• International Processes and Initiatives

Indigenous World 2020: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Indigenous Peoples

Since the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the UN General Assembly in September 2015, Indigenous Peoples have been engaging in national, regional and global processes related to the SDGs. The main objective is to promote the recognition, protection and realisation of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, wellbeing and dignity, and to enhance their contributions to sustainable development.

The long-term perspective is to include their perspective and initiatives and thereby advance their self-determined sustainable development. This report is focused on key global developments relevant to Indigenous Peoples and the SDGs, including the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), which is the global review process of the SDGs that is held every July at the UN Headquarters in New York. The Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development (IPMG) coordinates the engagement of Indigenous Peoples in the HLPF and related processes.

The High-Level Political Forum 2019

The theme of the HLPF in 2019  was “Empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality”. The SDGs in focus were:

  • Goal 4: Quality Education for all;
  • Goal 8: Economic Growth and Decent Work;
  • Goal 10: Reducing inequality within and between countries; and
  • Goal 13: Climate Action.

Of the 47 countries that presented their Voluntary National Review (VNR) in 2019, there were 18 countries with Indigenous Peoples.

The HLPF 2019 was attended by 28 Indigenous Peoples representatives, including representatives from 11 of the VNR countries. They were able to speak and present the statements prepared by the IPMG in a number of sessions relating to the focus SDGs. Likewise, Indigenous representatives spoke in three side events, in the main SDG media zone, and all Indigenous representatives participated in the moderated discussions in the Indigenous Media Zone, which was streamed through social media. In addition to the statements, a thematic report was also produced by the IPMG to present the realities on the ground regarding continued discrimination, marginalisation and exclusion of Indigenous Peoples, as well as highlighting the contributions and initiatives of Indigenous Peoples for sustainable development.

The statement by the IPMG on Goal 16 stressed that:

The recurrent violation of the rights of Indigenous Peoples increases the inequality and discrimination suffered by Indigenous Peoples. What is happening in Brazil reflects the experience of millions of Indigenous Peoples around the world. The defense of our rights results in persecution, criminalisation and assassinations, and other gross human rights violations against our leaders and communities. For Indigenous Peoples, Goal 16 should be translated into concrete actions to ensure the respect and protection of our rights and our access to justice. This includes the security and peace in our territories and an end to criminalisation. The international community needs to uphold its obligation to ensure the protection of our territories and resources and treat us with respect, dignity and equity to ensure the future of the planet and the people

Further, the Indigenous Peoples representative who spoke in the session on Goal 16 added that the lack of citizenship, legal recognition and social protection measures for Indigenous Peoples remain barriers for the meaningful participation and inclusion of Indigenous Peoples in the SDGs.   

On Economic Growth and Decent Work (Goal 8), Indigenous representatives stressed that decent work implies the recognition and protection of our sustainable traditional occupations, such as farming, seed preservation, shifting cultivation, hunting and fishing, which integrates the transmission of Indigenous knowledge. These sustainable occupations contribute to Indigenous Peoples’ livelihood and food security, cultural diversity, and strengthening Indigenous institutions, social values of cooperation and collective management of resources. Therefore, their traditional occupation is an integral part of the identity and dignity of Indigenous Peoples, which needs to be protected and integrated in the implementation of the SDGs with the pledge of leaving no one behind.

In relation to the Agenda on Financing the SDGs, the IPMG highlighted that the priority of states for public-private partnerships (PPPs) to drive economic growth is causing massive land and resource grabs. As these PPPs are not based on the respect and protection of our rights and for social equity, they push Indigenous Peoples further behind. This includes financing for basic social services, including renewable energy, which hardly reaches Indigenous Peoples, particularly those in remote areas.

At the 2019 HLPF session on the VNRs, only one Indigenous Peoples representative was able to make a statement on behalf of all the Major Groups and Stakeholders. While many of the VNRs acknowledge “marginalised groups” as those left behind, most states do not provide mechanisms for their meaningful participation. There are also no specific plans, targets and budgets to address the specific condition of Indigenous Peoples. In fact, most countries with Indigenous Peoples neither mentioned Indigenous Peoples as distinct groups nor did they make reference to their collective rights and contributions to sustainable development. Further, there is a continuing lack of awareness on the SDGs at the grassroots level, including by Indigenous communities who face serious risks to their rights and wellbeing in the implementation of economic growth targets in the implementation of the SDGs.   

