The most important thing is that the indigenous people are not vindictive by nature. We are not here to oppress anybody – but to join together and build Bolivia, with justice and equality.
-Evo Morales, President of Bolivia
We know there are communities of indigenous peoples all around the world: from the Tibetans in China and the Huli people from Papua New Guinea, to the Nenets in Russia. But let’s not go that far. Here in America –and not only in the States, but in the entire continent– we have a variety of indigenous communities all around us. This is a continent rich in cultural diversity, from the Mayan civilization in southern Mexico and northern Central America, to the Quechua people in Peru and the Innu people in Canada.
There are more than 370 million indigenous people in 70 countries. Until this day, they preserve their unique traditions and the economic, social and political systems that define their communities. Though they’re the descendants of those who originally inhabited their geographical region, this minority represents less than 0.01% of the global population. But with such rich cultural history and traditions, are indigenous rights really protected? And do we know enough to stand up for them?
It is not a surprise that there is not yet an official definition for “Indigenous Peoples” adopted by any United Nations body. Instead, they opt to identify them with the following elements:
• They identify themselves as indigenous peoples, both at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member;
• They have a historical community with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies;
• They have a strong connection to the lands and the surrounding natural resources;
• They have a strong and distinct socio-economic and political system;
• They have their own language, culture, practices and beliefs;
• They don’t form dominant groups of society; and
• They preserve and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive communities.
Like other large transnational NGOs working to protect indigenous peoples’ rights, the United Nations joined in establishing the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues in 2000. Since its first session in 2002, more than 2,000 indigenous people attend each year to discuss ways to further promote and protect their rights. Topics range from economic and social development, culture, environment, education and health. The Forum also serves as a platform for dialogue that intends to strengthen the relations between states and their minority communities. For the past 11 years the Forum has had a positive impact and has made great progress, especially in the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 and the preparation of the United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples to take place during the 69th Regular Session of the General Assembly this year.
Although there has been made great progress in terms of dialogue there is still a long way to go. It has been a difficult task to truly recognize the self-determination of indigenous communities and the preservation of their culture. They often suffer from poverty, marginalization, discrimination and a lack of access to social services (basic human rights like health and education). This is due to the lack of political representation and participation. But the biggest threat they encounter is the lack of protection of their traditional lands and natural resources. Many communities have witnessed the occupation of their territories for economic means, especially for the extraction of natural resources in order to satisfy the demands of the urban society. For centuries extractive industries have been operating in territories belonging to indigenous peoples and destroying their sacred sites. It is why the international community has been focusing its agenda in raising awareness on the importance to reconcile the rights of indigenous peoples with the policies of states and corporations.
Indigenous peoples are facing a situation of vulnerability, largely because their practices and traditions have not been taken into account for policymaking. And the state of poverty, discrimination and exclusion are an obstacle to the political and electoral participation of these communities. The international community has a long road ahead to gain the recognition and protection of the indigenous peoples’ rights and ensuring the development and preservation of their ancestral traditions. The best way to do so is by recognizing their identities and taking coordinated action to eliminate all forms of discrimination and marginalization. For instance, consultations to obtain the prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples in the processes that affect them in order to effectively protect their sacred sites, traditional practices and natural resources. After all, they know best how to sustainably maintain the natural resources in their lands.
By Eva Romulus