UN Cyberschoolbus - HomeUN Cyberschoolbus - Home

Background on Indigenous Peoples

  1. Unique and Distinct
  2. There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in more than 70 countries worldwide representing approximately 4% of the world’s population. Indigenous peoples live in every region of the world. They live in climates ranging from Arctic cold to Amazon heat, and often claim a deep connection to their lands and natural environments.

  3. Defining “Indigenous”
  4. In every region of the world, many different cultural groups live together and interact, but not all of these groups are considered indigenous to their particular geographic area. In some parts of Asia and Africa the term “ethnic groups” or “ethnic minorities” is used by governments to refer to certain groups of people living within their borders who have identified themselves as “indigenous.”

    Although there has been considerable debate on the meaning of “indigenous peoples”, no definition has ever been adopted by any UN-system body. In absence of a consensus on the meaning of this term, Jose R. Martinez Cobo, the Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, has offered a working definition of “indigenous communities, peoples and nations”. An excerpt from the working definition reads as follows:

    Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

    Among many indigenous peoples of the Americas are the Mayas of Guatemala and the Aymaras of Bolivia; the Inuit and Aleutians of the circumpolar region, the Saami of northern Europe; the Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders of Australia; and the Maori of New Zealand. These, like most other indigenous peoples, have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics, which are clearly distinct from those of the other segments of the national populations.

    For many indigenous peoples, the natural world is a valued source of food, health, spirituality and identity. Land is both a critical resource that sustains life and a major cause of struggle and death. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples including their rights to culture, identity, language, employment, health, education and other issues that will be discussed during the 2007 UN Student Conference on Human Rights.

  5. Impact of Colonization
  6. Throughout human history, whenever neighbouring peoples have expanded their territories or settlers have acquired new lands by force, the cultures, livelihoods, and existence of indigenous peoples have been endangered.

    Exploration and colonization beginning in the fifteenth century not only led to rapid appropriation of indigenous peoples' lands and natural resources, but also violated the sacred character of their arts, sciences, and culture.

  7. Assertion of Indigenous Rights
  8. Around the world, indigenous peoples are asserting their rights in order to retain their separate identity and cultural heritage. It is now generally admitted that policies of assimilation and integration aimed at bringing these groups fully into the mainstream of majority populations are often counter-productive.

    Today, interest in indigenous peoples' knowledge and cultures is stronger than ever and the exploitation of their cultures continues. Indigenous medicinal knowledge and expertise in agricultural biodiversity and environmental management are used, but the profits are rarely shared with indigenous peoples themselves. They cannot exercise their fundamental human rights as distinct nations, societies and peoples without the ability to control the knowledge they have inherited from their ancestors.

    Many indigenous peoples are also concerned about skeletal remains of their ancestors and sacred objects being held by museums and are exploring ways for their restitution. For indigenous peoples all over the world the protection of their cultural and intellectual property has taken on growing importance and urgency. Although some indigenous groups have been relatively successful at maintaining their culture and identity, the spiritual and cultural identity of many indigenous peoples continue to be threatened.

  9. Role of the UN, Non-governmental Organizations in Addressing Indigenous Issues
  10. Indigenous people are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world today. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples.

    In the thirty-year history of indigenous issues at the United Nations, the establishment and protection of the rights of indigenous peoples have been recognized as an essential part of human rights and a legitimate concern of the international community. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms the inherent dignity, equality, and inalienable rights of all members of the human family. The rights of all members of indigenous populations are included in this declaration. However, indigenous peoples also have rights as distinct cultural groups.

    The United Nations, its partners and indigenous peoples have developed a programme of work to set standards for the protection of the human rights of indigenous peoples. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007 is an important part of that process. In addition, the UN also plays an important role in monitoring whether the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples are being protected.

  11. International Labor Organization (ILO) Treaties on Indigenous Issues
  12. The ILO, which was established in 1919 at the end of World War I to address social peace, was concerned early on with indigenous peoples particularly in cases where they were expelled from their ancestral lands to become seasonal, migrant, bonded or home-based workers which exposed them to forms of exploitation covered by the ILO mandate. It is within this context that the ILO first began to address the situation of indigenous workers in the overseas colonies of European countries in 1921. This led to the adoption in 1930 of the ILO’s Forced Labour Convention (No.29).

    Following the creation of the United Nations, the ILO examination of indigenous issues widened. From 1952 to 1972, the ILO led an interagency development programme, which assisted over 250,000 indigenous people in the Andes. In 1957, the ILO adopted the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention (No. 107), the first international treaty that focused exclusively on indigenous issues. At the time it was adopted, it assumed that integration into mainstream society offered the best possible future for indigenous peoples. As years went by, public opinion changed. With growing participation of indigenous peoples during the 1960s and 1970s, these assumptions were challenged. A Committee of Experts convened in 1986 by the Governing Body of the ILO concluded that “the integrationist approach of the Convention was obsolete and that its application was detrimental in the modern world.”