Four Years of SDG Implementation

According to the Global Sustainable Development Report (GSDR) in 2019, the world is not on track for achieving the 17 SDGs and the 169 targets. “Just over 10 years remain to achieve the 2030 Agenda, but no country is yet convincingly able to meet a set of basic human needs at a globally sustainable level of resource use.” The recent trends in fact illustrate rising inequalities, climate change, biodiversity loss and increasing amounts of waste from human activity. “Recent assessments show that, under current trends, the world’s social and natural biophysical systems cannot support the aspirations for universal human well-being embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Further, the 2019 GSDR made explicit reference to Indigenous Peoples.  It highlights the continuing “discrimination and exclusion from political and economic power with disproportionately high rates of poverty, ill health, poor education and destitution. Additional challenges include dispossession of ancestral lands and the threat of extinction of traditional languages and identities”. It further stresses that:

individual and collective land rights are important for the improved resilience of Indigenous Peoples, women and other vulnerable groups. Currently, 2.5 billion people worldwide live on and use land to which they have no secure legal rights, with much of this land used by communities and claimed through customary means. Nature managed by Indigenous Peoples and local communities is under increasing pressure. At least a quarter of the global land area is traditionally owned, managed, used or occupied by Indigenous Peoples. Those areas include approximately 35 per cent of the area that is formally protected and approximately 35 per cent of all remaining terrestrial areas with very low human intervention.

In relation to climate change, this report states that: many Indigenous Peoples do not possess the financial resources or technological capacity required for climate change adaptation. However, women, Indigenous Peoples and other vulnerable communities can be powerful agents of change when included in the design of solutions, since they are the first-hand witnesses of climate change impacts.

The 2019 GDSR affirms the findings and claims made by the  IPMG and other Indigenous organisations, networks and advocates. After four years of implementation of the SDGs,  Indigenous Peoples remain not only furthest behind in terms of poverty reduction and access to appropriate social services, among others, but also continue to suffer from land dispossession, rising inequalities, climate change, forest degradation, loss of biodiversity, conflicts on resource-use and development, and lack of access to justice. At the same time, their contributions to sustainable development as agents of change and the persistence of their sustainable lifeways, knowledge, skills and values as critical to advancing sustainable development are not protected and supported. On the contrary, Indigenous Peoples’ sustainable livelihoods and legitimate actions to defend their rights to lands, territories and resources are being criminalised with increasing cases of persecution, extra-judicial killings and other gross human rights violations. This illustrates the huge gap in the respect, protection and realisation of the rights and wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples across the globe in relation to the implementation of the SDGs. This is despite the pledge of “leaving no one behind” and the commitment of states to respect and protect Indigenous Peoples rights as imperative to achieving the SDGs.

As the UN declared a Decade of Action (2020 to 2030) to achieve the SDGs, this should result in transformational changes on the ground, including the reversal of negative trends such as rising inequalities, climate change, biodiversity loss and increasing amounts of waste from human consumption. All these have serious implications for the wellbeing and rights of Indigenous Peoples. It is thus important for Indigenous Peoples to engage with the SDG processes at all levels for the recognition and protection of their rights and wellbeing, including in advancing their self-determined development.

The High-Level Political Forum 2020

The Theme of the 2020 HLPF is “Accelerated action and transformative pathways: realizing the decade of action and delivery for sustainable development”. Starting this year, until 2024, the format of the thematic discussions will not be on four selected SDGs but will follow the proposed entry points and levers for change identified in the 2019 GSDR 2019. The six entry points are:

  1. Welfare and human capabilities;
  2. Sustainable and fair economies;
  3. Sustainable food systems and healthy nutrition patterns;
  4. 4.The decarbonisation of energy and universal access to energy;
  5. Sustainable urban and peri-urban development; and
  6. Security of the global environmental commons.

The four levers of change are:

  1. Government;
  2. Economics and finance;
  3. Individual and collective action; and
  4. Science and technology.

Through these entry points and levers, it is expected that the presentations and discussions will focus more on the interlinkages of the goals and targets in achieving the SDGs, and on actions on key drivers of change as the four levers. For example, the entry point on Welfare and Human Capabilities will include Goal 1 on ending poverty, Goal 4 on Education for all, Goal 5 on gender Equality, Goal 10 on reducing inequality and Goal 16 on Peace, justice and strong institutions. The key elements of these entry points and levers are provided in the 2019 GSDR.

As part of the HLPF, 50 countries have committed to present their VNRs on the national implementation of the SDGs. Of these countries, 24 have Indigenous Peoples, which are Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo – DRC, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, Zambia and  Zimbabwe from Africa; Bangladesh, India and Nepal from Asia; Finland from the Arctic; Argentina, Belize, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama and Peru from Latin America and the Caribbean; Papua New Guinea, Samoa and Solomon Islands from the Pacific; and Russia from Eastern Europe. Kenya, Bangladesh, Finland, Nepal and Peru are reporting for the second time, while the rest are reporting for the first time.

As 24 countries with Indigenous Peoples will present their report on the implementation of the SDGs at the HLPF 2020, it is important for Indigenous Peoples in these countries to engage with their respective states and demand consultations and participation in decision-making in relation to the implementation of the SDGs. It is critical for Indigenous Peoples to be reflected in the national SDG action plans with specific measures and strategies to fully address the structural barriers and challenges they face in order to ensure the respect, protection and realization of their rights, wellbeing and aspirations for sustainable development as distinct peoples.

Article prepared by Joan Carling, Co-convener, Indigenous Peoples’ Major Group on the SDGs.


This article is part of the 34th edition of the 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 2020 in full here

Tags: Global governance



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

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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