23 April 2019
Eighteenth Session, 3rd & 4th Meetings (AM & PM)

Partnering with Custodians of Traditional Knowledge Key to Tackling Climate Change, Protecting Humanity, Speakers Stress as Permanent Forum Continues Session

Protecting and partnering with the custodians of traditional knowledge must be an active part of the solution to climate change consequences for the benefit of all humankind, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues heard today as its eighteenth session continued.

Under the session’s theme “Indigenous Peoples’ Traditional Knowledge:  Generation, transmission and protection”, representatives of Member States and non-governmental organizations shared suggestions and concerns, and highlighted both achievements and challenges during an interactive panel discussion.

Pointing to everything from biased laws to criminalizing traditional practices, representatives of indigenous organizations from regions worldwide provided detailed examples of the great challenges ahead to protect and preserve their traditions and knowledge, with many asking the Permanent Forum to step in to foster change.

Abdon Nababan of the Aliansi Masyaralat Adat Nusamtara (Asia Caucus) said that, while protecting indigenous knowledge is essential to arrest the rapid advance of climate change and foster good governance, communities are being threatened through discriminatory laws or disrespected by States, who challenge the validity of traditional legal systems.  Pointing out achievements in Indonesia, where indigenous schools thrive, and in India and Malaysia, where customary laws exist and are respected, he urged the Permanent Forum to encourage more States to follow along the same path.

More robust laws would also help, other speakers said.  Subama Mapou, a representative of the Institut Kanak des Plantes, de l’Artisanat et des Langue Autochtones, or IKAPALA, said traditional knowledge is still not protected in New Caledonia.  To change that, she requested the Permanent Forum to ask the Government of France to protect and recognize the Kanak people as the pre-colonial inhabitants of New Caledonia and for Congress to adopt related legislation.

Leonard Mindore, Tribal Link Foundation, raised concerns about extractive industries in Africa and other regions, emphasizing that when the issue is discussed, it rarely addresses extracting traditional knowledge from indigenous peoples.  With a view to protecting this valuable knowledge, he asked the United Nations and the Permanent Forum to provide adequate resources to do so.

“We need legal protection so that our next generations can continue,” said Uula Magga, a representative of the Suoma Sámi Nuorat Finnish Sami Youth Organization, who expressed grave concerns about a lack of legislation in Finland on reindeer herding.  As many Sámi communities depend on reindeer for their culture and livelihoods, the law in Finland allows all citizens to own and husband reindeer, in contrast to Norway and Sweden, where only indigenous peoples can do so.  The current reindeer husbandry act contradicts the Constitution, which recognizes the rights of the Sámi, as an indigenous people, to develop and maintain their culture, he said, asking the Permanent Forum to request that the Government of Finland amend legislation after fully consulting with, and obtaining the free and informed consent from, the Sámi people.

A representative of the Quechua people in Peru said his people have been viewed as second-class citizens for almost 500 years.  “Today, the same thing happens as if nothing has changed,” he added, noting that traditional knowledge is often discarded or ignored.  A representative of the Navajo Nation outlined various ways his people continued to be maltreated in the United States, including land loss to corporations and violence targeting women.

Jean Whitehorse, representing the American Indian Movement, made an intervention saying that 70,000 Navajo Nation women had been sterilized, which is recognized by the Rome Statute as a crime against humanity.  Indigenous people are a natural part of creation.  “We are the givers of life,” she added, calling on the Forum to study the practice of sterilization of indigenous women.  These criminal medical procedures must stop immediately.  “We also seek an apology from the United States Government,” she stressed.

Opening the panel discussion on the session’s theme, Elifuraha Laltaika, Permanent Forum member from the United Republic of Tanzania, said traditional knowledge is important in preserving the Earth and the historical and cultural identity of indigenous peoples.  One of the challenges at hand is how to translate this knowledge into existing structures and legislation, he said, asking what processes and arrangements should be used to ensure indigenous peoples can enjoy their rights, and what role States and indigenous governance institutions can play and how indigenous knowledge can be protected from misuse in culturally inappropriate ways.

Addressing these and related issues were the following panellists:  Elliot Harris, Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development and Chief Economist at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs; Henrietta Marrie, associate professor, Queensland University in Australia; Preston Hardison, Policy Analyst, Tulalip Natural Resources Treaty Rights Office, United States; and Saoudata Aboubacrine, Coordinator, Association Tin Hinane, Burkina Faso.

