Indigenous Peoples have, over the course of generations, developed rich sets of knowledge about the natural world, health, technologies and techniques, rites and rituals and other cultural expressions. Culture is one of the six mandated areas of the Permanent Forum and is inextricably linked to Indigenous Peoples’ identities. Traditions, cultural practices and values of Indigenous Peoples can play a critical and positive role in advancing and promoting equality and human rights.
But Indigenous peoples’ cultures today are threatened with extinction. Traditional knowledge, languages, practices, and traditional resources have been managed by Indigenous peoples since time immemorial. A great deal of that traditional knowledge has been undermined and destroyed by colonizers and post-colonial states who have imposed their own systems of law, knowledge and worldviews on Indigenous Peoples. Today, however, there is an increasing appreciation of the value and potential of traditional knowledge and cultures.
The global COVID-19 pandemic has indeed magnified challenges and inequalities that Indigenous Peoples face, but it has also shown us the incredible resilience of Indigenous Peoples who have addressed the pandemic through activating self-determined protection mechanisms, based on their Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices, through reviving food and trade systems and by tackling the critical need for culturally appropriate information in Indigenous languages.
Indigenous Peoples and their Lands
Indigenous Peoples worldwide share a deep and essential connectedness with nature. Loss of their lands and natural resources threatens their economic security, sociocultural cohesion, their human dignity and their survival as distinct peoples. By uniting and organizing themselves, Indigenous Peoples are protecting their lands and territories, livelihoods and knowledge from the influx of businesses, settlers, and other dominant or armed groups. Strategies including territorial self-governance, mobilization, rights-awareness campaigns and legal cases, among other initiatives, are helping to protect Indigenous Peoples and their rights. However, Indigenous Peoples’ assertion of those rights has, in many cases, been answered with brutality and even murder.
The stories of these peoples demonstrate the interconnectivity of their culture and identity with their land. That connection and the drive to protect those resources has meant that Indigenous Peoples have long stood at the frontline of resistance against land grabbing and environmental exploitation.
Despite being one of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups in the world, Indigenous Peoples have proven to be strong, resilient and able to organize and defend themselves. They still occupy, conserve and protect many of their ancestral territories. They act as the prime guardians of much of the world’s cultural and biological diversity.
Indigenous peoples are an essential actor to secure sustainability and good natural resource management, their knowledge and understanding of our world are a key part of the solutions we need to achieve a more just, equal and sustainable future for all of humanity.
Progress for Indigenous Peoples at the International Level
Over the last forty years, Indigenous Peoples have achieved considerable progress regarding recognition of their rights in the international political arena and have created new spaces, in the form of legal provisions and institutional mechanisms, for the promotion and protection of their rights. Concrete outcomes of Indigenous Peoples’ struggle to gain recognition as subjects of international law have been the adoption of the UNDRIP (2007), the establishment of institutional mechanisms within the UN and regional human rights bodies dealing specifically with Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and, at the national level, the adoption of laws and policies for the protection of the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Despite Progress, Challenges Remain
However, despite the progress achieved at the international level the situation of Indigenous Peoples at the country level remains alarming, and several critical trends are not only continuing, but have in fact worsened in many countries over the last decade, and have been magnified by the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, the reality today is that States rarely provide a systematic response to the recommendations made by international and regional human rights mechanisms, and that the recommendations made for more substantive reforms that will ensure the wellbeing of Indigenous Peoples on the ground tend to be ignored altogether. This is represented in Indigenous communities, where various reports and (the few available) statistics show that Indigenous Peoples remain among the poorest and most marginalized peoples in the world and that their individual and collective human rights continue to be grossly violated.
COVID-19 and looking forward: Building back better
Indigenous Peoples were not only disproportionately impacted by the effects of COVID-19 and its consequences; but also faced increased repression by states that used the pandemic as a way to enact laws that further encroach on their rights. They continued to experience injustice as large companies appeared to be allowed to freely continue their activities, encroaching on Indigenous lands, while restrictions on the Indigenous Peoples’ own movement and freedom to use and protect their lands was repressively enforced.
In this context and as national governments are focusing on building back their economies to address the damage of the global pandemic, many may opt for traditional ways of economic development with a focus on natural resources, large infrastructural projects, and extractive opportunities. Indigenous Peoples have long experienced threats to their lands, territories and natural resources from extractive industries and large industrial projects. A building back “better” economy that focuses on these sectors is again likely to have a disastrous impact on Indigenous Peoples and the systematic violation of their rights and livelihoods. Furthermore, it may jeopardize the international community’s aim to curb climate change.