    A second treaty, the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169), was eventually adopted in 1989 to include the fundamental concept that the traditional life of indigenous peoples should and will survive. Another fundamental change was the assertion that indigenous peoples should be closely involved in the planning and implementation of development projects that affect their lives. Convention 169 covers a wide range of issues including land rights, access to natural resources, health, education, vocational training, and conditions of employment.

    The ILO is currently exploring and documenting various aspects of discrimination against indigenous peoples within the labour market, within indigenous communities as well as the effects of discrimination on traditional occupations such as herding.

    It is important to keep in mind that although Convention 169 is recognized internationally as the leading human rights instrument on indigenous issues, it has been ratified by only 19 countries. Another ILO Convention (No. 111) -- which protects all workers, including indigenous workers, against discrimination – has been ratified by 165 countries and therefore provides an important entry point in many countries for addressing indigenous issues. Convention 169 and 111, together provide a framework for protecting indigenous rights to engage in traditional occupations. When researching which countries have ratified these Conventions it is important to ask whether there is any national legislation to enforce the terms of these treaties (see the Indigenous World 2007 report for more information.)

  13. UN Commission on Human Rights Working Group
  14. Indigenous peoples have been working with the United Nations to name and assert their collective rights for decades. In fact, August 9, the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, commemorates the first meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982.

    In 1971, the Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and the Protection of Minorities, which is composed of 26 independent human rights experts, appointed one of its members, Mr. Martinez Cobo, as Special Rapporteur to conduct a comprehensive study on discrimination against indigenous populations and recommend national and international measures for eliminating such discrimination.

    The Martinez Cobo study (1986) addressed a wide range of human rights issues affecting indigenous peoples, including health, housing and education. The study called on governments to formulate guidelines for their activities concerning indigenous peoples on the basis of respect for the ethnic identity, rights and freedoms of indigenous peoples. The report, now out of print, represented an important development in recognizing the human rights problems confronting indigenous peoples.

    The first international conference of non-governmental organizations on indigenous issues was held in Geneva in 1977. This was followed by another non-governmental conference on Indigenous Peoples and the Land, also in Geneva, in 1981.

    These meetings, and a special United Nations study then nearing completion, led to the establishment in 1982 of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations. In past sessions the WGIP has examined a range of indigenous issues including: health and indigenous people; environment, land and sustainable development; education and language; indigenous peoples and their relationship to land; indigenous children and youth; and indigenous peoples and their right to development among other issues. Currently, the WGIP is not meeting pending a review of its status by the new Human Rights Council in September 2007.

  15. International Decades
  16. The International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004) was proclaimed by the General Assembly in its resolution 48/163 of 21 December 1993 with the main objective of strengthening international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health. The theme for the Decade was "Indigenous people: partnership in action". In the same resolution, the General Assembly requested the Secretary-General to appoint the Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights as the Coordinator of the Decade and established the Voluntary Fund for the Decade to assist the funding of projects and programmes which promote the goals of the International Decade of the World's Indigenous People. In its resolution 52/108, the General Assembly appointed the High Commissioner for Human Rights as Coordinator of the Decade.

    In 2004 the Assembly proclaimed a Second International Decade (2005-2015) by resolution 59/174. The goal of this Decade is to further strengthen international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as social and economic development, culture, education, health, human rights, and the environment.

  17. UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
  18. In April 2000, the Commission on Human Rights adopted a resolution to establish the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), which was endorsed by the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) in resolution 2000/22 of 28 July 2000. The mandate of the Permanent Forum is to discuss indigenous issues related to culture, economic and social development, education, the environment, health and human rights. The UNPFII has played an important role in expanding the role of indigenous representatives in UN activities. The Forum is an advisory body that reports to the ECOSOC. It is comprised of 16 experts, eight of whom are proposed by indigenous peoples.

    The establishment of the UNPFII was one of the advances achieved during the first International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, celebrated between 1995-2004. The theme for the Decade was 'Indigenous People: Partnership in Action.' The main objective was the strengthening of international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, education and health.

    To further support the monitoring of human rights violations against indigenous peoples, a Special Rapporteur was appointed in 2001 to assess and verify complaints.

  19. Increasing Role of Indigenous Organizations
  20. As of April 2007, 15 active organizations of indigenous peoples have consultative status with the ECOSOC. Consultative status means that these organizations can attend and contribute to a wide range of international and intergovernmental conferences. There are also hundreds of representatives of indigenous peoples and their organizations who participate in UN meetings. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) interested in human rights also help promote indigenous peoples’ rights and actively support indigenous peoples’ causes.

    Indigenous people are also becoming more prominent as individual players on the world stage. In 1989, Chief Ted Moses, of the Grand Council of the Crees in Canada, was the first indigenous person elected to office at a UN meeting to discuss the effects of racial discrimination on the social and economic situation of indigenous peoples. Since then, increasing numbers of indigenous people have held office at meetings related to indigenous matters.