Mr. Harris said indigenous peoples are often first to feel the effects of climate change, and they also face displacement, dispossession and other threatening obstacles to fully enjoying their rights.  However, there is increasing recognition of indigenous traditional knowledge, as well as increased participation in international science and technology meetings and at the United Nations.  “Indigenous people must and will be part of the solution,” he said.  “We need concrete actions, and indigenous people must be at the table when discussions are held and decisions are taken.”

Ms. Marrie said international partners must continue to work with indigenous peoples as they remain key to preserving traditional knowledge.  She outlined challenges facing indigenous communities, highlighting the widespread lack of respect for traditional knowledge and languages.  Of the 6,900 indigenous languages in existence today, more than 40 per cent are at risk of being lost, and along with it, invaluable knowledge.  Conserving languages and knowledge can change that trajectory and benefit the world by helping to combat climate change.

Citing recent movements seeking autonomy and involvement in political processes, she said action was needed, including in recognizing the key role women play as custodians, generators and transmitters of traditional knowledge.  In northern Australia, indigenous communities are participating in fire‑management programmes with authorities and sharing their traditional techniques.  Yet, in the absence of strong policies and laws, such knowledge could be lost.  “Indigenous people must be part of the solution,” she said.  “We are key to it being successful.”

Mr. Hardison pointed to gaps in protecting traditional knowledge, spotlighting the role of partnerships.  What makes knowledge traditional is that it is used as a way of life, linked to lands, water and other resources in line with existing rights and obligations, he said.  There are conflicting standards of protection of intellectual property, even though some gains have been made in terms of traditional knowledge.  An exchange of knowledge, for instance, can come when initiatives fully respect indigenous peoples’ culture and values.  Regarding protection of intellectual property systems, he pointed to a tiered approach that examines the distribution of knowledge and how to address past exploitation of indigenous traditional knowledge.  He suggested that funding for indigenous peoples should come from the core budget of World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which should convene a second meeting on these critical issues.

Ms. Aboubacrine said that the risk of land degradation has become even more pronounced because of the risks of climate change.  Indigenous women in the Sahel make their livelihood by raising animals and are often marginalized in their own countries.  Despite steps towards resilience in the last few decades, the mass displacement of women and children remains a major concern.  Moreover, the education system is not adapted to the current climate.  All the traditional and healing knowledge she had learned from her grandmother no longer gets passed down.

Turning to her organization, she said it has initiatives in place that protect animals and plants and stressed the importance of strengthening the grass‑roots efforts of the most isolated people, including pastoral women in the Sahel.  She commended the Forum for its efforts to underscore lessons learned on the ground and for creating enthusiasm to scale up such initiatives.  All stakeholders have a role to play in ensuring the rights of indigenous people.  “It is for all humankind,” she stressed, noting that the importance of traditional knowledge has already been recognized by the international community.  “We need to stop being so timid, especially on the ground,” she added, encouraging all stakeholders to further the agenda at the grass‑roots level.

During the ensuing discussion, high-level Government officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) shared best practices, recommendations and concerns.  Given time constraints to accommodate the large number of NGOs inscribed on the speakers’ list, some delegations, including those from Canada and the United States, ceded their time to give representatives of indigenous peoples’ organizations time to speak.  Jens Dahl, Permanent Forum member from Denmark, ceded his time to a representative of the Sámi community who sang a traditional song.

Many organizations explained their unique situations and offered suggestions.  Daniel Mpoiko Kobei of the Ogiek Peoples’ Development Program said traditional knowledge is what defines indigenous peoples and their languages, which act as the conveyer of this crucial information and must be protected.  Harnessing the potential of youth is key and efforts are now under way in Kenya and to include them in activities that preserve and transmit indigenous knowledge.  In a similar vein, Olga Nikolaeva of the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia and Far East of the Russian Federation, or RAIPON, said indigenous populations must play an active part in preserving the traditional knowledge, lifestyles, industries and economies being practiced today.

Member States offered examples of their approaches.  Mexico’s representative, on behalf of the Group of Friends of Indigenous Peoples, recognized the important role they play on the global stage and pledged support for their continued involvement.  The Russian Federation’s delegate outlined initiatives, from ethnographical expeditions to preserve traditional knowledge to archiving cultural and linguistic heritage.

The representative of Bangladesh, said his country is one of cultural and ethnic diversity, and its Constitution recognizes the fundamental rights of all citizens irrespective of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.  The Government has established seven cultural institutions under the Small Ethnic Communities Cultural Institutions Act.  Meanwhile, its national education policy aims to provide primary education to children of ethnic communities in their mother tongue.  Bangladesh has also established the International Mother Language Institute to foster research and scholarly activities for the preservation of languages.

