Indigenous World 2019: The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous Peoples have been engaging in the global processes relating to sustainable development since the Rio Summit on Development in 1992, and during the process of negotiations which led to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, known as the Sustainable Development Goals, which was adopted in 2015. This global agreement, which calls for “leaving no one behind”, is for implementation at the local and national levels. Further, there are national, regional and global review processes which track progress and document challenges in its implementation.

The HLPF is the main United Nations platform on sustainable development and it has a central role in the follow-up and review of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the global level. The Forum meets annually under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council for eight days, including a three-day ministerial segment and every four years with Heads of State and Government under the auspices of the General Assembly for two days.

The main engagement mechanism for the engagement of indigenous peoples is the Indigenous Peoples’ Major Group (IPMG). Through the sustained engagement of the IPMG, there are significant advances in the inclusion of indigenous peoples in the related global Declarations, regional and national reports, though much is yet to be done to ensure the respect, recognition and realization of the rights of indigenous peoples, their contributions and aspirations and self-determined development.

The High-Level Political Forum 2018:  Raising the visibility of indigenous peoples

The theme of the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), held in New York in July 2018 was “Transformation towards sustainable and resilient societies. Forty-six countries presented their Voluntary National Reviews (VNR) of which 12 have indigenous peoples.[1] The HLPF also reviewed the implementation of six (6)  out of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals: Water and sanitation for all (SDG 6); sustainable and modern energy for all (SDG 7); cities and human settlements (SDG 11); sustainable consumption and production patterns (SDG 12); sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss (SDG 15); and global partnership for sustainable development (SDG 17).[2]

The Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development (IPMG) coordinated the participation of 47 indigenous representatives (29 women and 18 men) from 25 countries to the 2018 HLPF. Indigenous representatives were able to read the IPMG statements for the six focus SDGs during the plenary sessions, while one representative was a discussant on the session on Goal 7 (modern energy for all). Further, three indigenous representatives from Mexico, Paraguay, and Colombia presented the joint Major Groups intervention during the VNR of their respective counties.

Indigenous peoples from seven (7) countries (Lao PDR, Vietnam, Mali, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay) also prepared their reports with concrete recommendations for the meaningful inclusion of indigenous in SDG national plans and strategies including the respect and protection of their rights, aspirations and wellbeing. The IPMG in collaboration with others also published and distributed Policy Briefing papers on two SDGs: SDG 15 on Conservation of Forest and Biodiversity and Goal 7 (Modern Energy for all). Further, the IPMG also coordinated the preparation of five regional reports on Indigenous Peoples’ Lands, Territories and Resources and Sustainable Development, from Asia, North America, Pacific, Russia and Latin America.[3]

As part of raising the visibility of Indigenous Peoples, the indigenous media zone was set-up with 12 brief panel discussions by indigenous leaders, UN agencies, advocates and government (Canada) speaking on the conditions, challenges, aspirations, gaps, recommendations and initiatives of indigenous peoples relating to sustainable development. These discussion events were put on social media (Facebook live streaming), gaining more than 100,000 views. Likewise, one side event was co-organized by the IPMG on the Status of Indigenous Peoples’ Lands, Territories and resources and Sustainable Development wherein the regional reports prepared by indigenous peoples on this critical issue were presented. Indigenous leaders were also speakers in three side events organized by other organizations and institutions and the press conference organized by the UNPF secretariat. A learning session on leaving no one Behind:  Sharing major groups and other stakeholders good practices for an inclusive implementation of the 2030 Agenda was also co-organized by the IPMG with different institutions including the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Danish Institute for Human Rights, Plan International, and the Global Platform for the Right to the City.

During the high level briefing to Member States and the launch of policy briefs on SDG7 and its interlinkages with other SDGs, the  IPMG delivered a statement emphasizing that the implementation of Goal 7 (modern energy for all) should be guided by clear policies on the respect and protection of human rights, ensure equitable benefits for communities, and mechanisms for participation and inclusion of indigenous peoples and marginalized groups in the planning (including decision-making), implementation and monitoring of them. The representative from Denmark appreciated the statement and recommended for the inclusion of human rights in the implementation of SDG7.

