The Indigenous World 2008: Editorial

The Indigenous World 2008: Editorial

With the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on 13 September, 2007 has become a milestone in the history of indigenous peoples’ struggles for their rights and recognition at international level. The Declaration had been discussed for more than 20 years in the former Commission on Human Rights and, later, in the General Assembly, and was passed with 144 votes in favor, 11 abstentions and 4 votes against.

The text recognises a wide range of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms to indigenous peoples. Among these are the right to self-determination, an inalienable collective right to the ownership, use and control of lands, territories and other natural resources, rights in terms of maintaining and developing their own political, religious, cultural and educational institutions, and protection of their cultural and intellectual property. The Declaration highlights the requirement for prior and informed consultation, participation and consent in activities of any kind that impact on indigenous peoples, their property or territories. It also establishes the requirement for fair and adequate compensation for violation of the rights recognised in the Declaration and establishes measures to prevent ethnocide and genocide.

Indigenous peoples celebrated the adoption of the Declaration and used this historic moment to draw attention to their situation and raise awareness within their home countries. Many of the articles in this Yearbook thus reflect the national and local importance of the Declaration. It remains to be seen how governments and international institutions will follow-up on adoption of the Declaration and whether others will follow the example of Bolivia and transpose the declaration into national law. Unfortunately, some governments that voted in favor of the Declaration, such as Thailand for example, have already announced that the Declaration will only be implemented if subordinate to the laws and constitution of the country. The major challenge will be to put the Declaration into practice, to gain respect for and implement indigenous peoples’ rights in all aspects of society and life.

In Latin America, and particularly in Ecuador and Bolivia, a tendency to include indigenous peoples’ concerns in constitutional revisions can be observed. In Bolivia, the indigenous movement played an important role and contributed significantly to the constitutional process throughout 2007 and the ratification and transposition of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples into national law allowed the strengthening of indigenous issues in the Constitution (see this volume). In Nepal (this volume), a country that ratified ILO Convention 169 in 2007, indigenous peoples tried to become involved in the constitutional developments throughout 2007. Unfortunately, an Interim Constitution signed in November did not adequately reflect indigenous peoples’ rights and this led to protests by the indigenous movement. It is to be hoped, however, that the Declaration will play a role in future constitutional and legal developments and will thereby have a concrete impact on indigenous rights at national level.

One of the important principles of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and one that is mentioned in many of the articles in this volume, is free, prior and informed consent. Many country reports demonstrate that this principle is central to indigenous peoples’ rights and well-being. It is therefore crucial that it should be actively implemented and included not only in the policies of states but also in those of industry and of financial institutions such as the World Bank. Furthermore, and above all, any projects that have an impact on indigenous peoples’ lands need to take indigenous peoples’ collective rights to their lands and resources into consideration. And yet numerous examples show that states and industries do not prioritise this principle and, indeed, proceed with development projects on indigenous lands without consulting the people living on and from the land that they will affect. Natural resource use is expanding and indigenous peoples the world over live on lands rich in minerals, oil and gas and/or covered with forests. Many indigenous peoples are therefore affected by mining, hydroelectric dams, fossil fuel development, logging and agro-plantations, as well as tourism. The impact of natural resource development on indigenous peoples’ lands, lives and well-being is illustrated in every article of this book.

At its 6th session in May 2007, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues urged states to take measures to halt land alienation on indigenous territories through, for example, a moratorium on the sale and registration of land - including the granting of land and other concessions - in areas occupied by indigenous peoples. It also reaffirmed indigenous peoples’ central role in decision-making with regard to their lands and resources (UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, this volume).

At the same time, indigenous peoples are increasingly affected by a worldwide trend towards protecting the environment. The creation of national parks, conservation areas, wildlife protection and other measures can have a significant impact on indigenous peoples living on that land. The case of the violent eviction of pastoralists from their traditional lands in the Usangu plains in Tanzania due to the creation of a national park to protect a water catchment area, which is providing water for a hydropower plant, illustrates just such a case and is well described in this volume. This example also shows that environmental measures are often directly related to development or industrial projects. Other cases of displacement due to hydroelectric dams are described in the articles on Panama and Russia. Article 10 of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that “no relocation shall take place without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples concerned….” Unfortunately, as readers of The Indigenous World 2008 will learn, relocation, resettlement and expulsion from their lands is a very common and widespread reality for indigenous peoples. Without their prior and informed consent, and without the real participation of indigenous peoples, who are the traditional owners of these lands, these people will also face further impoverishment, loss of culture and a decrease in their living standards in the future.

Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge and their participation in policy development and their consent to any development taking place on their lands is of increasing importance in the current discussions on climate change. Indigenous peoples have shown remarkable capacity to adapt to a changing environment. Indigenous peoples interpret and respond to climate change in creative ways, drawing on their traditional knowledge of the natural resource base and other technologies to find solutions.

International and national climate change research and mitigation strategies, however, most often do not take indigenous interests into consideration and overlook their rights to their lands, thereby directly posing a threat to indigenous peoples’ territories. Hydro-electric developments may form part of a government’s mitigation strategy whilst at the same time leading to displacement, as the Tanzania case illustrates. Mono-crop plantations for bio-fuels affect the ecosystem, the water supply and the whole anatomy of the landscape on which indigenous peoples depend and this will be one of the biggest threats to indigenous peoples’ livelihoods in the future. As the article on Indonesia shows, the various mitigation schemes appear to be a bigger threat to indigenous communities than climate change itself.

To indigenous peoples, climate change is not simply a matter of physical changes to the environments in which they live. It also brings additional vulnerabilities and adds to existing challenges, including political and economic marginalization, land and resource encroachment, human rights violations and discrimination. The potential threat of climate change to their very existence, combined with various legal and institutional barriers that affect their ability to cope with and adapt to climate change, makes climate change an issue of human rights and inequality to indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately, having made considerable progress within the human rights bodies, the international arena lags behind in including indigenous voices in the discussions on climate change. This became clear during the 13th Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 13) in Bali, where indigenous peoples’ representatives were not allowed to present their statement at the opening ceremony. Hopefully, the thematic focus on climate change of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2008 will provide support to indigenous peoples’ voices, at least at UN level.

The climate change issue, as a human rights issue, may also be a topic to be considered by a new human rights mechanism within the UN. The UN Human Rights Council decided in December 2007 to establish an “Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples”. The new mechanism will consist of five independent experts on indigenous peoples’ rights and will report directly to the Human Rights Council. This Council will be a forum in which indigenous peoples will have the possibility of reporting on their experiences of the severe marginalisation, discrimination and human rights abuses they still suffer and to which this volume also bears witness.



Kathrin Wessendorf



Lola García-Alix



April 2008


This article is part of the 22nd 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 2008 in full here

Tags: Human rights, 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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