  21. Themes for Student Conference
  22. The above six themes were chosen for students to research for the 2007 Student Conference on Human Rights:

    • Right to Self-determination

    • Right to Land, Territory and Natural Resources

    • Right to Culturally Sensitive Education

    • Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health

    • Right to Employment

    • Protecting the Rights of Indigenous Children and Youth

    These are just a subset of issues that relate to indigenous rights. Although there are other indigenous rights, it is important to keep in mind that all of these rights are interdependent.  For example, the basic right to self-determination is closely intertwined with land rights and the right to a culturally sensitive education.  When the natural resources on indigenous lands are exploited by corporations without their consent or when indigenous peoples don’t have a say in developing their educational system, this violates the right to self-determination. While studying these six themes, note as many concrete examples of the connections between them as you can find. Some examples have already been included in the description of each theme. See how many more you can find in the resources available online.

    Back to top

    1.Right to Self-determination

    “Indigenous peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”
                           - Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, Article 3

    Self-determination refers to the fundamental right of all peoples to determine their economic, social, political, and cultural development.  In order to exercise this right, people must have the opportunity to participate in making decisions that affect the quality of their life. Because indigenous peoples are among the most marginalized groups, decisions that impact their economic, social, political, and cultural development are often made without consulting them. This is a violation of their right to self-determination.

    When the Norwegian Government gave permission to a multi-national company to mine minerals in areas occupied by the Saami, the Saami Parliament asked the Norwegian government to stop the company from mining because they were not consulted.  When this request was not granted, the Saami Council and Saami Parliament entered into direct discussions with the company and reached an agreement that no mining would take place without the consent of the Saami Parliament.1

    The experiences of the Saami, an indigenous people living in the Northern Europe, are typical of the threats to self-determination that many indigenous peoples around the world face. It highlights the importance of protecting the right of indigenous peoples to be involved in the governance of regions where they live and how their development can suffer if they are not included in determining their future.

    One of the obstacles to achieving indigenous participation in national politics is the election system. Indigenous peoples typically cannot participate in elections for a variety of reasons. They often lack documentation required to participate in elections, live in remote villages that are difficult to get to, or the election materials that are distributed are in non-indigenous languages. 2 The absence of indigenous representatives in the national government makes it difficult for their concerns to be heard.3

    The right to self-determination is an established principle in international law. It is embodied in the Charter of the United Nations and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The right to self-determination has been recognized in other international and regional human rights instruments, endorsed by the International Court of Justice and elaborated upon by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

    Despite the recognition of the basic right to self-determination in international law, there is still much work that needs to be done to get this basic right recognized on the national level. In some countries, indigenous peoples are active participants in national politics; while in other countries indigenous organizations have yet to be officially recognized. While some national constitutions (e.g., Mexico, Panama) do indeed refer to the right of self-determination of indigenous peoples, most constitutions avoid any mention of it.

    Sometimes, indigenous rights are recognized in special agreements.  For example, in Guatemala, more than half of the national population consists of indigenous peoples, mainly Maya. After a brutal, thirty year civil war, these peoples’ rights are now recognized in the Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples, signed in 1995 in Mexico City. This document recognizes many rights, including protection from discrimination, cultural and political rights.4

    The demand for some kind of autonomy is often associated with the struggle for self-determination.  In northern Canada, for example, the Inuit people have – after decades of legal struggles over ancient land rights - negotiated a political agreement with the federal government, whereby they achieved the creation, in 1999, of the self-governing territory of Nunavut.5  Panama provides another example of the headway that indigenous peoples have made in recent years. Seven indigenous peoples -- the Ngöbe, Kuna, Emberá, Wounaan, Buglé, Naso and Bri Bri, who together represent 8.3% of the population of Panama -- live in five legally constituted territorial units (comarcas) which make up almost 20% of the country’s total land area. These comarcas are semi-autonomous regions governed by local councils and traditional governors.

    In some instances where indigenous peoples have been granted autonomy, implementation has been met with varied success.  A case in point is the Constitution of the Philippines. In response to strong lobbying efforts by indigenous peoples, the framers of the 1987 Constitution included several provisions that, taken together, could serve as a basic framework for recognizing and promoting indigenous peoples' rights. Laws allowing regional autonomy in two regions of the Philippines, Mindanao and the Cordillera, were passed by the Philippines’ Congress, and subjected to ratification through plebiscites.6 This significant change in government policy led to the creation of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in 1990. In contrast, the creation of an Autonomous Cordillera Region which is home to numerous indigenous peoples in the Philippines was rejected in two separate plebiscites.

    Governments, national and international courts, intergovernmental agencies and even some corporations are gradually becoming more aware of the need to respect indigenous people's rights. This is due, in part, to the increasing number of cases being won by indigenous organizations that are taking governments and corporations to court for violating indigenous rights.

