Identity, culture and biodiversity: the struggle of indigenous peoples

Between resilience and hope, the importance of the struggle to safeguard indigenous peoples in the face of current challenges.

The importance of indigenous links to the land. @OHCR

As distinct social and cultural groups, indigenous peoples have strong ancestral ties to the natural resources and lands on which they live and depend. These resources help shape their identity and culture, as well as their economic livelihoods and their material and spiritual lifestyles. Thanks to their own organisational structure, indigenous people live in a way that is distinct from the dominant society, with their own customs and traditions, and always in harmony with the land on which they live.

Indigenous peoples do not have a precise definition, since according to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, self-identification is considered a fundamental criterion, referring to their right to determine their own identity and group membership in accordance with their customs and traditions.

To date, indigenous peoples represent 476 million people in over 90 countries and 5,000 distinct groups, in which over 6,700 languages are spoken or signed. This is a true diversity of peoples, cultures and life skills.

Yet the situation of indigenous peoples is alarming: they make up only 6.2% of the world’s population, but account for 15% of the number of people living in extreme poverty worldwide. Indigenous peoples are often invisible and hidden, but they represent a reality that needs to be addressed, given the issues they represent and the challenges they face.

Marginalised people living in increased poverty

According to a report published on the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, indigenous people are three times more likely to live in extreme poverty than the rest of the population.

Although the livelihoods and economic activities of indigenous people are changing – now about 45% of indigenous people are employed outside the primary agricultural sector – and they have a higher labour force participation rate than the rest of the population (63.3% compared to 59.1%), these data are accompanied by significant imbalances and inequalities in terms of employment, working conditions and remuneration.

Photo ONU/F. Charton A Cakchiquel family in the village of Patzutzun, Guatemala.

The report highlights that 86% of indigenous people work in the informal economy, often with poor working conditions and lack of social protection, compared to 66% of the rest of the population. In particular and not surprisingly, indigenous women are more affected by these employment difficulties, as they represent 86.5% in the informal sector.

In terms of education, the report indicates that more than half (53.3%) of working indigenous women have no education at all, with indigenous women living in Africa being the most disadvantaged – across all regions and income groups – with an illiteracy rate of 89.9% compared to 62.2% of their indigenous counterparts.

Indigenous women are also the most represented in family work (around 34%) and only a quarter of them are in paid employment, compared to 51.1% of non-indigenous women and 30.1% of indigenous men.

Finally, and to conclude on salary inequalities, indigenous individuals earn on average 18% less than the rest of the population in the same job.

The data analysed reflect the poverty-induced need for indigenous people to engage in employment, even if poorly paid and under poor working conditions, in order to generate income to try to support themselves.

The importance of indigenous land rights in the struggle for the SDGs, including Water

Because of their ways of life, which are different from the dominant culture of the country in which they live, indigenous peoples are often excluded, not taken into account or poorly represented in decision-making processes on issues that often directly affect them, such as projects affecting their lands or the adoption of norms or legislative measures that may affect their resources and living conditions.

Rooted in an exacerbated colonialism, indigenous peoples have often been displaced from their native lands in favour of companies and natural resource exploitation on their territories.

However, although the system of customary law conferring ownership of their lands to indigenous people has been established, it is only marginally effective and illusory, as many governments encroach on their lands by granting them only parcels of land as property and taking over almost all of their spaces.

This infringement of land rights has harmful consequences. It is a vector of conflict and insecurity for the indigenous populations who originally lived off these resources, but it is also a danger for the environment, in particular by threatening the cultures and knowledge systems put in place by the indigenous populations and which initially contribute to a better ecological integrity, to protecting biodiversity and thus to environmental health on a larger scale.

Indeed, UN Chief Economist Elliot Harris stated: “Securing indigenous peoples’ collective rights to lands, territories and resources is not only about their well-being, but also about addressing some of the most pressing global challenges, such as climate change and environmental degradation.”

At the UN Water Conference (22-25 March 2023), indigenous peoples, member states and the UN system agreed on joint commitments to transform water governance, and to adapt to climate and biodiversity. Indigenous peoples have always managed and governed water resources, regardless of the environment in which they find themselves, whether water is abundant or scarce in semi-arid or very dry lands. The different, often ancestral, methods of indigenous people allow for new approaches that are extremely relevant and useful in the fight against the freshwater crisis. The conference highlighted current indigenous practices in the management of their water resources, as well as establishing a roadmap for the inclusion of these methods in water governance, and affirming new commitments to the protection of indigenous land rights, which are necessary for the involvement of indigenous peoples in water management policy that contributes significantly to addressing climate change, food systems and the maintenance of biodiversity.

For example, a 40,000 year old hunter-gatherer tribe in Tanzania has been granted legal rights to their ancestral lands, allowing them to protect their forests from farmers and herders who seek to clear them. Deforestation in the central Hadzabe territory has since decreased, while it has increased significantly in the region. Populations of endangered African elephants, African wild dogs, lions and leopards have increased and the Hadzabe have earned over US$450,000 from carbon trading. To read more, click here.