Communalities and Alliances
While the situation varies considerably between regions and countries, Indigenous Peoples generally face the same types of problems, including: lack of recognition as collective rights holders; exclusion from decision-making processes; overall discrimination by the mainstream society; lack of tenure security and therefore loss of land and resources; gross human rights violations; lack of access to justice; lack of institutional capacities; gender and generational discrimination; and lack of freedom of expression and/or access to media. Indigenous Peoples and their organizations are building networks and alliances to meet these challenges, and to share their best practices.
It is obvious that considering the urgency and seriousness of the threats Indigenous Peoples are facing in many countries, a firmer and more decided plan of action from the international community is urgently needed. Much more effort must be put into addressing the persistent, and even widening, implementation gap between the good intentions expressed in legal and institutional frameworks and the effective protection of Indigenous Peoples’ human rights at the practical, everyday level.
Therefore, building back better initiatives need to take point of departure in the protection and respect of Indigenous Peoples’ rights and particularly the right to land, territories and natural resources, which are essential for their survival as distinct peoples.
IWGIA & supporting this exhibition - Celebrating identity and self-determination
IWGIA chose to support the exhibit by photographers Alexander Khimushin and Christoph Lingg which highlights Indigenous Peoples from around the world. Although the portraits here are of unique individuals captured celebrating their external Indigenous identity, they represent something greater - the collective rights enshrined by international mechanisms including the UNDRIP and ILO 169.
International legal framework:
This exhibit builds on the rights recognized by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the ILO convention 169 among other international human rights agreements. The Exhibit was launched alongside the UNPFII’s 18th session on “Traditional knowledge: Generation, transmission and protection”.
These portraits highlight traditional patterns, outward expressions of identity and culture which are guaranteed in the Preamble, Articles 2, 3, 11, 12, 13, and 31 of the UNDRIP and in the ILO 169.
The captions provided with these photos represent the views of the author and/or the photographer, and not necessarily those of IWGIA itself. IWGIA can further-more not be held responsible for the accuracy of their content.
*IWGIA is a global human rights organization dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending Indigenous Peoples' rights. For 53 years IWGIA has documented and communicated Indigenous Peoples’ situations and the violations of their rights; empowered Indigenous Peoples through organizational support and projects on the ground and supported human rights institutions to advance Indigenous Peoples’ rights. IWGIA firmly believes in conducting advocacy with and in support of Indigenous Peoples towards key duty-bearers at international, regional and national levels around Indigenous Peoples, their rights, and their current situation in the world.
Diverse cultures of the world through the portraits of Indigenous Peoples
This exhibition honors Indigenous Peoples’ right to their cultures, identities and traditions, and their right to self-determination by determining their own policies and strategies with respect to their cultural heritage and traditional systems. These rights are enshrined in many of the articles of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), for example in the Preamble, Articles 2, 3, 11, 12, 13, and 31 of the UNDRIP and throughout the ILO C169.
The exhibition was designed and shown in 2019, during the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, celebrating Indigenous Peoples' cultural diversity, which was one of the pillars of the UN’s International Year of Indigenous Languages. The exhibition is even more important today with the upcoming United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). The term “Indigenous Peoples” is a common denominator for more than 476 million people, spread across more than 90 countries around the world who, through historical processes, have been denied their right to control their own development. As distinct peoples, they claim the right to self-determination, including the right to control their own political, social, economic and cultural development.
The exhibition showcases photographs that display the incredible diversity of Indigenous peoples’ cultures through portraits of individuals from different parts of the world in their traditional clothing and environment. As you look at these photos, we hope that you will see not only the individual, but the communities and the Indigenous Peoples they represent.
About the photographer
Born in Siberia, Alexander Khimushin is an Australian based photographer. He has dedicated the last several years to working on The World In Faces photo project. This project visits remote communities of Indigenous Peoples around the world. Documenting these Indigenous Peoples and sharing their traditions and culture to the world through photography is Alexander’s passion. The series has been featured in the media in more than 60 countries (National Geographic, Conde Nast, GEO, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Spiegel, CNN, Arab News, RT etc.) creating greater exposure and dialogue around Indigenous rights and Peoples. In 2018 Alexander, by invitation of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, created an artwork for the #StandUpForHumanRights campaign celebrating the 70th Anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights.
By the world forgot
About the photographer
Christoph Lingg studied at the International Centre of Photography, New York City, USA. After completing his studies in 1988, he has worked as freelance photographer and produced numerous exhibitions in Austria and around the world. These photos selected from “By the world forgot” highlight the Kalasha, Yao, Apatani, Dani, Nenets and Hani peoples. Subjects were asked to stand in front of a white background or in their own accustomed environment.