    For example, the High Court in Botswana ruled in 2006, that the relocation of the San hunter-gatherers from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was unlawful. In Argentina, the Lhaka Honhat, who have been fighting for title to their traditional territory for years, will have their case brought before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. And indigenous communities in Russia and the North West Territories of Artic Canada have been successful in getting a seat at the negotiating table and obtaining compensation or profit sharing agreements with oil companies operating on their territories. Similar gains are being made at the national level as well. In the ongoing discussions on the future of Nepal, the issue of indigenous self-determination is high on the agenda. 7

    Back to top

    2. Right to land, territory and natural resources

    (Photo: J. van der Ploeg )

    The Northern Sierra Madre Natural Park covers nearly 360,000 hectares of diverse tropical rain forest, and is considered as one of the most biologically rich in the Philippines. The majority of the population living in this rain forest consists of immigrants from other provinces who entered the area in the 1960s and 70s when the logging industry was at its height. They presently dominate the area, both in number and culture. Next to these immigrants, the indigenous Agta population are estimated to number 2,000 out of a total population of 23,000. The Agta are a forest dwelling people whose main livelihood consists of a combination of hunting, fishing, gathering, and shifting cultivation. They are widely considered to belong to 'the poorest of the poor', suffering from a long history of oppression, discrimination and marginalization by dominant groups. To compensate for the disadvantaged position of these and other indigenous communities in the Philippines, the Indigenous Peoples' Rights Act (IPRA) was enacted in 1997. This law grants a wide array of rights to indigenous peoples throughout the country, one of which is the right to formal recognition of ancestral lands.

    "It is essential to know and understand the deeply spiritual special relationship between indigenous peoples and their land as basic to their existence as such and to all their beliefs, customs, traditions and culture...for such people, the land is not merely a possession and a means of production...Their land is not a commodity which can be acquired, but a material element to be enjoyed freely.”8

    Around the world, indigenous peoples are fighting for recognition of their right to own, manage and develop their traditional lands. Indigenous peoples have a special relationship with the land. It is the foundation of their spiritual well-being and cultural identity. In many cases, their traditional knowledge and oral histories are closely linked to the forests, rivers, mountains and sea that surround them and are considered sacred; for example, the Black Hills which are sacred to the Lakota in central United States or the rivers sacred to the Paez in Colombia. Indigenous communities maintain historical and spiritual links with their homelands where their culture be preserved and flourish from generation to generation. Too often this necessary spiritual link between indigenous communities and their homelands is misunderstood by non-indigenous persons and is frequently ignored when legislation on land rights is adopted.

    Land also provides the main source of livelihood for indigenous communities. The management of land typically relies on a communal decision-making process. Though individuals or families may use portions of the land, the majority of indigenous land is set aside for the benefit of the community.

    Indigenous peoples see a clear relationship between the loss of lands and the loss of their identity and culture. According to Erica Irene Daes, a UN Special Rapporteur in 2002, “The gradual deterioration of indigenous societies can be traced to the non-recognition of the profound relation that indigenous peoples have to their lands, territories and resources.”9

    While land rights are protected by legislation in some countries, powerful economic interests often succeed in turning the communal possession of land that is common in indigenous communities into private property. The global market’s increasing consumption of natural resources is a big threat to the indigenous way of life. Indigenous territory is often desired by international corporations, either for its mineral wealth, oil deposits, pastures, tropical or hard-wood forests, medicinal plants, suitability for commercial plantations, hydraulic resources or even its tourist potential. Sometimes agents of these corporation use bribes or intimidation to get indigenous leaders to sign over land rights in order to gain access to natural resources on indigenous lands. Read the Indigenous World 2007 entry on Ecuador for an example of this.

    Control of natural resources is therefore an important issue to indigenous peoples because many of the current conflicts over land and territory relate to the possession, control, exploitation, and use of natural resources. In many cases, State Constitutions give the State sole possession of any minerals or other resources (e.g., water) within its borders. This gives States the legal right under its own laws to displace anyone it wants in order to exploit these resources.

    Indigenous communities have managed their environments sustainably for generations. In turn, the flora, fauna and other resources available on their lands have provided them with livelihoods and have nurtured their communities. When natural resources (e.g., minerals or oil) found on indigenous territories are exploited without their consent, health problems caused by environmental pollution and economic hardship caused by the disruption of traditional occupations are often the result. In Nigeria, for example, the commercial exploitation of oil in the Niger Delta had severe ecological and social consequences for the Ogoni people. Oil leaking from pipelines and tanks polluted rivers, streams and fields, and killed animals and vegetation. Forests were cut down to make way for roads and pipelines, destroying the subsistence economy of the Ogoni people. Environmental pollution led to severe health problems such as tuberculosis, and respiratory and stomach diseases. The Ogoni were not consulted and did not receive any benefit from the profits made.10

    According to a recent UN report, around 60 million indigenous people around the world depend almost entirely on forests for their survival. Indigenous communities continue to be expelled from their territories so that protected areas or national parks can be established. The report claims that the forced displacement of indigenous peoples from their traditional forests is a major contributor to the impoverishment of these communities. Indonesia is home to 10 per cent of the world’s forest resources, which provide a livelihood for approximately 30 million indigenous people. Out of 143 million hectares of indigenous territories that are classified as State forestlands, almost 58 million are now in the hands of timber companies with the remainder in the process of being converted into commercial plantations.11

    As indigenous protest movements emerge to defend their rights, Rodolfo Stavenhagen, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous peoples has noted that the criminalization of indigenous movements is a troubling trend in recent years.12 In a number of cases, the response to indigenous protests has resulted in violence. In January 2006, for example, 14 indigenous peoples were killed while protesting against a large steel plant taking over their land. And in India, as reported in The Indigenous World 2007, the acquisition of indigenous lands without their consent has led to protests that are often silenced with “the indiscriminate use of firearms.”