Denmark’s delegate, speaking on behalf of the Nordic countries, said her home of Greenland has realized benefits from cross-fertilizing scientific and traditional indigenous knowledge.  More broadly, the Nordic countries have taken a range of steps to protect this knowledge now and in the future.

The observer for the European Union said the bloc considered indigenous peoples’ knowledge to be part of the world’s cultural heritage.  Engagement in and support for intercultural dialogue can help to address major global challenges, from climate change and peacebuilding to tackling the spread of extremism.  Many multilateral agreements recognize the value of indigenous peoples and their knowledge, putting them within the framework of conventions such as the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Several speakers from international organizations also highlighted aspects of their work.  A WIPO representative said efforts span a range of technical assistance and normative activities, and consider the valuable role indigenous knowledge plays.

Meanwhile, the representative of the World Bank explained how his organization’s policy framework ensures indigenous peoples’ inclusion in the development process, with the main goal being preserving their knowledge and including their free, prior and informed consent for all projects.  The World Bank continues to engage with indigenous peoples and is examining the creation of a forum to discuss their needs.  Citing several examples of projects, he said a programme in Panama supported intercultural dialogue with indigenous peoples regarding traditional health practices.

However, many speakers said more must be done.  Jennifer Corpuz of the Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education cited many examples of violations of intellectual property, from fashion houses using indigenous art to corporations appropriating health-related knowledge, calling on WIPO to expedite action on supporting protection measures as soon as possible.

Throughout the discussion, several Permanent Forum members highlighted their concerns, including Dmitrii Kharakka-Zaitsev from the Russian Federation, saying that, only through traditional means of preservation can the environment in a particular region of the Russian Federation be saved.  He called on all civic organizations to share their experience and knowledge so that “together, everyone can achieve biodiversity”.  Les Malezer from Australia said the Forum must get the message across that rights have to be respected in all international platforms and mechanisms.

In the afternoon, a discussion was held on the agenda item “Future work of the Permanent Forum, including issues considered by the Economic and Social Council and emerging issues”.

Delivering introductory remarks were Gervais Nzoa, member of the Forum from Cameroon; Luis Alfonso de Alba, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the 2019 Climate Change Summit; and Jens Dahl, member of the Forum from Denmark.  “We are looking for a number of immediate actions that could be the result of public and private partnerships,” Mr. de Alba said, adding that public mobilization is an area where indigenous peoples have a notable advantage.  Indigenous people have caused climate damage the least, but they have been affected the most.  The Secretary-General is asking people to come to the Summit with a plan, rather than written statements, he said.

The representative of Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, echoing several voices, said more attention must be paid to the organization of the session and fine-tuning its procedural aspects, including accreditation to events.  She noted that her organization, which has consultative status in the Economic and Social Council, was not able to speak on an agenda item on Monday.  There is a subjective and discriminatory approach to non-governmental organizations’ engagement, she said.

Alec Baldwin, actor and activist, said it is not possible to address climate change without the restoration and protection of forests.  An essential component of this means investing in and empowering the communities of indigenous people living near forests.  Several indigenous leaders are up against significant barriers and lack secure rights to their land.  The violence against indigenous people must stop, he stressed.  With the theme of this year’s Forum “traditional knowledge”, it is essential to look to the wisdom of indigenous cultures.

Participating in the discussion on the Permanent Forum’s future work were representatives of Guatemala, Mexico and Bolivia.

The representative of the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women) also participated in the discussion.

Also speaking was Grand Chief Edward John of the Tl'azt'en Nation, as well as representatives of Desarrollo Intercultural Chile, Nation of Hawai’i and Education of Indigenous People.

Participating in the discussion on traditional knowledge were representatives of Mexico, New Zealand, Botswana, South Africa, Namibia, Nicaragua, Australia, Guatemala, Bolivia, Chile, Japan, Colombia and Cameroon.

Representatives of the following organizations also spoke:  Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean, or FILAC; Centro de Culturas Indígenas del Perú, or CHIRIPAQ; Native American Rights Fund; Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee, or IPACC; Concejo Regional Indigena del Cauca; Nunatukhavut; New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council; Inuit Circumpolar Council; Taghrma Association; Sami Parliament of Sweden; Metis National Council; Consejo de Pueblos Originarios Nahuat Pipil de Nahuizalco; United Confederation of Taino People; Grand Conseil Coutumier Des Peuples Amerindiens & Bushinenges; Nation of Hawai’i and the International Indian Treaty Council.

Also delivering statements were representatives of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Permanent Forum member Lourdes Tibán Guala (Ecuador) and Vice-Chair Tarcila Rivera Zea (Peru) also participated.

For information media. Not an official record.