to violence and murder. Often the most serious of these abuses are committed against indigenous persons who are defending their rights and their lands and territories. There is therefore a serious gap between indigenous peoples’ internationally recognized human rights and their enjoyment of those rights in reality which needs to be addressed through human rights education, more effective oversight and greater commitments from States.

The final chapter looks at some of the emerging issues affecting indigenous peoples, including violence and militarism, effects of conservation, globalization, migration and urbanization, and indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation. These issues are in many ways interrelated and a common theme is indigenous peoples’ vulnerability in the face of outside pressures and the need to develop specific policies that address this vulnerability, while simultaneously ensuring that the principle of free, prior and informed consent is respected and that indigenous peoples participate in decision making processes that affect their wellbeing.

The report is available online:

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