Indigenous communities play a vital role as custodians of our planet, possessing vital knowledge that will support global efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But despite progress to protect their rights, many of the world’s 370 million indigenous peoples face discrimination and threats to their livelihoods and ancestral lands. To tackle these challenges, more than 1,000 representatives of indigenous people’s organizations, Members States and UN agencies will gather for the 17th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues taking place at UN Headquarters on 16-27 April 2018.
A sustainable way of life
Indigenous peoples have deep spiritual, cultural, social and economic ties with their lands, territories and resources; this is vital to their identity and existence. “Nature is part of us, you cannot separate indigenous peoples from nature,” said Jane Meriwas, Executive Director and Secretary to the Board of the Samburu Women Trust, an organization that works to uphold the human rights of women and girls in pastoral communities in Kenya.
Ahead of the Forum, which this year will focus on indigenous peoples’ collective rights to lands, territories and resources, UN DESA Voice spoke with Ms. Meriwas and Chandra Roy-Henriksen, Chief of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in UN DESA’s Division for Social Policy and Development. Both described this special bond to the environment, and how it contributes to our joint efforts to make this world more sustainable.
“When you look around the world today and you look at the areas which are green, those are the areas where indigenous peoples live,” said. Ms. Roy-Henriksen. She also described the sustainable lifestyle of indigenous communities, which follows the principle that you only take what you need from nature. “It’s not something that you really take as yours forever. You borrow it and you pass it on to the next generation.”
Indigenous peoples’ tradition of collective rights to lands and resources is often in sharp contrast with dominant models of individual ownership, privatization and development. There is growing recognition that advancing indigenous peoples’ collective rights to lands, territories and resources does not only contribute to their well-being but also to the greater good of the world by tackling problems such as climate change and loss of biodiversity.
Challenges remain to realize rights to lands, territories and resources
Significant progress has been made in international human rights standard-setting for indigenous peoples’ collective rights to lands, territories and resources, following the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007. A number of countries have recognized those rights through constitutional or legal protections or adjudication, constructive agreements and administrative programmes. Many States, however, have yet to recognize and ensure these rights and a wide gap remains in realizing them, even in countries where they are recognized.
Even where indigenous peoples have obtained legal protection or title deeds to their lands and resources, those are often violated by development projects; mining or logging concessions, bio fuel plantations or other business operations; or designation of conservation areas. In addition, indigenous peoples are often caught in the middle of conflicts taking place on their ancestral lands and territories.
Despite increasing jurisprudence of national and regional courts and other human rights mechanisms for protection of indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources, a major challenge is the effective enforcement of these judgments. The implementation gap between law and practice is wide and indigenous peoples continue to face serious abuses against their rights to lands, territories and resources daily.
Reports of grave human rights violations have been heard from every corner of the world, most often perpetrated against indigenous human rights defenders protecting their rights and their lands, territories and communities. Forced evictions and dispossession of lands have particularly severe impacts on indigenous women, who often face additional violence and discrimination based on gender and identity.
International platform to find solutions
At the 2018 session, the Permanent Forum will build on its continuing work to provide the space and platform to identify opportunities for concrete action to recognize and strengthen the indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources. The Forum will facilitate discussions among indigenous peoples, Member States, UN agencies and other stakeholders around good practices and challenges and recommend effective strategies to realize those rights.
“We hope that the end result will have a positive impact on those communities who have been agitating when you talk about issues on land,” said Jane Meriwas. “We hope even that the recommendation can reach the relevant government and […] be effectively implemented […] and disseminated to the communities that are affected.”
The Forum will also follow up on the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, prepare for the 2019 International Year of Indigenous Languages, and hone in on the realization of the 17 global goals, leaving no one behind.
“The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has given indigenous peoples a certain level of expectation,” said Ms. Roy-Henriksen, explaining that as the world moves forward towards 2030, there is hope among indigenous communities that their priorities, concerns and rights will be recognized.
For more information: 17th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues