The Indigenous World 2015: Editorial

The World Conference on Indigenous Peoples 

“Indigenous people will always have a home at the United Nations,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon when opening the UN High Plenary meeting on indigenous peoples.

The opening of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) took place in the great assembly hall of the UN headquarters in New York on 22 September 2014. But while many representatives of the world’s indigenous peoples could not get a pass for one of the limited observers´ seats on the balcony, on the plenary floor, quite a few of the official blue name tags of States and UN agencies shone on empty chairs.

Despite the near universal endorsement of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the adoption by consensus of the World Conference Outcome Document, many States still don’t recognise the existence of indigenous peoples in their own countries and their rights are not high on the political agenda. The human rights of indigenous peoples are also far from reflected in the daily lives of most of the world’s 370 million indigenous people.

Indigenous peoples remain among the poorest and most marginalized; they have far greater risk of not having access to education, clean water and safe housing, of ending up in prison, and of dying during pregnancy and childbirth than other people, said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in his opening speech at the World Conference. “This clear statistic translates to thousands of human tragedies. Thousands of violations of human rights,” Al Hussain said, and urged all parties to use the outcome document to ensure that the UNDRIP is turned into reality.

The world conference was not an initiative of indigenous peoples, but for three years they have joined forces in a global preparatory process to ensure direct and full participation in the whole process, including the negotiations of the programme and outcome of the meeting, and to make sure that the high plenary would not be used as a pretext for watering down the rights they have fought for and got recognised in the UNDRIP.

The World Conference outcome document 

Not least as a result of indigenous peoples’ thorough preparation, persistent advocacy and alliance building, the WCIP outcome document confirms and reaffirms the language of the UNDRIP and includes many of the priorities identified by indigenous peoples at the Global Indigenous Preparatory Conference in Alta, Norway (See The Indigenous World 2014), particularly on issues related to rights to land and natural resources, and free, prior and informed consent.

The outcome document contains requirements to take action both at the national and international level. For example, States are requested to develop national action plans, strategies or other measures to achieve the ends of the UNDRIP. Furthermore, States are encouraged to include information on the situation of the rights of indigenous peoples, including measures taken, to pursue the objectives of UNDRIP in reports to Treaty Bodies and during the universal periodic review process. At the international level the Secretary-General is requested to begin the development of an UN system-wide action plan to ensure a coherent approach to achieving the ends of the UNDRIP.

It is also positive that the outcome document acknowledges the need to pay special attention to the rights of indigenous women, including furthering their empowerment and equal participation in decision-making processes at all levels. There is also a special mentioning of the need to examine the causes and consequences of violence against indigenous women, and to disaggregate data and conduct surveys to address the situation and need of indigenous peoples and individuals based on holistic indicators of well-being. On the other hand, States did not accept the inclusion of articles suggested by indigenous peoples on issues related to treaty rights and demilitarization of indigenous peoples’ lands. It is also important to note that some issues of major concern to indigenous peoples such as the reference to the impact of extractive industries, and the need of State action in this regard, are much weaker than the text suggested by indigenous peoples.

Land Grabbing 

Investments in extractive industries and large-scale agriculture are at the core of the everyday struggle of indigenous peoples to maintain their land, livelihood and culture.

According to the International Land Coalition, between 2000 and 2011, large- scale plots of land acquired or negotiated through deals brokered on behalf of foreign governments or transnational corporations covered, in total, 203 million hectares of land worldwide. This is equivalent to over eight times the size of the United Kingdom.1 But only very few of these large-scale land deals for commercial or industrial purposes take place in Western Europe. Most involve the land of indigenous peoples in developing countries and are closed without any consultation of the local communities, no compensation, and with a lack of regard for environmental sustainability and equitable access to, or control over, natural resources. In other words, most of these land deals involve what has been termed “land grabbing.” Land grabbing poses the greatest threat to the survival of indigenous peoples today and is thus a recurrent concern in the articles included in The Indigenous World. This year’s edition is no exception.

Under the pretext of enhancing food security by making so-called “underutilised land” productive, Ethiopia continues to lease out millions of hectares of land to private foreign and domestic agricultural investors while forcing pastoralist families to settle in villages. Presented as a national development strategy, the local indigenous population is facing acute poverty, losing its customary land and traditional pastoralist livelihood to export agriculture, non-food production and an influx of migrant workers.

In Cambodia, this year´s article criticises the World Bank’s large investment in rubber production, which has been carried out without the free, prior and informed consent and without satisfactory compensation of the affected communities. In contrast to the World Bank’s stated mission of “reducing poverty,” the investments have dispossessed indigenous peoples of their land and lead to “deforestation, a loss of biodiversity and the pollution of water sources, (which have) severely impacted upon peoples’ livelihoods, disrupted children’s education, limited religious expression, (and) triggered food insecurity.”

Similar examples can be found from all the seven geo-regions of the world and new projects are in the making, such as the Lamu Port (Kenya), South Sudan and Ethiopia Transport Corridor Project (LAPSSET), the Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor of Tanzania (SAGCOT) and the Nicaragua Interoceanic Grand Canal – three large scale projects, among many, that promise development but could wreak havoc on indigenous peoples’ right to food, to water, to adequate housing, to land, to free, prior and informed consent, to self-determination and to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, land and livelihood.

Diversified local strategies 

The WCIP outcome document reiterates the commitments of states to acknowledge and advance indigenous peoples’ rights to land. Some countries are already taking steps in this direction. Indonesia, which is home to up to 70 million indigenous peoples, has seen positive development in regards to clarification of land rights and the solving of land disputes. On the backdrop of continued land grabbing and human rights violations related to land disputes, many of which involve indigenous peoples, the Indonesian government has launched a ‘one-map’ initiative to make one standardised national map and include cross-sectorial data into a single, open portal. Indigenous peoples have since 2013 been collecting geospatial data and mapping their traditional territories, and in 2014, maps covering 4,8 million hectares of indigenous land were accepted into the One-Map initiative, thus making way for greater recognition of indigenous peoples’ land rights and greater inclusion of indigenous peoples in land related decision-making processes.

In Paraguay, while the economic policy favours a continuation of displacements of indigenous communities, indigenous peoples are seeking legal assistance to reclaim land. In 2014, the Sawhoyamaxa community won back its traditional territory. 30 years since their land was unlawfully appropriated by cattle ranchers and eight years after a favourable ruling on their case by the Inter-American Court, the Paraguayan Supreme Court finally confirmed the expropriation and return of the 14.000 ha land to the community. This is an example on how indigenous peoples in the Americas are increasingly seeking redress of violations committed against their right to land and territories through the Inter-American Human Rights, but the case also points to the pitfalls in a system that ultimately relies on the good will of the national government for implementation.

In Cambodia, disillusioned as to the state´s willingness to protect their rights, the indigenous movement now directly targets the finance institution behind the land grabs. So far this seems like a promising strategy, yet it requires the particular company or finance institution to actually care for its public image. It is therefore key to uphold the pressure on states to guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples in relation to business interventions. As indigenous peoples are one of the groups most at risk of business-related human rights violations, it is imperative, that National Action Plans on Business and Human Rights include specific targets and measures introducing robust safeguards for indigenous peoples’ rights, including improved access to justice in home states of transnational corporation, and recognition of their customary laws and land rights.2

Repression of civil society 

The ever more brutal race for land and natural resources, spurred by greed but explained as necessity, marketed as development but resulting in inequality, is opening a broad range of local battle fields where indigenous peoples keep fighting back to save their territory, their environment, their culture and their survival as peoples.

With such great economic interests at stake, many States take unsavoury measures to silence criticism and alternative visions for development from indigenous peoples.

As reported in several of this year’s articles, private investments and national development strategies are often backed by the military, the police or paramilitary groups. Harassment of indigenous peoples, violent evictions, and even murder of indigenous human rights defenders occur with impunity while their forest is cleared away at unprecedented rates.

Several articles also highlight the special vulnerabilities of indigenous girls and women in relation to loss of land, militarization and violent conflicts. In for example Bangladesh, where transmigration programmes illegally settling Bengalis in the Chittagong Hill Tracts have been backed up by military forces since the mid-1970s, the mixture of land grabbing and militarization has deeply affected the safety and security of indigenous women and girls.3 In 2014 alone, 122 indigenous women and girls were victims of violence while their perpetrators have enjoyed near complete impunity.

Less brutal, but just as effective, are administrative measures to restrict the working of indigenous organisations and the freedom of expression of indigenous human rights defenders. In 2014, the hindering of several indigenous representatives from the Russian federation to participate in the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples in New York, drew international attention as it was denounced from the podium of the UN by the Presidents of Finland and Estonia, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the Chair of the UN Permanent Forum at the Opening Plenary of the General Assembly on 22 September. Back home in Russia, however, the repression of indigenous civil society organisations continued.

