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Who are the indigenous peoples?

At least 370 million people worldwide are considered to be indigenous. Most of them live in remote areas of the world. Indigenous peoples are divided into at least 5000 peoples ranging from the forest peoples of the Amazon to the tribal peoples of India and from the Inuit of the Arctic to the Aborigines in Australia.

Indigenous peoples do not necessarily claim to be the only people native to their countries, but in many cases indigenous peoples are indeed “aboriginal” or “native” to the lands they live in, being descendants of those peoples that inhabited a territory prior to colonization or formation of the present state.

Indigenous peoples have their own distinct languages, cultures, and social and political institutions that are very different from those of mainstream society. While indigenous peoples face the same experience of discrimination and marginalization as other ethnic minorities, there are very important differences in terms of their rights and identity.

Collective rights

Contrary to other ethnic minorities, that struggle to protect their rights on an individual level, indigenous peoples have always stressed the need to recognize their collective rights. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) recognizes these collective rights. The UNDRIP was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007.


Today, many indigenous peoples are still excluded from society and deprived of their rights as equal citizens of a state. Nevertheless they are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories and their ethnic identity, insisting on their right to self-determination.


Self-identification as an indigenous individual and acceptance as such by the group is an essential component of indigenous peoples’ sense of identity. Their continued existence as peoples is closely connected to their possibility to influence their own fate and to live in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.

Land rights and natural resources

Indigenous peoples often inhabit land, which is rich in minerals and natural resources. Indigenous peoples have prior rights to their territories, lands and resources, but often these have been taken from them or they have been threatened to leave. Indigenous peoples face serious difficulties such as constant threats of territorial invasion and murder, plundering of their resources, cultural and legal discrimination, as well as a lack of recognition of their own institutions.

Definition of the concept of 'indigenous peoples'

There is no universal and unambiguous definition of the concept of 'indigenous peoples', but there are a number of criteria by which indigenous peoples globally can be identified and from which each group can be characterised.

The most widespread approaches are those proposed in the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention no.169 and in the Martinéz Cobo Report to the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination of Minorities (1986). Furthermore an approach suggested by the Chairperson of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations Mme. Erica-Irene Daes is widely used.

The approach by the ILO Convention 169

The ILO Convention no. 169 states that a people are considered indigenous either:

  • because they are descendants of those who lived in the area before colonization; or
  • because they have maintained their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions since colonization and the establishment of new states.

Furthermore, the ILO Convention 169 says that self-identification is crucial for indigenous peoples. This criterion has for example been applied in a land-claims agreement between the Canadian government and the Inuit of the Northwest Territories.

Martinéz Cobo's working definition

According to the Martinéz Cobo’s Report to the UN Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination of Minorities (1986), indigenous peoples may be identified as follows:

“Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.”

This historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present, of one or more of the following factors:

  • Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them;
  • Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands;
  • Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, instant loans, lifestyle, etc.);
  • Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language);
  • Residence in certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world;
  • Other relevant factors

Self-identification as indigenous is also regarded as a fundamental element in Martinéz Cobo’s working definition:

“On an individual basis, an indigenous person is one who belongs to these indigenous peoples through self-identification as indigenous (group consciousness) and is recognized and accepted by the group as one of its members (acceptance by the group). This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.”

Mme. Erica-Irene Daes' identification

The identification outlined by the Chairperson of the United Nations' Working Group on Indigenous Populations, Mme. Erica-Irene Daes designates certain peoples as indigenous,

  • because they are descendants of groups which were in the territory of the country at the time when other groups of different cultures or ethnic origins arrived there;
  • because of their isolation from other segments of the country's population they have preserved almost intact the customs and traditions of their ancestors which are similar to those characterised as indigenous; and
  • because they are, even if only formally, placed under a State structure which incorporates national, social and cultural characteristics alien to theirs.