Frontpage > Environment and Development > Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development and Indigenous Peoples

In June 2012 indigenous peoples gathered in Rio, and together with world leaders and civil society representatives from all over the world tried to move the global sustainable development agenda forward

Indigenous Peoples' Key Messages for Rio + 20

At the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio +20, the international community had a unique opportunity to make a renewed and strong political commitment to the protection and promotion of indigenous peoples' rights.

Indigenous peoples had identified 5 key messages for Rio+20, which they described in their contribution to the Zero Draft and which they were lobbying for in the negotiations of the final outcomes of Rio+20. They are as follows:

1. Recognition of culture as the fourth pillar of sustainable development

This cultural pillar encompasses the cultural and spiritual relation to land and nature. Life in harmony with nature can only be realised through a culturally transformed vision of sustainable development.

2. Recognition of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples as a standard in the implementation of sustainable development at all levels.

The human-rights based approach to sustainable development should be affirmed and integrated in the outcome document of Rio + 20.

3. The cornerstones of green economies are diverse local economies, in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development, biodiversity loss and climate change.

References to “the Green Economy” in the Zero Draft must be changed to “green economies,” embracing economic diversity, including Indigenous Peoples’ diverse local economies, which are critical components of resilient economies and ecosystems.

4. Safeguard the lands, territories and resources, and associated customary management and sustainable use systems.

Beyond income, indigenous peoples and the poor need to have secured rights over their lands, territories and resources and be able to exercise their customary resource management and sustainable use systems, which are their basic sources of wealth and well-being - particularly in a situation of intensifying conflicts arising from resources extractive industries.

5. Indigenous and traditional knowledge are distinct and special contributions to 21st century learning and action.

Reference in the Zero draft to learning and knowledge-sharing platforms must embrace indigenous and local knowledge, and diverse knowledge systems, as equally important as science for the purposes of assessment processes, monitoring and defining indicators for sustainable development

Sustainable Development and Indigenous Peoples

The term Sustainable Development has been widely used and discussed for since the mid-1980s. There are numerous definitions of sustainability and sustainable development, but the best known is possibly the one stated in World Commission on Environment and Development's (the Brundtland Commission) report "Our Common Future" from 1987. This suggests that development is sustainable where it "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."

Indigenous peoples usually live in isolated areas, outside the mainstream of national economies and development support. The areas they inhabit are even more likely to lack infrastructure such as roads, schools and health posts. Indigenous peoples very often inhabit fragile but resourcefull ecosystems, which are exposed to both climate change and economic activities such as logging, mining, oil-industry and other kinds of commercial exploitation.

Indigenous peoples' distinct livelihoods depend on access to land and natural resources and sustainable development is therefore an issue of crucial concern to indigenous peoples all over the world.

All kinds of economic development and growth - no matter its color – which include building of infrastructure and the transformation of natural ecosystems, however, pose a special risk to the physical, social and cultural survival of indigenous peoples and to their traditional occupations and environmental knowledge.

Many of the so-called ‘green’ forms of energy, such as hydropower and bio-fuels, involve the destruction of indigenous peoples’ territories and livelihoods. It is therefore of outmost importance to ensure special safeguards for indigenous peoples and to promote the respect of their rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consent in all decisions that will affect their lives and futures as spelled out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted in 2007.

Indigenous peoples plays a vital role for sustainable development

Indigenous peoples are not only the most vulnerable to unsustainable development and the over exploitation of natural resources, they also have vital knowledge of how to develop, implement and monitor sustainable natural resource management.

The recognition of indigenous peoples as a major group by the UN Conference on Environment & Development (UNCED), popularly known as the Earth Summit, held in 1992, was a breakthrough enabling the political participation of indigenous peoples in various processes relating to sustainable development.

In 2002 the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) was held in Johannesburg, South Africa. During the WSSD representatives of the indigenous peoples attending the summit submitted a document known as the "Kimberly Declaration" and defined a Plan of Implementation for the next decade. It is part of indigenous peoples' contribution for achieving human and environmental sustainability of the world.

In South Africa, the potential of indigenous peoples as 'stewards' of national and global natural resources and biodiversity was acknowledged and the important role of indigenous peoples in sustainable development reaffirmed. However, translating this political recognition into concrete advances locally, nationally, regionally and internationally remains a big challenge for indigenous peoples.

The Johannesburg Declaration of 2002 states: “We reaffirm the vital role of the indigenous peoples in sustainable development.” 20 years from the first Rio Conference there are still special conditions, problems and rights pertaining to indigenous peoples in relation to sustainable development.

Development interventions in favour of indigenous peoples have been rare, and are not usually guided by their own priorities. In the name of development or free trade, mining, oil and gas developments, plantations and the like encroach on indigenous peoples' lands and territories and make their life and survival increasingly difficult.

First and foremost it is necessary to acknowledge that indigenous peoples are peoples with special and internationally recognized rights as such – most importantly spelled out in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007.

Indigenous peoples can therefore not sufficiently be addresses as part of a common group of poor and vulnerable peoples and/or as ‘local and indigenous communities’, as has for example been proposed in the initial negotiations over the Zero Draft of the RIO + 20 outcome document. To only include indigenous peoples under such categories would imply a major decline in the recognition of the collective rights they have gained over the past years.

The strategies adopted by indigenous organizations around the world to defend their rights vary from all sorts of local organizing and protests and the issue of sustainable development is followed closely by indigenous peoples, their representatives and their organisations.