After having co-opted the national indigenous umbrella organisations RAIPON in 2013 and required NGO’s engaged in political activity and receiving foreign funding to register as “foreign agents,” in 2014, the Federal Government took additional measures to limit the right to free association of indigenous peoples, when, in December, it decreed that the authorities could unilaterally register political NGOs. Apart from heavily stigmatising the legitimate political agenda of these organisations (which include professional associations of e.g. hunters and reindeer herders), the label as “foreign agent” entails being put under extremely close scrutiny by the authorities and being subjected to a range of additional restrictions and administrative obligations.

Also in Algeria, the law on associations, adopted in December 2011, is beginning to have an effect in terms of restricting Amazigh freedoms. Particularly the requirement to communicate solely in Arabic and the ban on any relationship with Amazigh associations abroad or foreign NGOs, is repressing the legitimate Amazigh protest against lack of benefits from resource extraction and the increasing militarization of their traditional territories.

Ethiopia is another country where land grabbing by foreign investors goes hand in hand with state repression of civil society. Here, legal restrictions on freedom of association and speech are impeding the indigenous peoples from formally organising to lobby the Ethiopian government to live up to regional human rights standards on indigenous peoples.


The WCIP outcome document is an important step forward in the affirmation of indigenous peoples’ rights as enshrined in the UNDRIP. However, the real value of the document is still to be seen, as its implementation will require political will from States and a coordinated lobby action from indigenous peoples to ensure that the commitments are followed up at the international and national level.

There is no doubt that the commitment expressed by States to develop national action plans should be prioritized and pushed forward by indigenous peoples at the country level and this will show whether or not States are ready to translate the good intentions expressed in the outcome document about the protection of indigenous peoples rights into concrete results.

An urgent task for States is to ensure that the Post 2015 development agenda and the new Sustainable Development Goals respect the contribution of indigenous peoples to ecosystem management and sustainable development and give due consideration to all the rights of indigenous peoples, including their right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development.

The UN also has a great task ahead to implement and normalise its commitments throughout the organisation. One example is the World Bank, whose draft environmental and social standards (ESS) 7, presented in July 2014, outline the future policy of the Bank in relation to indigenous peoples. On the positive side, the draft reinforces the right of indigenous peoples to grant or withhold their free, prior and informed consent and increases protection against forced evictions. On the negative side, diluted safeguards are established in several key areas. Paragraph 9 of ESS7 contains a clause that allows governments to opt not to apply and adopt an “alternative approach” in case the application of the ESS could create a serious risk of increased ethnic tensions and civil strife, or when the identification of various cultural groups as outlined in the ESS is not consistent with the provisions of the national constitution. This clause is a trap of incredible magnitude and has been widely criticized because it will effectively allow the Bank and its borrowers to ignore its own policy on indigenous peoples and the provisions of the UNDRIP in countries where indigenous peoples are not officially recognised.4 

Another case of great concern remains the need for the World Heritage Convention to be aligned with the UNDRIP and for the Convention’s Operational Guidelines to be amended accordingly. Despite increased focus on indigenous peoples rights on the part of UNESCO in recent years, nomination, establishments and management of World Heritage Sites on indigenous peoples’ lands and territories are, as reflected in several of this year’s articles, still taking place without the full and effective participation or the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples.5


Cæcilie Mikkelsen

Orla Bakdal


Copenhagen, April 2015


Notes and references

1 W. Anseeuw, Alden Wily, L. Cotula, and M. Taylor, 2012: Land Rights and the Rush for Land. International Land Coalition: Rome

2 See also: Johannes Rohr & José Aylwin, 2014: Business and Human Rights: Interpreting the UN Guiding Principles for Indigenous IWGIA Report 16. IWGIA and the European Network for Indigenous Peoples (ENIP): Copenhagen.

3 See also: Dr Bina d’ Costa, 2014: Marginalisation and Impunity - Violence Against Women and Girls in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. Chittagong Hill Tracts Commission (CHTC), IWGIA, and Bangladesh Indigenous Women’s Network: Available for download on

4 Read more at: bank-environmental-and-social-safeguard-policies

5 See also: Stefan Disko and Helen Tugendhat, 2014: World Heritage Sites and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights. IWGIA, Forest Peoples Programme and the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation: Copenhagen


This article is part of the 29th edition of The Indigenous World, a yearly overview produced by IWGIA that serves to document and report on the developments Indigenous Peoples have experienced. Find The Indigenous World 2015 in full here

Tags: Global governance, IWGIA Report



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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