    When the land rights of indigenous peoples are not protected and their access to traditional lands is reduced, indigenous peoples are sometimes forced to seek work outside their traditional communities in order to survive. This is exactly what happened to the Enxet people in Paraguay. When large-scale cattle ranching was introduced in their region, the wild animals were driven away and the Exnet hunting areas were reduced in size. This forced the Exnet to become cheap labourers for businesses or farms outside their community. Many had no choice but to take loans from moneylenders that resulted in debt bondage. In this form of labour, indigenous people are forced to work to pay off their loan.13

    Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), adopted in 1989, asks nations to respect indigenous lands and territories. Article 15 states “The rights of the peoples concerned to the natural resources pertaining to their lands shall be specially safeguarded. These rights include the right of these peoples to participate in the use, management and conservation of these resources.” As noted above, however, only 19 countries have ratified this treaty.

    In recent decades, many countries have reformed their constitutional and legal systems in response to calls from indigenous movements for the legal recognition of their rights to the protection and control of their lands, territories and natural resources. Latin America has led the way with constitutional reforms taking place in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Ecuador and Venezuela.14 However, in his March 2007 report, the UN Special Rapporteur the Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms of Indigenous Peoples, stated that:

    Although in recent years many countries have adopted laws recognizing the indigenous communities’ collective and inalienable right to ownership of their lands, land-titling procedures have been slow and complex and, in many cases, the titles awarded to the communities are not respected in practice.15

    In order to protect indigenous lands, it is important to establish where they are located. Establishing which areas are indigenous lands can help resolve problems that arise out of conflicting land claims with other indigenous communities or outside settlers. Brazil, for example, adopted Decree No. 1775 in 1996 which sets the administrative procedures for determining the areas which are to be considered indigenous lands. It also includes a provision for appealing decisions if there are disagreements on the area recognized as indigenous territory. Even though administrative procedures may be in place, disputes over land rights can go on for years. For example, indigenous peoples living in an area of Brazil known as Raposa do Sol, have objected to the government’s demarcation of their land. They claim that the government’s records reduce their land by approximately 300,000 hectares, makes access possible to non-indigenous persons, and excludes more than twenty indigenous villages from the area.16 This land dispute has yet to be resolved and the indigenous peoples living in Raposo do Sol have not yet obtained an official recognition of their lands. The indigenous Aymara people in Bolivia – which make up 60 to 80 per cent of the total population – had filed land claims covering 143,000 square miles but due to the slow, under-funded titling process, only 19,300 miles had been granted by the end of 2006.17

    As the land-titling issues get sorted out, privatization of indigenous lands has been increasing. In Canada, for example, only a small portion of traditional lands are recognized as indigenous reserves, leaving the remainder vulnerable to privatization. Federal and provincial governments are negotiating with the First Nations people of British Columbia on this issue.18

    The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes the vital relationship between indigenous peoples’ control over the development of their lands and resources and their ability to maintain and strengthen their institutions, cultures and traditions:

    • The Declaration states that “indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise used or acquired” as well as the right to own, use and develop them (Article 26).

    • It further stresses the responsibility of States to work with indigenous peoples to establish fair and transparent processes for the adjudication of indigenous rights pertaining to such lands, territories and resources (Article 27); and to consult and obtain the free and informed consent of indigenous peoples prior to the approval of any project that impacts on their lands and resources, for example through the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources (Article 32).

    • The Declaration also states that indigenous people shall not be “forcibly removed from their lands or territories” (Article 10) and includes the right of indigenous peoples to be compensated for lands, territories and resources which “have been confiscated, taken, occupied, used or damaged without their free, prior and informed consent” (Article 28).

    Back to top

    3. Right to Culturally Sensitive Education

    (Photo: Nancy Santullo)

    Approximately 60% of Peru's total population is indigenous. These native communities speak more than 60 languages other than Spanish as their first language. Quechua, the language of the Inca empire and now the official second language of the nation, is taught in many primary schools and even in universities. In recent years, Peru has inaugurated a government program to promote bilingual education--Spanish plus the native language--for indigenous children. Unfortunately, these programs have not yet reached the indigenous population living in the Peruvian Amazon rain forest. Bilingual education is especially important to save the Wachipaeri language, which could soon be lost since so few adult speakers remain.

    Convention 169 states that indigenous peoples have the same right to benefit from the national education system as everyone else living in the country. Yet, in many countries around the world, access to basic and secondary education is significantly worse for indigenous peoples than for the rest of society. Those that do receive formal schooling often face overt racism and the curricula used in the classroom is typically taught in non-indigenous languages and are not adapted to the indigenous way of life and culture.

