The first World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP), which kicked off today at the United Nations General Assembly, provides us with the opportunity to reflect and take action on the vital role that indigenous peoples play in sustainable development, protection of biological diversity, long-term food security, responding to global climate change, and safeguarding the earth’s remaining intact ecosystems.
Although they make up less than 5 percent of the global population, indigenous peoples are guardians of nearly two thirds of the world’s languages, over 80 percent of its biodiversity, and most of the genetic diversity of the planet’s seed crops. As we struggle to find solutions to the world’s most urgent challenges, the importance of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge cannot be overestimated.
Despite remarkable gains in recent decades—including increased participation in international policy-making processes, legal recognition under constitutions of numerous countries and significant advances within the United Nations—indigenous people still face many challenges. Around the world, they are still among the most marginalized peoples, facing multiple forms of discrimination, exclusion and oppression. All too often, development is a threat to their communities; logging, extractive industries, hydroelectric dams, industrial agriculture and even conservation projects continue to decimate their lands, lives and livelihoods.
For this reason, the success of the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples is critical. Not only must the world’s governments adopt a strong outcome document, they must commit to taking action to promote, protect and recognize the rights of the world’s indigenous peoples. On this day, USAID reaffirms our commitment to extending the inclusiveness of its programs, while also highlighting some of our recent work:
- In Colombia, USAID’s Afro-Colombian and Indigenous Program is investing $61.5 million over five years to build up community-based organizations, and ensure their members’ legal rights to the land they inhabit.
- In Peru, USAID is helping indigenous communities protect their lands in the Amazon.
- In Brazil, USAID is training indigenous people to fight forest fires and helping the Surui develop and implement their own land management plan.
- In Guatemala, USAID has improved health clinics, trained providers and worked with communities to improve health in 30 municipalities in the Western Highlands.
- This is encouraging, but there is much more work to do. Less than a year ago, I was honored to be appointed to the new position of Advisor on Indigenous Peoples’ Issues, a role that was created by the U.S. Congress to implement a comprehensive U.S. strategy to support indigenous peoples around the world. I undertake this role with a sense of deep responsibility.
More than two decades spent working with indigenous peoples to promote and defend their rights has prepared me well for this task. I have seen firsthand the devastating impacts that poorly conceived development projects have on communities, and witnessed the brutality that native communities are met with when they seek to protect themselves and their lands. In my new role, I hope to develop policy, programs and projects that will ensure that indigenous peoples are included as equal partners in all of USAID’s work.
When President Barack Obama announced U.S. recognition of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, he declared that the United States is committed to taking a leadership role in ensuring that the collective rights of indigenous peoples—to their lands, resources and knowledge—are recognized and respected internationally. The responsibility for ensuring the long-term survival of indigenous peoples rests with all of us. If we are going to find our way forward to a truly sustainable development, if we are going to create societies that are resilient and democratic, if we are going to advance security and prosperity around the world, we are going to have to work in partnership with indigenous peoples. Let us hope that the WCIP inspires the world’s governments to take action to put into practice the ideals expressed in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
- Find out more about the United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples
- Check out our brief on the key issues, opportunities, and recommendations for strengthening land and resource rights of indigenous peoples.
- Read the Blog: Protecting the Rights of Indigenous Peoples