Launching of the Right Energy Partnership:

Based on the report prepared by the IPMG on Indigenous Peoples and Renewable Energy, a concept note on the establishment of the Right Energy Partnership was prepared and circulated to indigenous organizations and key potential partners from May to July 2018. This initiative was    successfully launched on the side of the HLPF in New York in cooperation with the European Commission. This event was attended by more than 60 participants, and several institutions expressed their support to this initiative including the European Commission (EC), The UN Development Programme (UNDP), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the Climate  Justice and Resilience Fund, the Danish Institute for Human Rights (DIHR), the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, the Columbia Center for Sustainable Investment, and Jeffrey Sachs of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network,  among others.

The Right Energy Partnership (REP) is an open multi-stakeholder partnership led by indigenous peoples. It is underpinned by a rights-based approach to renewable energy development, indigenous women and community empowerment, and equitable benefit-sharing. It aims to deliver renewable energy to 50 million indigenous peoples across the globe by 2030. This Partnership  provides  a  win-win solution for people and the planet through its contributions to achieving sustainable development that integrates actions to combat climate change ( Goal 10), end poverty and hunger ( SDG 1 & 2); empowerment of women ( Goal 5), economic growth and decent work (Goal 8)  protection of forest and biodiversity (Goal 15)  in addition to access to modern energy (Goal 7) among other multiple benefits.

Outcomes of the HLPF relating to indigenous peoples:

Through the engagement of indigenous peoples, and by gaining support from states and development actors at different levels of the SDG processes (national, regional and global), key UN Documents on the SDGs have increased reference to indigenous peoples and relevant concerns.

The Ministerial Declaration of the HLPF 2018[4] which is the key outcome document of the HLPF includes the following paragraph, which is particularly relevant for Indigenous Peoples:

Leaving no one behind requires addressing the specific needs of people in vulnerable situations but also supporting their empowerment and participation in decision-making that affects their lives. Those whose needs are reflected in the 2030 Agenda include […] indigenous peoples. Emphasize that universal respect for human rights and human dignity, peace, justice, equality and non-discrimination is central to our commitment to leaving no one behind. Our commitment also includes respect for race, ethnicity and cultural diversity, and equal opportunity, permitting the full realization of human potential and contributing to shared prosperity.

Likewise, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) President’s Summary of the 2018 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development also included highly significant and critical references to indigenous peoples. The relevant findings and recommendations were:

  • To strengthen collaboration at the bilateral, regional and global levels for capacity-building and sharing of best practices for collecting, producing, disseminating, analysing and using quality data and statistics, disaggregated by income, sex, age, race, ethnicity, migration status, disability, geographical location and other characteristics relevant in national contexts.
  • Strengthening statistics on vulnerable groups such as women, children and youth, aging, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities will require more and better data, as well as improved use of existing data. Data should therefore be accessible and readable by policy makers. It is important to consider cultural differences, contexts and starting points, embrace innovation and organization, and ensure legislative access.
  • Indigenous peoples are also disproportionately suffering from a lack of recognition of their rights in some countries, and meaningful consultations are often the exception rather than the rule
  • Certain populations remain at high risk of being left behind, including women and girls, children and youth, aging, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities
  • Strengthening of global partnerships that address the challenges of LDCs, LLDCs and MICs to benefit all persons—particularly children and youth, aging, women, older persons, persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples, and migrants.
  • Synergies between modern and indigenous knowledge are important, and interdisciplinary science should incorporate indigenous knowledge more fully. Mobilizing STI to reach those furthest behind requires better identification of people at risk, in order to understand their needs. IT infrastructure can help to increase connectivity and reach isolated areas.
  • Emphasized the role of local governments, local communities and indigenous people in water resources management
  • All countries referred to the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement and the need to include women, ethnic minorities, elderly people, people with disabilities, and indigenous peoples.
  • to ensure that custodians of terrestrial ecosystems were not forgotten in the implementation of SDG 15, and stressed the need to empower rural women, respect the rights and knowledge of indigenous peoples, and engage youth and other excluded or marginalized groups in the context of policy planning and implementation, to increase the sustainable management of resources and ensure sustainable livelihoods. Governments were called upon to better monitor, assess and ensure sustainable livelihoods.

