The history of Indigenous peoples is one marred by colonialism, forced assimilation, and other human rights violations. Today, Indigenous peoples and communities around the world continue a long struggle to preserve their traditions, identity, and ancestral lands – an endeavor that includes the protection of nature in these territories.
This history of being discriminated against and excluded makes it even more striking that the world now increasingly looks to Indigenous people as we search for answers to some of the most urgent human rights challenges of our time. Bearing this in mind, the theme of this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples focusing on the role of women and the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge, must be heard by the entire international community – through dedicated spaces like the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, but also beyond in other UN fora, so that their meaningful participation may influence all types of national and global policy making, such as in the areas of human rights, environment, development, and peace.
Although Indigenous people only make up around six percent of the global population, they protect eighty percent of the biodiversity left in the world. Often preserved through traditional practices, these tend to be areas where nature is degrading less rapidly, and which are now considered critical in combatting the global environmental crises. Heeding and implementing this knowledge will be essential to preserving a livable planet and realizing the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, which was recently recognized by the UN General Assembly. Importantly, the resolution also acknowledges the disproportionate impacts of environmental damage on Indigenous peoples, amongst other communities.
At the same time, many Indigenous lands and territories across the world remain under threat, including by corporate interests and activities. In places like Brazil, Guatemala, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands, Franciscans support Indigenous peoples and communities that stand up to extractive industries, megaprojects, and large-scale agricultures, facing threats and criminalization for doing so. Their experiences, challenges and the lessons learnt from these struggles are invaluable to the ongoing negotiations at the UN on new and binding international rules to prevent companies to do harm to human rights and the environment. These must include respect for the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous peoples and communities. More generally, such rules will also improve accountability and access to justice when harm has occurred.
Although this participation in national and international debates of indigenous people is key, claiming and defending human rights remains dangerous work. This is especially true for Indigenous human rights defenders and their allies, who have faced threats and intimidation in countries across the world. In their 2021 Global Analysis, Front Line Defenders reports that human rights defenders working on environment, land, megaprojects, and Indigenous peoples’ rights are most often targeted because of their work.
In their struggle for human rights, Franciscan sisters and brothers have long stood with Indigenous communities. As part of this endeavor, Franciscans International has helped provide a platform for Indigenous voices at the United Nations in both Geneva and New York. Our work also includes the development of resources, such as our fact-sheets on Covid-19 and Indigenous Peoples, that empower Indigenous human rights defenders at all levels to more effectively engage with the UN.
On the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we call on the international community to not only address the many human rights issues still facing Indigenous peoples and communities across the world, but also to welcome them as invaluable actors in solving the many urgent crises we face today.