    Mr. Ole Henrik Magga, Chairperson of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, provides an excellent description of his childhood experiences that summarizes the kind of challenges indigenous children typically face in school:

    On your first day you find that the teachers do not speak your language, in fact, they don’t even want you to speak your language – you might be punished by doing so. The teachers don’t know anything about your culture – they say “look at me when I speak to you” – but in your culture it may be disrespectful to look at adults directly. Day by day you are torn between two worlds. You look through the many textbooks and find no reflections of yourself or your family or culture. Even in the history books your people are invisible – as if they never exceeded “shadow people” or worse – if your people are mentioned they are mentioned as “obstacles to settlement” or simply as “problems” for your country to overcome.19

    Given these types of experiences, it is not surprising that indigenous students are more likely to drop out of school than non-indigenous students.

    In order to benefit equally, it is vital that indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning. This is an important component of the right to self-determination.

    Over the last two decades, progress has been made in improving the quality of indigenous education. In Malaysia, the government has been implementing changes since the late 1990s, in collaboration with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), to meet the needs of indigenous students. As a result of a 1997 policy on indigenous languages, for example, indigenous children in the Penampang District are being taught the local Kadazan language.20

    Among indigenous peoples today there is a growing awareness of the need to preserve their languages and a demand to use them in school. In some countries programmes are being developed which include teaching curricula in both national and indigenous languages. This helps to prepare them to participate in national life while at the same time permitting them to learn about their own culture. However, it is important to note, that indigenous children do not always get the benefits of these programmes if they live in a remote part of the country. Take, for example, a small indigenous community living in Huacaria, Peru – a remote part of the Amazon rainforest. In recent years, Peru has inaugurated a government program to promote bilingual education--Spanish plus the native language--for indigenous children. Unfortunately, these programs have not yet reached those living in Huarcaria (See UN Cyberschoolbus slideshow on the indigenous groups living in Huacaria to learn more about these children. Pay particular attention to slides 19-22.)

    In addition to the importance of preserving indigenous languages, preserving indigenous knowledge and culture is equally important. Indigenous educational systems are different from other educational systems. They include learning skills such as hunting, trapping and weaving which are not generally included in non-indigenous school curricula. To assure that indigenous education is culturally sensitive, the responsibility for designing and implementing educational programmes must be transferred to indigenous peoples themselves. In order to facilitate the transfer of responsibility for education, governments will need to provide the necessary financial assistance and resources.

    A special programme developed by indigenous peoples in Oaxaca, Mexico provides an excellent example of what can be done when indigenous people are empowered to develop their own educational system. With the help of linguists, indigenous people in Oaxaca were able to promote literacy in their indigenous Mixe language, which included developing a Mixe alphabet. In addition, the courses they developed incorporated the knowledge of their elders, Mixe mathematics and agriculture, as well as legal training to defend communal land ownership.21

    Recognizing the centrality of language and the fact that more than 4000 of the world’s remaining 6000 languages are spoken by indigenous peoples, many of which are under threat of extinction, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will devote discussion at their 2008 session on the issue of indigenous languages. The General Assembly has also been declared that 2008 will be the International Year of Languages.

    In the area of education, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that:

    • Indigenous peoples have the right to revitalize, use, develop and transmit to future generations their histories, languages, oral traditions, philosophies, writing systems and literatures and says that States shall take effective measures to ensure this right is protected (Article 13).

    • Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions, providing education in their own languages and in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning (Article 14.1).

    • Indigenous individuals, particularly children, have the right to all levels and forms of education of the State without discrimination and States shall take effective measures to ensure that indigenous peoples, particularly children, have access to an education in their own culture and provided in their own language (Articles 14.1 and 14.2).

    Back to top

    4. Right to the Highest Attainable Standard of Physical and Mental Health (including the right to traditional medicines and health practices)

    In both industrialized and developing countries, the health status of indigenous peoples is generally lower than that of the overall population. They have higher infant mortality rates, lower life expectancy, higher incidence of disease and chronic illnesses than the non-indigenous.

    In Tanzania, for example, nomadic herdsman, or pastoralists, suffer from poorer health standards than the national average. Like many groups of indigenous peoples, pastoralists suffer from an above average number of cases of malaria, pneumonia, diarrhea, tuberculosis, and infant mortality. Further compounding difficulties, pastoralists may have to travel great distances for all but the most basic of health concerns.22 This is true for many indigenous groups that live in remote areas.

    Communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria are also on the rise in indigenous populations. In addition, viral diseases frequently explode into epidemics, particularly among groups with low levels of immunity. Health care workers frequently report high rates of cholera in indigenous populations, as well as a considerable increase in the occurrence of sexually transmitted diseases. HIV/AIDS is another serious threat to indigenous populations, where infection rates among indigenous peoples can be more than double the national average in some countries. Malnutrition is also a persistent problem, along with problems resulting from deficiencies of micronutrients, especially iron, vitamin A, and iodine. Thyroid hyperplasia, obesity, and diabetes are frequently occurring conditions, particularly in the North American indigenous population.23

    The health of indigenous peoples is closely related to their lands, which provide them with their traditional diet. When natural resources on indigenous lands diminish or when indigenous peoples are forced off their land, there is less traditional food available. Therefore, an important component of restoring health involves reclaiming traditional lands.

