Indigenous people: The difficult art of survival

Indigenous people: The difficult art of survival

In-mid January, the United Nations issued its first World Report on the condition of the indigenous peoples, which have made progress and won recognition internationally but not at the national and local level, where their demands remain unmet.
The report was carried out by seven indigenous women experts in the areas of health, education, the environment, human rights, and socio-economic matters, under the auspices of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Matters. It paints a grim picture and focuses on how the sovereignty of the member states and the complexity of the UN bureaucracy obstruct the international institutions and even the Forum’s recommendations to improve the conditions of the indigenous and preserve their cultures and their view of nature.

The indigenous peoples first entered the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva in the 1980s as part of a Work Group on collective human rights, economic sustainability, respect for the environment, development based on traditional knowledge, and, more recently, a natural response to climate change.

The report presents a realistic picture of the stigmas that still oppress the indigenous peoples as a consequence of colonisation and exploitation. The vast majority of this population of 370 million people, which speak 4,000 languages, live in extreme poverty, are discriminated against, and have been subjected to the theft and plunder of their land and traditional habitats.

Since the institution of the International Year of Indigenous Peoples in 1993 and the Indigenous Decades (1994-2004, 2004-2014), the UN has learned to see the indigenous peoples not as a threat to national sovereignty but rather a source of valuable responses to the challenges of the new millennium. Each year in May in New York some two thousand indigenous leaders meet to harmonise their strategies through councils created for each continent and parallel dialogues with representatives from the UN,  multilateral banks, and NGOs. It is a beneficial yet challenging meeting, the positive results of which pave the way for a range of commitments between western and indigenous cultures to seek a better quality of life.

It is important to stress that many indigenous, native, aboriginal, or other peoples, though recognised by the UN, do not always win the same level of respect and treatment in their own countries, or even find a balance of inter-ethnic relations where there is still tension between brother peoples.

One of the more worrisome phenomena noted in the report — the extinction of indigenous languages in the next 100 years- is advancing in a subtle and almost imperceptible manner.

The responsibility for the survival of these languages lies primarily with indigenous women, who as mothers are the link between the past and the future. But if they are the major target of discrimination, mistreatment, physical and sexual assault, prostitution, and sexually-transmitted diseases, how can they transmit their identity, culture, and language to their offspring?

Another threat of cultural extinction comes from migration and urbanisation; meanwhile, the indigenous who live isolated in the forest have no system of special protection from contact with outsiders who can expose them to viruses, like the flu, which can be devastating given their lack of antibodies.

The symptoms of climate change are felt especially intensely in indigenous communities and harm their means of subsistence. In the Amazon region, for example, previously unknown diseases are carried in the wind from the West, like malaria and oncocerosis among others, which indigenous spiritual leaders say are particularly devastating because of the physical fragility of the aboriginals and the lack of adequate treatment.
The young are losing their oral traditions and the force of the indigenous cosmovision, and there is an elevated rate of suicide attributed to the lack of perspective, the difficulty of bridging the two different cultures, and the complex psychological and spiritual contradictions that arise between them.

Among the important factors underlying the crisis, the report points to the lack of respect for the self-determination of these peoples, which results in an absence of territorial guarantees and of demarcation of communal lands. Many communities live surrounded by physical threats from large landowners, monoculture agriculture based on genetically-modified seeds, and/or the powerful impact of development programmes, while they request and await protection from the state.
The World Report is an instrument that indigenous organisations and activists should put to use at the national and international level.

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