Protecting indigenous peoples’ rights is protecting everyone’s rights

Indigenous communities around the world are constantly struggling to maintain their rights, their traditions and their knowledge, in a system still dominated by a western worldview. They face the challenge of living in two worlds, the indigenous and the non-indigenous one, in constant tension with each other, with the latter having more power in shaping the former. For centuries, indigenous populations have suffered from invasion and oppression, and oftentimes they have seen their knowledge eclipsed by western knowledge, imposed on them through western institutions. Yet, indigenous populations have managed to survive for centuries adapting in many different ways to adverse climate conditions and managing to create sustainable livelihood systems. Their diverse forms of knowledge, deeply rooted in their relationships with the environment as well as in cultural cohesion, have allowed many of these communities to maintain a sustainable use and management of natural resources, to protect their environment and to enhance their resilience; their ability to observe, adapt and mitigate has helped many indigenous communities face new and complex circumstances that have often severely impacted their way of living and their territories.

Ten years after the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, progress in several countries has been made in formally recognizing indigenous peoples, but overwhelmingly they continue to face discrimination, marginalization and major challenges in enjoying their basic rights.

“While indigenous peoples have made significant advancements in advocating for their rights in international and regional fora, implementation of the Declaration is impeded by persisting vulnerability and exclusion, and exclusion, particularly among indigenous women, children, youth and persons with disabilities,” said 40 UN system entities and other international organizations in a joint UN statement, issued on the occasion of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, marked annually on 9 August.

Indigenous peoples make up less than five per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. The new sustainable development agenda encompasses many issues that are directly affecting indigenous peoples’ lives. Education, poverty, access to justice and climate change are only a few of the challenges that indigenous people have been and are currently facing. Their knowledge and know-how, deeply rooted in the relationship of indigenous peoples with nature and community, has proven to be efficient to respond to some of these challenges; however, it is not enough. Caught between environmental hazards on one side and development initiatives on the other, if some solutions are not taken rapidly there will be negative consequences for the survival of these populations as well as for their knowledge systems. Knowledge loss has been already responsible for increasing the vulnerability and risk for indigenous populations. It is, therefore, important that the national and international community starts recognizing indigenous peoples and their knowledge as valuable allies in the fight against climate change and sustainable development challenges and in maintaining global biodiversity. In light of the new post-2015 sustainability agenda, joint efforts are urgently required to develop and implement suitable initiatives to empower indigenous peoples to uphold and realise their rights and be involved in the decision making process, becoming in this way active agents of change.

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