    In some instances, diseases are introduced by non-indigenous people who illegally enter indigenous lands. Unregistered gold miners (called garimpeiros) in Brazil, for example, brought new diseases that killed more than 21% of the Yanomami people.24

    Access to clean water is yet another problem that impacts indigenous populations. Water resources are often affected by development and industrialization projects. This can be seen in the mining of metals, which frequently take place in high mountainous areas, such as the Andes. They pose the greatest risk to indigenous communities who often inhabit these regions and therefore have more direct exposure to the contamination. In addition, Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) can have a large impact on indigenous populations. The problem has grown to the point where significant traces of substances such as DDT, as well as toxic levels of mercury, have been detected in surface water, food, and other basic nutrients necessary for survival, such as breast milk. Indigenous peoples are particularly affected by these issues not only because of the areas in which they live, but also because of their reliance on the land. (see UN Cyberschoolbus slideshow for an example of how development has impacted water resources in remote indigenous communities living in the Amazon rain forest. Pay particular attention to slides 7-14).

    The health care crisis among indigenous peoples is particularly acute for indigenous women. Like most women in the world, they have been victims of discrimination for centuries. But as indigenous women, they have been doubly discriminated against: for being indigenous people and for being women. Building on the example described above, many of the diseases that killed Yanomami women were caused by forced prostitution.

    The health care crisis for indigenous women is not limited to developing countries. In the United States, for example, indigenous women have the least access to maternal healthcare.25 Maternal health is a serious issue as indigenous women are often pregnant at an early age; may not have access to a hospital or midwife; and suffer from other health conditions, such as vitamin and iron deficiencies that complicate care during pregnancy.

    (Photo: Glenn Shepard Jr.)

    Indigenous women have specialized knowledge about herbs used in regulating fertility, easing the pains of childbirth, and treating the illnesses of children. Here, a Matsigenka woman shows a plant used to bathe newborn babies to ensure they grow up strong and healthy.

    Care during childbirth and subsequent care and feeding of indigenous infants are strongly influenced by indigenous culture. Therefore, even when maternal healthcare is available there are often differences between the medical services provided in the hospital and the home care that is administered by family members and traditional midwives. To address this issue, the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has recommended that all UN entities, regional health organizations and governments incorporate a cultural perspective into health services--including emergency obstetric care, voluntary family planning, and skilled assistance at birth--that aim to provide quality health care for indigenous women. In addition, it recommends that the roles of traditional midwives be expanded so that they may assist indigenous women during their pregnancy and act as cultural intermediaries between the health care systems and the indigenous communities’ cultural practices.

    Although traditional medicines do not have remedies for new illnesses brought in or caused by outside factors (e.g., contamination as a result of mining, cancer, AIDS, or radioactive pollution), traditional healing practices are known to be effective for the management for many afflictions. Traditional healing practices focus on more than the physical and mental well-being of a person or helping a patient become free from disease. When treating patients, traditional healers seek to restore a state of balance between body, mind and spirit which involves being in harmony with nature (see UN Cyberschoolbus slideshow for an example of how traditional and non-traditional approaches to illness co-exist side by side. Pay particular attention to slides 30-32).

    The cultural diversity of indigenous peoples makes it nearly impossible to adopt one approach or develop a universal health care model. An appropriate health care system that works for one group, may fail somewhere else due to cultural differences. Therefore it is important to focus on local solutions to the indigenous health crisis, rather than look for one solution or programme.

    In order to improve the quality of health care for indigenous peoples, governments need to allocate more resources. A few Ministries of Health have established ad hoc groups or offices to oversee the health of indigenous communities in their country, usually as part of projects in partnership with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and private foundations that are actively committed to working with indigenous communities to improve living conditions in marginalized urban and rural areas. However, these initiatives are generally of limited coverage and duration. In addition, most countries do not have adequate financing to support the development of specific programmes to support traditional medicine nor are they researching or developing alternative models of care for indigenous populations.

    With respect to health, the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states that:

    • Indigenous peoples have the right to their traditional medicines and to maintain their health practices, including the conservation of their vital medicinal plants, animals and minerals. Indigenous individuals also have the right to access, without any discrimination, to all social and health services (Article 24.1).

    • Indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. States shall take the necessary steps with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of this right (Article 24.2).

    Back to top

    5. Right to employment

    Today, indigenous people make up less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, but comprise 15 per cent of the world’s poor. That disparity is even greater in Asia, where indigenous peoples make up to 40 per cent of the extreme poor.26

    Indigenous peoples are vulnerable to a range of factors that impact on their right to employment. They tend to lack access to education, to live on lands that are vulnerable to natural disasters and have poor access, if any, to health services. While the majority of indigenous peoples live in rural areas, the prospect of better opportunities in cities is contributing to their migration to cities. Life in the cities, however, is often not any better. Indigenous peoples receive lower wages or find no work at all because they lack the necessary skills and education. They live in poor settlements outside the support of their traditional community making it difficult to maintain their language, identity and culture.

