The Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues of the United Nations reiterated the position of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of the Indigenous Peoples, which states that “it is unacceptable to undermine the status and the standing of the indigenous peoples by combining them or equating them with non-indigenous entities such as minorities, vulnerable groups or local communities
By Salam Rajesh
The popular usage of “Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities” may soon go out of the official circuit with a proposal for abolishing the usage looming large amidst talks that the proposal could be tabled for discussion at the CBD Biodiversity conference coming up at Montreal in December later this year.
The proposal has sparked discussions around the world, with several ‘Indigenous’ groups preparing to defend and assert their social, cultural and historical identification as ‘Indigenous’ for decades, if not centuries.
In a recent interactive forum ahead of the Montreal biodiversity conference, it was placed for discussion on the issue, specially where the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Issues of the United Nations reiterated the position of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of the Indigenous Peoples, which states that “it is unacceptable to undermine the status and the standing of the indigenous peoples by combining them or equating them with non-indigenous entities such as minorities, vulnerable groups or local communities. Such challenges, whether by States or the United Nations, are not acceptable and shall be challenged by indigenous peoples and those mandated to defend their rights”.
The Permanent Forum further urged all United Nations entities and State parties to treaties concerning the environment, biodiversity and the climate to eliminate the use of the term ‘local communities’ in conjunction with indigenous peoples, so that the term “indigenous peoples and local communities” may be abolished.
The assertion, therefore, is a straightforward campaign to make the position of indigenous peoples clear at the UN platform, and providing the margin between indigenous peoples, and the other local communities. The assertion comes out of the reasoning that the terminology ‘local community’ can denote many things including residents who are neither ‘indigenous’ in the correct perspective nor having a clear social, cultural and historical base.
The word “indigenous” is an adjective with the broad dictionary meaning “originating or occurring naturally in a particular place; a native”. The Merriam-Webster dictionary explains ‘indigenous’ as “having originated in and being produced, growing or living naturally in a particular region or environment”.
The word which emerged in the mid-17th century anno domino is a derivative from the Latin word “indigena”, literally meaning “a native”. The description further exerts that ‘Indigenous Peoples’ as ‘distinct social and cultural groups that share collective ancestral ties to the lands and natural resources where they live, occupy or from which they have been displaced’.
‘The land and natural resources on which indigenous peoples depend are inextricably linked to their identities, cultures, livelihoods, as well as their physical and spiritual well-being. They often subscribe to their customary leaders and organizations for representations that are distinct or separate from those of the mainstream society or culture’.
The International Labour Organization maintains that many Indigenous Peoples still maintain a language distinct from the official language or languages of the country or region in which they reside. Indigenous peoples speak more than 4000 of the world’s languages, though some estimates indicate that more than half of the world’s languages are at risk of becoming extinct by 2100.
The ILO estimates that there are as many as 476 million Indigenous Peoples across the world. They often lack formal recognition over their lands, territories and natural resources, and are often the last to receive public investments in basic services and infrastructure and face multiple barriers to participate fully in the formal economy, enjoy access to justice, and participate in political processes and decision making. This legacy of inequality and exclusion has made Indigenous Peoples more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural hazards.
A recent World Bank assessment says that “Much of the land occupied by Indigenous Peoples is under customary ownership, yet many governments recognize only a fraction of this land as formally or legally belonging to Indigenous Peoples. Insecure land tenure is a driver of conflict, environmental degradation, and weak economic and social development”.
This assessment indeed brings out the ground truth that insecure land tenure threatens cultural survival and vital knowledge systems of the IPs, and which leads to loss in biodiversity which in turn threatens essential ecosystem services upon which many of the Indigenous Peoples depend for their living and livelihoods.
The World Bank asserts that “improving security of land tenure, strengthening governance, promoting public investments in quality and culturally appropriate service provision, and supporting indigenous systems for resilience and livelihoods are critical to reducing the multidimensional aspects of poverty while contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)”.
In these past two decades, Indigenous Peoples’ rights have been increasingly recognized at global platforms. International instruments like the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazu Agreement, 2021), the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP, 2007), the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2016), and the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (1991).
At the same time, global institutional mechanisms have been created to promote indigenous peoples’ rights, such as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNSR).
Summing up on the significance of Indigenous Peoples’ presence in this current setup, the World Bank has this to comment, “While Indigenous Peoples own, occupy, or use a quarter of the world’s surface area, they safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Indigenous Peoples hold vital knowledge and expertise on how to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate and disaster risks”.
It is quite interesting that in the US system, after two consecutive generations of parents who do not have native Indian status, the third generation is no longer entitled to registration as native American Indian.
This brings to the fore the crucial question of who still are “Indigenous” and whether could a run on the Ancestry DNA Test would be necessary to establish the correct identity of an IP group who insists they are ‘indigenous’ by all counts and set to rest all arguments as to the ancestry of the IP in question.
In Manipur, perhaps, the Ancestry DNA Test could spill up more controversy than resolutions. The thrust on the terminology “Yelhoumee” (for indigenous) is quite strong here, despite the historical records of cross migration of different sets of peoples during various periods of history, in-coming both from the West and the East, either for military campaigns or for trade and commerce.
(The writer looks at environmental stories through the journalistic lens. He can be reached at [email protected])