Reference to Indigenous Peoples in the Voluntary National Reviews (VNR)[5]:

Several Country reports mentioned that indigenous peoples are part of those who are being left behind. This includes the countries of Canada, Paraguay, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Vietnam (as Ethnic Minorities) and Australia.

  • Canada acknowledges the inequitable and unfair treatment of indigenous peoples and commits to develop, in full partnership with First Nations, Inuit and Métis to better align laws and policies with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the implementation of a Right Framework to the SDGs. It also commits to undertake actions to improve primary and secondary education on reserves.
  • Paraguay claims to be in the process of developing a National Plan for Indigenous Peoples (Plan National de Pueblos Indígenas), based on several rounds of consultations with indigenous communities.
  • Ecuador highlights the need to provide incentives to indigenous peoples who voluntarily commit themselves to food production, conservation and the protection of native forests, thereby protecting ecosystems important for biodiversity and food security.
  • Mexico acknowledges that over 70 per cent of indigenous peoples are considered either poor or extremely poor. It provided details on several measures taken to improve their situation, for instance through the Indigenous Infrastructure Program
  • Viet Nam stated that disaggregated data on ethnic minorities allowed it to identify vulnerable sub-groups requiring policy action
  • Australia stated that its government is committed to recognizing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in their Constitution and highlights that all 17 SDGs are significant for these communities. Indigenous procurement policies were put in place to help support and grow Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander businesses around the country and promote economic inclusion and resilience in disadvantaged communities.

Progress, gaps and continuing challenges:

While there were significant advances in making indigenous peoples more visible based on the outcomes of the HLPF 2018 as evidenced above, serious gaps remain in the meaningful and substantive inclusion of indigenous peoples in the SDGs. While there is increasing  acknowledgement of indigenous peoples as  part of those left behind  and  more commitments were made to ensure  inclusion of indigenous peoples, these are still to be translated into concrete actions, measures and specific and targeted programmes to address the barriers, root causes, needs and priorities of indigenous peoples in line with the recognition, protection and realization of their rights, their self-determined development and wellbeing. Further, the contributions of indigenous peoples to sustainable development are also not fully acknowledged and enhanced.

The recognition and protection of the right of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources as imperative to achieving the SDGs remain a central concern as land dispossession and destruction are taking place, and conflicts are escalating including the killing and criminalization of indigenous human rights defenders. Further, most of the national action plans and strategies of countries with indigenous peoples are designed and implemented without the meaningful participation of indigenous peoples. Thereby, their needs, priorities and perspectives are not incorporated, and they continue to face the serious risk of not only being left behind, but also pushed behind due to proposed ambitious plans for economic growth and development that are not anchored on human rights protection.

It is thereby necessary for indigenous peoples to intensify their capacity building efforts to promote and protect their rights and wellbeing; increase solidarity, collaboration and partnerships with other rights holders and development actors; and strengthen indigenous movements at all levels to advance their self-determined development. Further, it is also critical at this juncture to gather and consolidate in one unified global platform the engagement of indigenous peoples in different processes including climate change, biodiversity and human rights to ensure complementarity, synergies and concerted actions in these interrelated processes.[6]

Notes and references

[1] See the VNR Synthesis Compilation. Available at:

[2] See the President’s Summary of the 2018 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development. Available at:

[3] See the Statements and Publications of the IPMG for the HLPF-2018 at  

[4] See the Ministerial Declaration of the HLPF-2018 at

[5] See the Synthesis of Main Messages submitted by the countries conducting voluntary national reviews at the 2018 High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development at

[6] Further information on the Indigenous Peoples’ and the SDGs can be found in the website of the IPMG. Available at:

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


Tags: Global governance



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