    In the northern Philippine city of Baguio, it is estimated that 65 per cent of indigenous migrants suffer from extreme poverty. And in Tanzania, 90 per cent of Masaai men who have migrated to the capital city, Dar es Salaam, end up working as security guards, earning around $40 per month and are often only able to afford to live in slums on the outskirts of the city.27

    Overall, indigenous people living in cities have been found to drop out of school to seek employment earlier than their non-indigenous counterparts. This leads to a pattern of working in poorly paid, low-skilled jobs, with 50 per cent of the indigenous population earning an income of between $150- 300 per month.28 Illiteracy rates among the urban indigenous population is four times higher than non-indigenous urban dwellers.29

    In addition to these challenges, indigenous peoples in urban areas are more likely to experience discrimination. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples reaffirms that indigenous individuals have the right not to be subject to discriminatory conditions of labour, employment or salary (Article 17) and that they have the right to the improvement of their economic and social conditions including in the areas of employment and education (Article 21).

    Monitoring the working conditions of indigenous peoples is an important component in protecting their rights. In Brazil, for example, Mobile Inspection Teams have been established with the objective of investigating a greater number of complaints about degrading forms of work.

    As noted above, indigenous people are sometimes forced into debt bondage when they borrow money and can’t pay it back. Another concern was raised at last year’s High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development where it was pointed out that indigenous people were among the groups most vulnerable to the illegal trafficking of migrants.30

    Back to top

    6. Protecting the Rights of Indigenous Children and Youth

    The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) believes the issues of indigenous children and young people are so important it decided to make indigenous children and youth a focus in its work for years to come. They chose this theme in order to focus attention on the survival of indigenous peoples.

    Without ensuring that they are appropriately educated in their indigenous languages, cultures and values as the basis of their learning, indigenous peoples and their unique cultures will not survive. In the 2003 report on the second session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Forum indicated they were deeply concerned about the problems and discrimination faced by indigenous children and youth in the areas of education, health, culture, extreme poverty, mortality, incarceration, employment and other relevant areas.31

    With regard to the trend toward urban migration among indigenous peoples, the Forum noted that there is a massive exodus of indigenous youth to the cities around the world where they are faced with discrimination, socio-economic hardship, weakened family networks and drug abuse. Many of the indigenous people migrating today are youth. Indigenous youth migrate for a variety of reasons including:

    • Increased need for labor in industries such as tourism and entertainment;
    • Desire for higher education;
    • Traditional means of survival are being threatened; and/or
    • Desire to be free of the social and religious control of their community

    Each of these reasons is exhibited in the migration of the eight Hill Tribes of Thailand. These tribes have experienced increased youth migration since 1990.32

    Finally, the report highlights the Forum’s deep concern about the harmful and widespread impact of armed conflict on indigenous children. Indigenous children are particularly vulnerable during times of armed conflict because many are not registered at birth. The right to be registered at birth and the right to a name and identity are recognized by the Convention on the Rights of the Child. UNICEF notes that birth registration is especially important during times of conflict to protect children from being illegally moved out of the country or enlisted for military service. Some of the indigenous peoples who have suffered violence and conflict include the Maya and Meskito of Central America, the H’mong in South-East Asia, the East Timorese, the Embera and Huaorani in South America, and the Twa in East Africa.33

    The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted because it was felt that children need special protection. The rights of all children are indicated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but indigenous children are especially vulnerable. The Forum, therefore, has requested that the Committee on the Rights of the Child (which monitors implementation of the CRC) pay special attention to issues related to safeguarding the integrity of indigenous families.

    According to recent reports by Minority Rights Group, a non-governmental organization (NGO), the experience of indigenous children in conflicts in Iraq;34 Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Nagaland, India;35 Somalia and Guatemala36 has included physical injury and death; torture and rape; the witnessing of atrocities; separation from parents and community; lost access to health care, education and housing; eviction and forced displacement; the destruction of villages and farms; and neglect during humanitarian relief and reconstruction programmes.

    In addition, indigenous children may be forcibly recruited into armed groups, either to fight or to provide support, and indigenous girls are at risk of being forced to provide sex to soldiers. In Colombia for example, non-government combatant groups forcibly recruit indigenous children, often to serve as guides in remote areas. Indigenous girls have been the victims of sexual assault and violence by military and non-military groups alike.37

    The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognises the special vulnerability of indigenous youth (Article 22) and encourages special measures to ensure that the economic and social needs of indigenous youth are met (Article 21).

    Back to top


5-7 December, 2007

UN International School, NY

United Nations
Headquarters, NY

Intermediate and
Secondary Students
(grades 7 - 12)

Recognising the Rights of Indigenous Peoples


Use our online
resources to research the conference's subthemes.



UN Cyberschoolbus - Home comments and suggestions: cyberschoolbus@un.org Copyright © 1996- United Nations