Indigenous peoples make up 5% of the global population, yet they account for 15% of the extreme poor. This is down to historical subjugation, but also ongoing discrimination – especially when it comes to rights over land and resources. The 2030 Agenda presents opportunities to close the gap and learn from shortcomings of the Millennium Development Goals, as well as to learn from indigenous peoples on matters from community resilience to natural resource management.

The rights of indigenous peoples are enshrined in international agreements, including the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the ILO’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention No. 169, and they feature prominently in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Yet discrimination and violation of rights continue on many levels, and contribute to marked inequalities of opportunity and living standards between indigenous peoples and the rest of a country’s population.


Who are indigenous peoples?

There are around 370 million indigenous people in the world – an umbrella term for the descendants of those who inhabited a country or region before people of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived and became dominant. They include the Saami of northern Europe, the Maori of New Zealand, the Lakota in the US, and many other peoples spread across 70 countries. An official definition has not been adopted by any UN body – instead the current understanding is based on self-identification. For more information, see the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues factsheet.


“There are many discriminatory laws against indigenous peoples,” said Joan Carling, a prominent indigenous rights defender from the Kankanaey tribe in the Philippines, associated with Tebtebba. “For example we are prohibited from speaking our language in schools; we cannot find jobs because we cannot speak the national language, and we are not legally recognized.”

At the core of indigenous peoples’ struggle is land rights. “The main challenge that indigenous peoples face is still the continuing disregard or outright violation of our collective rights - particularly to our land, territories and resources, our self-governance or self-determination,” said Carling. “They are put in the name of the state and not under indigenous peoples’ ownership. We are even criminalized when we practice our traditional livelihoods or practices.”

These practices – such as hunting, fishing, gathering, pastoralism or traditional farming – are inseparable from indigenous communities’ food security. And that is further tested by the impact of climate change and displacement from traditional lands to less fertile areas.

Indigenous women and youth in particular bear the brunt of issues such as climate change, land grabbing and resource extraction.

“Indigenous women are the ones linking their lives with the environment – collecting water, collecting wood,” said Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Coordinator of the Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad. “She’s the one who knows the medicinal plants to take care of her children’s health. When the climate impact comes, the indigenous men can go far away to cope, but for the indigenous women there is this attachment to the land and territory; she is tied there.”

Meanwhile denial of traditional practices and displacement from traditional lands is leading to what Carling calls “a crisis of identity” among indigenous youths. “Because of forced assimilation and displacements, there’s a steady movement of indigenous peoples to urban areas. We are being evicted from our lands and territories. And once indigenous peoples are in an urban setting they experience severe discrimination, so the youth are forced to deny their identity to avoid discrimination - and that is causing a lot of problems for us,” said Carling. “It’s like taking away our soul, and that has severe implications in terms of dignity and identity.”

Indigenous peoples are not the only ones who lose out in this scenario: their traditional practices around sustainable management of natural resources hold lessons for other communities, as does their model of community support and resilience.

“Indigenous peoples are really resilient; we know how to live and cope with our environment, as we have for generations,” said Ibrahim. “And we are not ‘vulnerable’ – rather it’s the external development that excludes us and that makes us vulnerable, so this needs to change. They need to think how they can use our positive contribution, not just say they are vulnerable people and we have to help them. We can help them become more resilient themselves, because we have this concept culturally in our way of life.”

In the following video Joan Carling and Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim outline lessons which can be learned from indigenous peoples’ way of life, and reflect on the potential of a knowledge-sharing platform for sustainable development:


Learning from the MDGs

Beyond a knowledge-sharing platform, Carling put forward five lessons which the SDGs can take on board to avoid the shortcomings indigenous peoples experienced under the Millennium Development Goals.

First: address poverty in a holistic manner, and with a definition that goes beyond income. “A lot of development interventions regard poverty as an economic issue,” said Carling, “but for indigenous peoples poverty is about our land, our well-being, our spirituality, our dignity - and when these are affected then we regard ourselves poor.” This means development programmes need to focus on the root causes of indigenous peoples’ poverty, which vary for each community - but often relate to disputed access to land and resources.

“In the MDGs the focus was economic growth, but that has actually led to the displacement of indigenous peoples, and to a lot of resource extraction without our consent,” said Carling. So the second lesson for the SDGs is to find a balance between economic, social and environmental dimensions. “We need cohesive policy, an integrated approach using a human rights perspective, and not simply looking at economic growth as the basis for sustainable development,” said Carling.

To achieve this, the third lesson regards inclusion. Although the MDGs made inclusion a key principal, they didn’t go far enough in consulting indigenous peoples on development programmes. “We are being seen as subjects, and we don’t have any role in decision making, planning, implementation and monitoring of development programmes which affect us,” said Carling.

Particular efforts are needed to include indigenous women in decision-making, even within indigenous institutions. “A lot of indigenous institutions are dominated by men, and the perspective of women as well as the recognition of their specific conditions are not taken into account,” said Carling.

Fourth is data disaggregation. The surveys and questionnaires which set a baseline for development gains are becoming more nuanced, for example collecting information on gender and disability as well as age and location. “But we need to have ethnicity, an indigenous identifier - because without that how can we measure if indigenous peoples are taken out of poverty?” said Carling. “If we look at the MDGs, a lot of countries said that they had reduced poverty by 40%. That’s at the national level, but if you look at indigenous peoples, we remain 80% of the poor. Those furthest left behind should be part of the data, so that we know how to measure progress.”

Finally: recognise indigenous peoples as a distinct group – and not only a vulnerable group. “We are rights holders and development actors and agents - we have our sustainable resource management systems, we have our sustainable livelihoods,” said Carling. “These are something that we can contribute - we have our traditional knowledge, and our own innovations, and they must be recognised.”


Indigenous Navigator

A tool known as the Indigenous Navigator hopes to answer some of these shortfalls in terms of data collection and inclusivity. It provides a framework for indigenous peoples to monitor recognition and implementation of their rights, aiming to strengthen their visibility in policy discussions and generate the data which can hold states accountable for human rights violations.

“The idea simply was to create a tool, a framework that indigenous peoples themselves can use to monitor their rights, to monitor their development,” said Martin Oelz, Senior Specialist on Equality and Non-Discrimination at the International Labour Organisation. “We started this work in 2013, and we have piloted and tested it in six countries. It is now launching a new phase in which it will be rolled out in 11 target countries, with support from the European Union, very much as an open-source tool.”


Indigenous Navigator provides national questionnaires designed to be used by desk researchers, indigenous experts and organisations, as well as community questionnaires to assess the situation on the ground, to be used at community meetings, focus groups and in participatory discussions.

It is a collaborative initiative of five organisations – Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact, Forest Peoples Programme, International Labour Organisation, International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, and the Tebtebba Foundation – supported by the EU’s Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights and Global Public Goods and Challenges Programme. For more information, visit the Indigenous Navigator.


Banner image credit: Global Landscapes Forum via Creative Commons

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DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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