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Indigenous Peoples

9 August is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

There are more than 5,000 communities around the world commonly defined as “indigenous”. The UN celebrates this diversity as a world heritage that must be preserved.

In an ever more globalised world where products and ideas tend to conform, diversity is often seen as an obstacle or something that must be smoothed out.

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, “indigenous peoples and individuals are free and equal to all other peoples and individuals and have the right to be free from any kind of discrimination, in the exercise of their rights, in particular that based on their indigenous origin or identity” © Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Indigenous people’s resistance

But, there are still many communities around the world that are trying to resist cultural levelling and are keeping ancient traditions and ways of life alive that have different social, cultural, economic and political characteristics compared to dominant societies. To celebrate this wonderful human diversity in December 1994 the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the 9th of August as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

Protecting indigenous peoples from “civilisation”

In spite of the uniqueness of every ethnic group and the substantial differences among them, all indigenous peoples have a common problem: the protection of their rights. After centuries of oppression, genocide, colonisation and “exportation of cultures”, the international community has recognised the need to introduce special measures to protect their rights. In 2007 the UN adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the most complete instrument that gives unprecedented importance to collective rights in international human rights law.

indigenous brazil tribes piaçaguera sao paulo documentary potrait reportage
Indigenous Struggle in Brasil is filmmaker and photographer Lucca Messer’s intimate portrait of the 11 tribes of Piaçaguera indigenous land in Brazil, on the south coast of São Paulo. Watch the documentary and read the interview with its author © Lucca Messer

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly exactly ten years ago, the 13th of September 2007. This anniversary, a fundamental step in cultivating respect for native populations, is the focus of this year’s international day. The document establishes the right of indigenous peoples to maintain and reinforce their institutions, cultures and traditions as well as their right to adopt the form of development most appropriate to their needs and aspirations. The Declaration guarantees (at least on paper) indigenous people’s right to education, health, livelihood and language, indigenous populations also enjoy the right to self-determination. In the last ten years a number of important victories have been achieved thanks to the Declaration, but notwithstanding these achievements there is still a large gap between the formal recognition of indigenous peoples and the implementation of adequate policies.

The 2019 edition is dedicated to indigenous languages

The United Nations has declared 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages and this year’s edition of the international day is also dedicated to the objective of preserving the latter, as well as safeguarding the rights and well-being of those who can keep them alive. The foundation of the uniqueness of the 5,000 native communities around the world are there many languages, which not only define their social and cultural identity, but allow them to hand down their customs, knowledge and history. Of the 6,700 languages spoken around the world the vast majority are indigenous. A language becomes extinct every two weeks and whilst the number of people who speak dominant, or “metropolitan” idioms – such as English, Chinese and Spanish – increases, encroaching on the spread of more peripheral ones, between 50 and 90 per cent of languages could disappear by the end of this century. We’re facing the inexorable loss of native peoples’ cultural heritage and there’s little left to do but act to try and save it.

native americans
There are around 370 million indigenous people in the world who live in 90 countries. They make up less than 5 per cent of the global population © David McNew/Getty Images

The word goes to indigenous people

It’s already clear that it’s necessary to involve indigenous representatives at every decision-making level. The first indigenous man to participate in a UN meeting was Ted Moses, a former Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, a tribe native to Canada,min 1989. He denounced the effects of racial discrimination on the economic and social conditions of his people. Despite public declarations, native people’s rights are systematically trampled on, like in Brazil, where the hydroelectric Belo Monte dam was built without consulting local communities. Indigenous peoples also guard fundamental secrets: they know how medicinal plants should be used and understand the language of nature, which many of us have stopped listening to. Reason more to keep preserving these cultures.

Translated by

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