People's Stories Indigenous People

The world has much to learn from indigenous peoples
by Mirna Cunningham Kai
UNDP: Human Development for Everyone
From my lifelong experiences, being an advocate for the rights of some of the most marginalized peoples, allow me to share what I have learned and come to see as essential elements to ensure peaceful societies and sustainable development in a plural world.
Celebrating diversity
Indigenous peoples contribute to diversity, and their history emphasizes the importance of revitalizing and celebrating ancient cultures, music, languages, knowledge, traditions and identities. Living in an era where xenophobia, fundamentalism, populism and racism are on the rise in many parts of the world, celebrations and positive messages about the value of diversity can contribute to counter negative stereotypes, racism and discrimination and instead foster tolerance, innovation and peaceful coexistence between peoples.
This is essential to safeguard the inherent belief in human beings’ equal worth, as reflected in the fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.
Taking special measures to ensure equality and combat discrimination
The world today is more unequal than ever before yet, there is an increasing recognition of the crucial importance of addressing systematic inequalities to ensure sustainable development. To address inequalities, a first step is to repeal discriminatory policies and laws that continue to exist in many countries, preventing particular groups of peoples from fully realizing their potential.
For indigenous peoples, it is necessary to adopt positive or special measures to overcome discrimination and ensure the progressive achievement of indigenous peoples’ rights, as emphasised in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (article 21.2). This includes measures to safeguard cultural values and identities of indigenous peoples (article 8.2) or to ensure access to education in their own languages (article 14).
Further, nondiscrimination for indigenous peoples is strongly related to the right to self-determination and cultural integrity. These principles should be promoted in the context of addressing target 16b of the 2030 Agenda, promoting and enforcing nondiscriminatory laws and policies.
Getting down to the root causes of conflicts
No solution to conflicts and injustices will be possible without addressing the root causes for these conflicts. For indigenous peoples, root causes most often relate to violations against their human rights, in particular rights related to their lands, territories and resources.
Across the world, indigenous peoples increasingly experience militarization, armed conflict, forced displacements or other conflicts on their lands, which have become increasingly valuable in light of globalization and the continued quest for resource extraction.
Indigenous human rights and environmental defenders, who mobilize to protect their rights, face death threats, harassment, criminalization and killings. According to an Oxfam Report, 41 percent of murders of human rights defenders in Latin America were related to the defence of the environment, land, territory and indigenous peoples.
The essential and first step to prevent conflict and ensure peaceful development is hence to protect, promote and ensure the basic rights of all peoples, including their free, prior and informed consent on development activities taking place on their lands. In that light the 2030 Agenda’s goal 16 on peaceful societies and strong institutions is essential. In particular, the focus on transparency, the rule of law and equal access to justice will be crucial to ensure accountability to the rights of all peoples.
Bringing in the voices, world views and power of indigenous peoples
Indigenous peoples have called for their rights to be at the negotiating table and have a voice in decision making processes. “Nothing about us, without us” goes one of the mottoes, that is being repeated. Consistent with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples article 7, indigenous peoples have the collective right to live in freedom, peace and security as distinct peoples.
Furthermore, in post conflict societies, states should ensure the participation of indigenous peoples through their own representative institutions in peace negotiations, peacebuilding, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance and reconciliation processes.
By strengthening indigenous peoples’ own institutions and governance systems and ensuring their inclusion in essential decision making processes at the local, national and global levels, just solutions to conflicts can be found, and the structural root causes that led to the conflicts can be addressed. Indigenous peoples can also contribute to peace processes through their ancient wisdom and approaches to reconciliation and peace.
Indigenous approaches to reconciliation often go beyond legal solutions with an essential focus on forgiveness, coexistence and harmony, which can inspire in a conflict situation that might otherwise seem protracted.
The world has much to learn from indigenous peoples in the quest for peace and development in a plural world, as the one we are living in.
* Mirna Cunningham Kai, is former Chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. This text was originally published in the Human Development Report 2016 “Human Development for Everyone”.
Apr. 2018 (UN News)
Protect indigenous people’s land rights and the whole world will benefit, UN forum declares.
Protecting the land and resource rights of indigenous peoples will not only provide security for historically exploited groups but also help the global fights against climate change and biodiversity loss, said speakers at the annual United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
In her opening remarks to the Forum in New York, the chairperson, Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine, a medical doctor from Timbuktu, Mali, called the land husbandry of Aboriginal peoples “part of our history and heritage.”
But few countries have acted to defend these peoples’ collective rights, she added. “Law enforcement is inadequate or non-existent, and other elements of legislation goes against these rights,” she said.
Measures necessary to give meaning to land rights, such as tenure delimitation and allocating title deeds, are often not implemented. Those who defend indigenous rights continue to be targeted when they raise their voices – particularly when States or private actors seek their resources for aggressive development such as logging.
“As long as our rights over our lands, territories and resources are not recognized,” she added, indigenous people risk falling far short of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
“In the same way,” she said, “the world risks losing the fight against climate change and the destruction of the environment.”
UN General Assembly President Miroslav Lajcak reminded everyone “The United Nations is here for people. And that includes indigenous people.. But we cannot yet say that this Organization has opened its doors wide enough,” he said. “And so, we need to be more ambitious.”
He painted a grim picture of the situation facing indigenous people today, pointing out that while they make up only five per cent of the world’s population, they comprise 15 per cent of the world’s poorest people.
“That is shocking,” he said, adding that their human rights are being violated, they are being excluded and marginalized and face violence for asserting their basic rights.
Focusing on the theme of indigenous land, territories and resources, he said: “Indigenous people are being dispossessed. They are losing the lands their ancestors called home.”
But with global attention to indigenous rights on the rise, Mr. Lajcak saw reasons for hope, but we cannot ignore the very real, and very serious, challenges. They cast a shadow over the future of many indigenous communities. And they demand our urgent attention,” he said.