Indigenous peoples are key players in the fight against the freshwater crisis and in the maintenance of biodiversity. Their different approaches and methods of resource governance are a key asset in the face of current climate challenges. It is therefore essential to ensure and secure their land rights, while adopting a more inclusive governance and promoting public investments adapted to the ancestral cultures and management systems of indigenous populations, as well as in the fight against the extinction of indigenous languages, a key element in the transmission of knowledge.

Endangered cultures

To date, of the 6700 indigenous languages signed and spoken, 40% are under threat due to a lack of speakers. The disappearance of a language jeopardises the transmission of intangible heritage, customs and knowledge, which can be vital from a cultural and societal point of view, but also from an ecological point of view, given the current challenges we face (climate change, depletion of resources, maintenance of biodiversity). In 2022, the death of Critina Calderon, the last person to speak the language of the Yagan people in Chile, illustrates the threat of extinction of indigenous languages. According to UNESCO, one language disappears every fortnight and more than 1,500 of them are expected to become extinct in the near future. 67% of the languages listed are found in areas of high biodiversity where people have a perfect knowledge of their environment, within which they have accumulated a wealth of ecological knowledge, which is of great global value.

“Elaborate vocabularies are built around subjects of particular economic, socio-cultural and ecological importance”, UNESCO report.

UNICEF/Girls from an indigenous community read in the courtyard of Ban Pho Primary School in Lao Cai Province, Viet Nam.

The causes of the disappearance of languages are linked to the practice, the complex recognition of these languages, the lack of diversity of the languages used, but also to the direct consequences of the oppression suffered by the peoples. In Canada, there are 1.7 million Aboriginal people, yet less than 16% speak an Aboriginal language. The Huron-Wendat ethnologist Isabelle Picard, interviewed by Radio Canada, believes that governments “have moral and political responsibilities in the transmission and conservation of these languages”, in relation to the dark affair of the residential schools, recently brought to light.

Thus, it is essential to implement tools to perpetuate and facilitate the teaching of these languages and prevent this linguistic heritage from disappearing, with the imperative aim of preserving the diversity, identity and integrity of indigenous peoples, as well as the vital knowledge needed to address current climate issues.

Towards a more effective recognition of indigenous peoples and their rights

Over the past twenty years, there has been a significant increase in the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights, as evidenced by the establishment of several international instruments and mechanisms: The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007 and the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2016, but also the ratification by 23 countries since 1991 of the Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, the establishment of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the creation of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the establishment of a Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

In June 2019, Canada passed legislation recognising that “Aboriginal languages are an integral part of the cultures and identities of Aboriginal peoples in Canadian society” and created an Office of the Aboriginal Languages Commissioner, efforts appreciated by the Chief of the Assembly of First Nations in Canada, Perry Bellegarde.

Photo : ONU/Mark Garten Tadodaho Sid Hill, Chief of the Onondaga Nation, delivers a speech at the World Conference of Indigenous Peoples.

More recently, UNESCO is mobilising for the safeguarding of indigenous cultural heritage. In 2022, in order to extend the work of the “International Year of Indigenous Languages”, the UN decided to launch an International Decade of the World’s Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). Among the various actions put in place, the publication of the World Atlas of Indigenous Languages to collect and disseminate data on languages in the world and in each country, was welcomed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “indigenous languages play an essential role in defining the indigenous relationship with Mother Earth, preserving indigenous territory, transmitting indigenous world views, science, history and culture, and eradicating hunger by maintaining the integrity of indigenous food systems”.

In the same spirit, other means are being developed, such as the launch of an online course – a MOOC – on the introduction to Dongba, the script of the Naxi ethnic minority in Yunnan, China. The course, available in four languages, aims to reach thousands of people around the world and to contribute to the preservation of this cultural heritage. Likewise, following a multi-stakeholder debate at the UN on the development of indigenous community media, it was decided that many efforts will be made to promote access to media content and services in indigenous languages, particularly to disseminate information more widely for local communities and to strengthen the voice of indigenous people in media coverage.

All these trends are driven by the Global Action Plan that guides the implementation of the struggle for the preservation of indigenous peoples’ culture within the framework of the Decade. The Plan addresses all aspects of the daily lives of speakers. It advocates for better access to food, justice and health services, social cohesion, digital empowerment, culture, biodiversity, access to employment in the context of revitalisation, culture and sustainability of indigenous languages.

At the beginning of this Decade, there is still a long way to go and efforts must continue. This is both an individual necessity in terms of protecting the identity and culture of individuals and a global necessity in terms of the importance of the responses provided by indigenous cultures in protecting biodiversity and managing resources in the face of the current climate challenges we face.

Legendre Inès

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