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10 things we all should know about indigenous people

Story by United Nations Development Programme August 9th, 2017

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. To mark the occasion, the President of the UN General Assembly has convened a high-level event to take stock of progress and discuss what more needs to be done.

It’s a good time for all of us to consider why it’s important to protect indigenous peoples’ rights. Here are 10 things we all should know about indigenous people.

1. WHEREVER WE LIVE, INDIGENOUS PEOPLES ARE OUR NEIGHBOURS.

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries. Indigenous communities are present in all geographic regions and represent 5,000 different cultures.

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2. Indigenous people speak an overwhelming majority of the world's 7,000 languages.

Indigenous languages are not only methods of communication, but also extensive and complex systems of knowledge. Indigenous languages are central to the identity of indigenous peoples, the preservation of their cultures, worldviews and visions and an expression of self-determination.

Many indigenous languages are under threat of disappearing. It is estimated that one indigenous language dies every two weeks. Indigenous languages are critical markers of the cultural health of indigenous peoples. When indigenous languages are under threat, so too are indigenous peoples themselves.

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3. Indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world.

While they make up less than 5 percent of the world's population, indigenous people account for 15 percent of the poorest. Indigenous peoples are more likely to suffer from malnutrition and often lack adequate access to social protection systems and economic resources. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.

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4. INDIGENOUS PEOPLE LIVE SHORTER LIVES.

The life expectancy of indigenous peoples is as much as 20 years lower than that of their non-indigenous counterparts. Often lacking adequate access to health services and information, indigenous peoples have higher levels of diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, HIV and AIDS.

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5. INDIGENOUS WOMEN ARE MORE LIKELY TO SUFFER DISCRIMINATION AND VIOLENCE.

More than one in three indigenous women are sexually assaulted during their lifetime, and they also hive higher rates of maternal mortality, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples draws attention to the needs and rights of indigenous women and calls for action to protect them from violence.

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6. THE WORLD INDIGENOUS PEOPLES’ GAMES BRING TOGETHER ATHLETES FROM AROUND THE WORLD to CELEBRATE INDIGENOUS TRADITIONS.

Athletes from 566 aboriginal communities all over the world took part in the first World Games of Indigenous Peoples, held in 2015 in Brazil. The aim of the games is not only to compete but also to share knowledge and cultures.

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7. INDIGENOUS COMMUNITIES ARE LEADERS ON PROTECTING THE ENVIRONMENT.

Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to the environment. Nearly 70 million indigenous women and men worldwide depend on forests for their livelihoods, while many others depend on activities such as farming, hunting and gathering or pastoralism.

These communities thrive by living in harmony with their surroundings. Research shows that where indigenous groups have control of the land, forest cover is sustained and biodiversity flourishes.

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8. INDIGENOUS PEOPLES ARE FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE EVERY DAY.

Indigenous communities’ contribution to climate change mitigation are far greater than previously thought. Their forestlands store at least one quarter of all above-ground tropical forest carbon – about 55 trillion metric tonnes. This is equivalent to four times the total global carbon emissions in 2014. Given that data isn’t available for all the lands native communities manage around the world, the actual impact is far greater than what we know.

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9. INDIGENOUS PEOPLES ARE KEY PLAYERS IN THE 2030 AGENDA FOR SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT.

From protecting the environment tacking inequality to ensuring peace and security, the Sustainable Development Goals won’t be achieved without the participation of indigenous peoples. The General Assembly has encouraged Member States to give due consideration indigenous peoples’ rights when implementing the 2030 Agenda.

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10. THE UN DECLARATION IS A MAJOR milestone, BUT IT WON’T SUCCEED WITHOUT THE SUPPORT OF PEOPLE EVERYWHERE.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is a major milestone in solidarity between indigenous peoples and the global community. However, there are significant gaps between the formal recognition of indigenous rights and realities on the ground. Since the adoption of the Declaration, several countries, particularly in Latin America, have taken steps to recognize the identity and rights of indigenous peoples, but we have much more to do.

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Footnote: All photos © UNDP; photo editor: Freya Morales
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