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No Culture Left Behind: Ensuring Indigenous Rights ‘take root’ in the UN’s post-2015 Development Agenda  

12 May

Editor’s Note:   This piece by GAPW’s Human Rights Fellow, Karin Perro, explores the growing sustaiinability, human rights and climate implications for the health of indigenous communities. In many UN commissions and conference rooms, including the current Forum on Forests, respect for indigenous rights is growing in promience as are the worldviews that ground indigenous communities. As Perro makes clear, no successful post-2015 development strategy can neglect the aspirations and contributions of indigenous peoples.

As winter relinquished its final hold on UN Headquarters, springtime’s colorful cherry blossoms and tulip buds vied for attention with the vibrant hues and textures of traditional native attire embellishing UN corridors. The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues kicked off on April 20, 2015 under the capable leadership of Australian Chair Megan Davis, who began the fourteenth session urging full participation of indigenous representatives in shaping the Forum’s agenda.

In his introductory statement DSG Jan Eliasson eloquently set the Forum’s tone, calling for a collective embrace of indigenous peoples’ visions and aspirations while reaffirming the UN commitment to indigenous rights, including the right to health, education, land, and self-determination. Imploring a global ‘peace negotiation with nature’ and respect for all living things, Eliasson invoked (for many) indigenous spiritualism as embodied by an inviolate ‘Mother Earth’, and emphasized the need for safeguarding the world’s environmental health that is so vital to both indigenous community and global development.

The right to ancestral lands was a tenuous thread woven throughout the Forum proceedings, with significant indigenous clamoring for ‘free, prior, and informed consent’ in matters of land rights and development initiatives. And rightly so – depletion of land fertility, dumping of radioactive waste, deforestation, and contamination of waters by extractive industrial processes are all byproducts of multinational corporations’ circumvention of prior and informed consent mandates, too often with state complicity and ineffective regulation enforcement.

There are, of course, other social and environment forces at play that adversely impact indigenous land rights and usage, beyond the prescience or control of well-meaning governance bodies or human agency. Natural disasters, climate change, and soil and water defamation due in part to illicit crop cultivation leave indigenous people dispossessed of land and land-dependent livelihoods, reduces tourism revenues, and decimates traditional medicine and food resources. As the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Issues noted, indigenous peoples compromise 5% of global population but 15% of the world’s poor.   Eradicating indigenous poverty, hunger and malnutrition can only be attained if proactive measures are funded and enforced to protect vulnerable lands, forests, oceans and coastlines and halt all forms of environmental degradation.

Increasingly the UN has recognized the undeniable connection between natural resources, environmental health and sustainable development. This is good news for indigenous communities that rely on local natural resources for subsistence and food security. However, potentially irreversible environmental consequences lead many disaffected indigenous youth to abandon traditional practices and seek alternative employment beyond ancestral territories.  Assimilation erodes the link to cultural identity and knowledge, as limited opportunities for traditional livelihoods encourage youth migration to urban centers. Once there, pervasive discrimination and inadequate education create barriers for entry into the mainstream workforce.

Consequently, the damage inflicted upon the collective indigenous psyche is staggering.  According to cited research reports, rights curtailments and the continued denial of self-determination has led to an alarming acceleration in youth self-harm, suicides, and alcohol abuse. Substandard or scant mental healthcare facilities are often ill equipped to provide culturally sensitive care, treatment or support.  As a result, indigenous youth representatives expressed feeling disaffected, disempowered and ‘spiritually broken’.  Hopelessness now thrives where once pride and dignity proliferated, rooted in a spiritual connection to nature that engendered vibrant culture diversity and a richness of cultural heritage.

For many, past injustices still inflict fresh wounds and reopen unhealed scars. Proud indigenous representatives condemned the persistent remnants of colonialism, casting an uneasy (and in some corners unwelcome) spotlight on the insidious legacy of Western dominance, born from arrogance and greed, and fed on ignorance and fear. Treaty violations, unfulfilled promises, contested spaces, political exclusion, and cultural genocide remain stubbornly resistant to the implementation of fair and equitable policies. Where fragile incipient democracies struggle for survival, dormant seeds of dissention now sprout and propagate largely unimpeded, supplanting rule of law and strong governance. Many of the world’s indigenous are now perilously caught in the chaotic interstice between regional armed conflicts and nationalism, xenophobia and ethnic cleansing, forcing their displacement and threatening their cultural existence.

In spite of the identifiable commonalities within the global community of indigenous peoples, there are also substantial distinctions among and between groups that preclude a one-size-fits-all policy approach.   The Forum’s kaleidoscopic cultural display often reflected the diverse – and often divergent – grievances expressed by indigenous participants. If too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the broth, will too many diverse indigenous issues on the Forum’s platter undermine their fully realized inclusion in the upcoming post-2015 sustainable development goals?

For indigenous activist leaders seeking commonality of causes within the indigenous movement as a means of pooling resources for greater political leverage, a force-fitting of group-specific goals into overarching umbrella targets may inadvertently create policy vacuums for already isolated or less vocal indigenous groups. Many smaller indigenous communities already have societal burdens too great to shoulder without also having to contend with the ‘double-whammy’ of additional marginalization within an already marginalized community.

That said, aligning indigenous interests with other rights-based groups, particularly those having garnered significant visibility and influence, could prove useful in gaining an indigenous foothold in the pre-September 2015 scramble to endorse a set of SDGs. Indigenous solidarity may well increase pressure in international forums to comply with their general demands, but pressuring of regional and national institutions will still be crucial in promoting singular or specific needs-based targets unique to discrete indigenous communities.

To the outside observer, there was a noticeable (if unsurprising) unwillingness to acknowledge the competing needs of coexisting, non-indigenous groups suffering from the same (or similar) inequities that require redress in both developing and developed states. Impoverished indigenous and non-indigenous populations often compete for the same limited financial aid, social programs, and government resources.  State obligations to uphold the respective rights of all citizens often lead to internal conflicts of interest that can be difficult to reconcile.Moving forward will require clear targets and enforceable monitoring, and transparency mechanisms. Also troublesome is state non-compliance with UNDRIP and other non-binding international instruments. The UN system suffers from inadequate mechanisms to enforce what is ultimately a state responsibility to its people, including state duty to consult with indigenous peoples on policies and legislature that directly impact their maintenance of traditions and cultural heritage.

The UN is (arguably) at its best when providing aspirational goals and normative frameworks and (it is hoped) creating concrete policy guidelines; less so in their implementation and financing of those goals and frameworks. As reiterated in the Forum, indigenous rights are human rights. Civil society and private sector stakeholders, in unison with governmental agencies and institutions, will ultimately be tasked with implementinguniversal development goals. To date, scant mention has been given to indigenous concerns in the post-2015 SDGs.  If we truly envision an inclusive human rights based development agenda, we must ensure indigenous issues are fully addressed by member state governments. States must be held accountable for inclusion of indigenous people in data aggregations to formulate more inclusive national action plans that provide fair redress to legitimate grievances and close socio-economic gaps.  For its part, the UN and other international governing bodies must fully integrate indigenous rights within the human rights based SDG framework.  Only through a conscious (and conscientious) cultivation of fair and equitable policies will indigenous societies be allowed to re-establish their cultural roots and assure their survival.

 Karin Perro, Human Rights Fellow, GAPW