Thousands gather as annual indigenous forum kicks off at UN Headquarters

Participants at the seventh session of Forum on Indigenous Issues

21 April 2008 – The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues meets at “a historic crossroads,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the opening session today as some 3,300 participants from around the world converged on UN Headquarters in New York for the two-week event.

Last year’s adoption by world leaders of the landmark UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples means this year’s Permanent Forum – established in 2000 – is taking on a new role, Mr. Ban said in a video message.

“You will work to translate the Declaration into a living document at the national and international levels,” he said. “As you do, you will promote the UN development agenda and its vision of development for all. This includes the poorest and most vulnerable, a group to which many indigenous peoples belong.”

The Declaration, a non-binding text that was adopted after two decades of debate, outlines the rights of the world’s estimated 370 million indigenous people and outlaws discrimination against them. It sets out rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues.

Climate change is the special theme of this year’s session of the Forum, a choice applauded by the Secretary-General.

“Indigenous peoples live in many of the world’s most biologically diverse areas. As custodians of these lands, they have accumulated deep, first-hand knowledge about the impacts of environmental degradation, including climate change. They know the economic and social consequences, and they can and should play a role in the global response.”

Mr. Ban also welcomed the focus this session on several other issues and challenges, including the Pacific region and the need to protect and promote indigenous languages.

“Indigenous languages represent an overwhelming majority of all languages spoken today, with most facing the threat of extinction.”

Jomo Kwame Sundaram, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, said the high interest in the event this year pointed to increasing awareness of indigenous peoples’ issues.

“The Forum is thus fulfilling its mandate to make the challenges, opportunities and good practices in this field more visible, for public policy and for action,” he said.

The participants at the Forum, a subsidiary of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), include senior UN officials and representatives of States, civil society and academia, as well as Bolivian President Evo Morales Ayma, the first indigenous leader of his country.

Briefing journalists outside the Forum today, its Chairperson Victoria Tauli-Corpuz said indigenous peoples have long been aware of the perils caused by climate change, often even before scientists because of their close connection to the land.

Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said the increasing popularity of mono-crop plantations, so the crops can be harvested for biofuel products, was harming indigenous peoples by clearing land, cutting down forests and displacing local communities on a large scale.

She also expressed concern that many indigenous peoples around the world were being excluded from governments’ decision-making processes about the mitigation of, and adaption to, climate change, such as the creation and use of carbon sinks.

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