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Colombia needs to act on the indigenous hunger crisis
by Juan Pappier
Amelia sat on a bench outside her one-room straw-roofed hut knitting a handbag while her toddler grandsons played nearby in the dirt. They were skinny, and itchy-looking red rashes spread up their arms. “They spend days without eating,” said Amelia.
She told me she sold the colorful bags she knits for the equivalent of five US dollars each—though they are sold for as much as $50 online. But such handicrafts don’t go far to alleviate the dire malnutrition suffered by the Wayuu, Colombia’s largest indigenous group.
A gathering of officials this week in Paris could help bring them relief. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) an agency of mostly high-income countries is examining Colombia’s application to join.
Membership is one of President Juan Manuel Santos’s longstanding ambitions and few hurdles remain. But on March 22, the OECD’s Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Committee will scrutinize whether Colombia is doing enough to “assist people without work, and other vulnerable groups, to combat poverty.” In the case of the Wayuu, it is not.
The hunger crisis is rooted in government’s serious failures of governance; including extremely poor access to basic services, limited government efforts to root out local corruption, and an insufficient response to the crisis. Among the causes is limited access to food and water–made worse by the humanitarian crisis in neighboring Venezuela, just across the border.
Three of Amelia’s seven children died before reaching adulthood, she told me, and that devastating rate of loss is not so unusual among the Wayuu. Limited access to water and food has fueled the needless deaths of scores of Wayuu during the past two years, and it is eroding the health of thousands.
The crisis is well-known in Colombia for its devastating effect on children. An average of almost one indigenous child under five has died of causes linked to malnutrition every week throughout the past two years, the government reports.
But the suffering of Wayuu women and children often goes unnoticed. On my recent visits, many stoic women like Amelia gave me a glimpse of their suffering and sacrifices. I found Marcela, for example, a pregnant woman, sweaty and dusty, on the road to Luace, her tiny rural community. For prenatal checkups, Marcela has to ride a motor scooter for an hour over bumpy dirt roads to reach a clinic in the town of Paraiso. She had arrived for her latest appointment at 7 a.m. the previous day and waited seven hours to see a doctor; which was typical, she said.
But poor access to medical care is only part of the problem for pregnant women like Marcela. “Sometimes we eat twice a day; sometimes once and that’s it,” she told me.
On the Guajira Peninsula, some pregnant or breastfeeding women have reportedly died of causes linked to malnutrition. Shipia Wayuu, an indigeous rights group, documented four cases in 2017. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has asked the Colombian government to take immediate action to address the Wayuu women’s crisis.
The government has promised to act, but its efforts have fallen short, speaking volumes about Colombia’s commitment to the Wayuu. Government food programs for children in the villages I visited often ran short. Many doctors and nurses lacked medicine to treat children. And several wells dug by the government were not operating or provided only salty water.
In one community at the southern end of the peninsula, a woman and girl filled buckets from a mossy receptacle exposed to the elements at a newly-dug public well. They bathed, sluicing themselves with fetid, reeking water speckled with insects.
While Wayuu women suffer the lack of services and the ravages of hunger, they also serve in leadership roles in the fight for a decent life. Despite rigid traditional gender roles in Wayuu communities, it was often women; as teachers, community leaders, or nurses who were doing the most, in the villages I visited, to help their neighbours. Dolores, a cook for a government program that provides hot meals to poor children in a community at the eastern tip of the penninsula, was typical of these quiet heroes.
She struggles to feed her own family, but at times asks her daughter not to eat at the meal program. The rice, vegetables, and meat the private company that operates the program provides is often insufficient, she said, so she spends a chunk of her own $300 monthly salary to buy more. Many cooks and teachers on the peninsula told me that, like Dolores, they use their salaries to help feed the children of their villages.
I met Maria, 19, in the town of Manaure, and when I told her I couldn’t visit her home village of Camasia to do research, she decided to do her own reporting there. Through her cellphone recordings of relatives, I learned that Maria’s people generally eat only once a day and sometimes, day after day, drink only chicha–a corn gruel. The village goes weeks without access to water, and Maria’s relatives walk for more than an hour-and-a-half to fill their buckets.
Now is the time for the Employment, Labour and Social Affairs Committee of the OECD to shine a spotlight on the Wayuu crisis, and to examine the inadequate steps Colombian authorities have taken to address it.
The committee should ask the Colombian goverment for a serious action plan to address the crisis, with concrete benchmarks and a vigorous verification system. Right now, the OECD has the leverage to press Colombia to alleviate the suffering of selfless women like Dolores and Maria and help them save many more lives.

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