Championing Rights of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

Posted by Brian Keene
August 10, 2015
An indigenous man wearing face paint and a headdress

In the early 1980s, I began traveling to remote areas of the world, where I was able to visit indigenous communities that were living in peace as well as communities under threat from logging, mining and oil extraction. What I saw and experienced taught me about the threats facing indigenous peoples and about the incredible resilience that they continue to demonstrate against overwhelming odds.

My real education began when I was asked by a group of indigenous leaders to help them get a voice in the 1992 Earth Summit. As we spent months going over the drafts of international agreements, word by word, I learned how indigenous peoples view these issues.

They value traditional knowledge in protecting biodiversity and responding to climate change, and argue that you can’t separate the question of territorial rights for indigenous peoples from environmental protection and sustainable development.

Sunday was the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. As USAID’s Advisor on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues, I join with others around the world in celebrating the achievements and commemorating the struggles of the world’s indigenous peoples. They are the guardians of the Earth’s biological diversity, stewards of the world’s remaining intact ecosystems and have a crucial role to play in finding our way forward to a more just, equitable and sustainable world.

Yet, globally, indigenous peoples face many development challenges as their culture and livelihoods come under increasing threat. They suffer from poorer health, are more likely to experience disability, and ultimately die younger than the rest of the population, according to the World Health Organization. Seen as obstacles to development and progress, some indigenous peoples have been forced off of their traditional territories, robbing them of their way of life and traditional livelihoods, such as farming or fishing.

Indigenous women and children are particularly hard hit by the structural inequalities that indigenous communities face around the world. Indigenous women are often denied access to education, basic health services, and economic opportunities, leaving them disproportionately vulnerable in the face of natural disasters and armed conflict. Many of the most widespread causes of death among indigenous children -- such as malnutrition, diarrhea, parasitic infections, and tuberculosis --are preventable.

If we are to ensure that the health and well-being of indigenous peoples is part of an inclusive development agenda, we must promote their right to self-determination, as well as their rights to collective ownership of lands, resources, and knowledge. Violations of these fundamental rights are directly related to lack of food security, lack of access to sustainable livelihoods, and the disruption of community cohesion, which all lead to poor health and development outcomes.

Last September, the world’s governments and indigenous peoples gathered for the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples. In the outcome document of this historic event, governments made commitments to promote and protect the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples, outlining a path to build peace and promote human development.

The U.S. Government has elaborated on our commitment in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, recognizing that indigenous peoples play a pivotal role in promoting sustainable development and conservation, and fighting climate change. The concerns of indigenous peoples will be integrated in USAID and State Department policies and programs, and the U.S. Government will help them strengthen resource management strategies, legalize their territories and improve their livelihoods.  

As the world’s governments prepare to gather at United Nations headquarters in New York next month to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals, it is critical that they remember the role of indigenous peoples as critical stakeholders in achieving these goals. Only with their participation and by recognizing and protecting their individual and collective rights, can we have development that is inclusive and sustainable.

Today, USAID joins indigenous peoples around the world in calling for the full implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

About the Author: Brian Keane is the USAID Advisor on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues.

Editor's Note: This blog entry originally appeared on the USAID Impact Blog.

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