370 million good reasons for putting indigenous peoples' rights at the centre of the land agenda

Andrea Fiorenza
Monday, April 22, 2013

If land rights for poor rural women and men are broadly recognised as playing a key role in promoting food security and sustainable development and are considered by many as fundamental human rights, then one cannot talk about land rights, and debate possible ways for promoting their security, without bringing into the equation the reality of a heterogeneous and yet legally defined global group: indigenous peoples.

According to the 2009 UNDESA State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples report, indigenous peoples comprise more than 370 million people in some 90 countries around the world. The report estimates that they constitute approximately 5 % of the world’s population, but make up 15 % of the world’s poor and about one-third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people.

While the diversity of indigenous people hinders the formulation of a universal identity, the ILO Convention No. 169 provides a set of criteria characterising the indigenous peoples that underline the importance of land, territories and resources for their identity and their livelihoods. Putting her weight behind this discussion, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Prof. James Anaya  argues that the indigenous identity is always characterised by a special relationship with land and natural resources.

Being culturally and historically defined, an identity that is based on such strong ties with land and natural resources brings with it a further and undeniable argument in favour of the recognising and securing the land rights of indigenous peoples in all government and international frameworks: they are the keepers of ancestral knowledge pertaining to natural resource management strategies.

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People “recognizes that respect for indigenous knowledge, cultures and traditional practices contributes to sustainable and equitable development and proper management of the environment”. As noted by the international expert Birgitte Feiring, most indigenous peoples have indeed highly specialised land use practices and livelihood strategies, developed over generations and embedded in knowledge and belief-systems that are often undocumented and governed by customary institutions. Notwithstanding the contribution that such traditional knowledge can bring to sustainable development and ecosystem management, biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation, these systems and traditional institutions still suffer from lack of recognition by modern laws and constitutions, leading to land dispossession, human rights violations and ecosystem disruption.

Over the last few decades, a wide range of actors worldwide have been fighting for these rights to be recognised, expanded and respected. Local and national Indigenous peoples’ organisations like ILC members MARAG in India, MBOSCUDA in Cameroon, UEFA in the Democratic Republic of Congo – among many others - are working in favour of the rights of the Maaldhari (pastoralist), the Mbororo people and the indigenous women living in the East respectively. Other regional or international networks such as the Asia Indigenous People Act or the International Work Group on Indigenous Affairs are also doing incredibly valuable work and pushing for change in collaboration with international agencies such as IFAD. Despite the fact that these efforts have generated positive results, and today several international human rights instruments and mechanisms are available to monitor and safeguard  these rights, a lot remains to be done, both at national and international levels.

The Global Land Forum of the International Land Coalition will take place in Antigua, Guatemala, from 23-27 April 2013, and will be an opportunity for many actors from all over the world to share experiences and views from various countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia to find the best approached for promoting indigenous peoples’ land rights and to identifying ways to mainstream their consideration at all levels.

You can follow the event live from the webcast and via twitter  (#landforum)

Andrea Fiorenza, Membership and National Engagement Strategies (NES)