UN report paints grim picture of conditions of world’s indigenous peoples

January 2010 – The world’s 370 million indigenous peoples suffer from disproportionately, often exponentially, higher rates of poverty, health problems, crime and human rights abuses, the first ever United Nations study on the issue reported today, stressing that self-determination and land rights are vital for their survival.

Startling figures contained in The State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples include:

· In the United States, a Native American is 600 times more likely to contract tuberculosis and 62 per cent more likely to commit suicide than the general population.

· In Australia, an indigenous child can expect to die 20 years earlier than his non-native compatriot. The life expectancy gap is also 20 years in Nepal, while in Guatemala it is 13 years and in New Zealand it is 11.

· In parts of Ecuador, indigenous people have 30 times greater risk of throat cancer than the national average.

· Worldwide, more than 50 per cent of indigenous adults suffer from Type 2 diabetes – a number predicted to rise.

“Every day, indigenous communities all over the world face issues of violence and brutality, continuing assimilation policies, dispossession of land, marginalization, forced removal or relocation, denial of land rights, impacts of large-scale development, abuses by military forces and a host of other abuses,” the report’s authors said in a news release.

Although indigenous peoples make up only 5 per cent of the global population, they constitute around one third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people. In both developed and developing countries, poor nutrition, limited access to care, lack of resources crucial to maintaining health and well-being and contamination of natural resources are all contributing factors to the terrible state of indigenous health worldwide.

At the report’s launch at UN Headquarters in New York, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Chairperson Vicki Tauli-Corpuz said its value would be far-reaching because it comprises for the first time very clearly aggregated data.

“We believe this is going to be crucial for Governments and for the UN to address more seriously and comprehensively the issues of indigenous people,” she told a news briefing. “It’s very daring and bold in a sense because it does identify countries and the situation of indigenous peoples in various countries both in the developed world as well as in the developing world.”

Indigenous peoples experience disproportionately high levels of maternal and infant mortality, malnutrition, cardiovascular illnesses, HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis (TB), while suicide rates, particularly among youth, are considerably higher in many countries, for example up to 11 times the national average for the Inuit in Canada. The Inuit TB rate is over 150 times higher.

The study repeatedly identifies displacement from lands, territories and resources as one of the most significant threats for indigenous peoples, citing many examples, including in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Hawaii, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Colombia.

“When indigenous peoples have reacted and tried to assert their rights, they have suffered physical abuse, imprisonment, torture and even death,” it says, stressing that their rights to their own lands and territories must be respected while they need to develop their own definitions and indicators of poverty and well-being.

“Indigenous peoples suffer from the consequences of historic injustice, including colonization, dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, oppression and discrimination, as well as lack of control over their own ways of life. Their right to development has been largely denied by colonial and modern States in the pursuit of economic growth,” it adds, warning that the importance of land and territories to indigenous cultural identity cannot be stressed enough.

Of the world’s 6,000 to 7,000 languages, a great majority are spoken by indigenous peoples, and many, if not most, are in danger of becoming extinct, with some 90 per cent possibly doomed within the next 100 years. About 97 per cent of the world’s population currently speaks 4 per cent of its languages, while only 3 per cent speaks 96 per cent of them.

Indigenous peoples, who are the stewards of some of the most biologically diverse areas, accumulating an immeasurable amount of traditional knowledge about their ecosystems, also face the dual and somewhat contradictory threats of discrimination and commodification.

They face racism and discrimination that sees them as inferior, yet they are increasingly recognized for their unique relationship with their environment, their traditional knowledge and their spirituality, leading to external efforts to profit from their culture which are frequently out of their control, providing them no benefits, and often a great deal of harm.
14 January 2010
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on ‘State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples’ Report http://www.un.org/News/briefings/docs/2010/100114_Indigenous.doc.htm

The United Nations today launched its first report on the state of the world’s indigenous people, with the Chair of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, saying it offered a “daring and bold” description of the situation of indigenous persons in health, poverty, education and human rights, and should be fed into the upcoming review of the Millennium Development Goals.

Addressing journalists at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon, Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said the lack of disaggregated data on indigenous people often meant that goals set by Governments to tackle poverty and other social ills did not address the particular situation of indigenous persons.

“The value of this report is really going to be far-reaching, because now we have really very clear information, data and statistics that are also coming from United Nations publications,” she said, explaining that the data in the report ‑‑ which was also being launched today in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Russian Federation and Belgium, and in the Philippines in February ‑‑ was not the sort Governments could deny, since it was collected by the United Nations through a rigorous process.

She said the report contained “damning statistics” on poverty among indigenous people, who made up one third of the world’s 900 million rural poor even when living on lands that were resource-rich. It also described how States indulged in over-exploitation of resources without indigenous peoples’ consent.

“We live in territories which have the richest resources, whether this is oil, gold, forests, water,” said Ms. Tauli-Corpuz. “And yet you find this kind of poverty.”

She said pockets of poverty in the world’s developed countries were commonly made up of the indigenous population. Canada, for example, was perched high on the human development index, but its position would drop considerably if the situation of indigenous people were factored into the index, she said.

Speaking alongside Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, Myrna Cunningham, Director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Autonomy and Development in Nicaragua, said land-rights issues figured prominently in the report, which had repercussions even on health. One of the report’s co-authors and a trained surgeon, she said indigenous peoples’ loss of land had led to changes in diet and a disproportionate rise of diseases like diabetes in their community. The indigenous population also suffered higher rates of cardio-vascular illnesses and, in some countries, had an average life expectancy that was shorter by 20 years, compared to the wider population.

Offering more highlights from the report, Ms. Cunningham said indigenous peoples suffered from higher rates of human rights abuses, in the form of violence against women. And, the “commoditization” of indigenous culture risked impinging on the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination.

“It is very important that the report is coming at this time. For example, the United Nations Development Programme will be working on the human development report in which the concept of development will be analysed,” she said. “As indigenous peoples, we are offering an important tool with this report that should be considered in the discussions on new views of indigenous peoples’ development.”

Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said the next step was to publicize the report widely among Governments, stressing also the benefits of including indigenous peoples in the State’s search for solutions to global problems, like the economic crisis and climate change.

Asked to specifically comment on the role of indigenous people in tackling climate change, she said the indigenous community who were present at the recent Copenhagen Summit had managed to insert a reference to the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the draft outcome document. Although the draft was not adopted at that meeting, she said the insertion of such language into the draft offered hope that an eventual international agreement would include indigenous people in the global process for dealing with climate change.

Aside from climate change, among the emerging issues highlighted in the report was the increased militarization of indigenous territories, which Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said was at risk of becoming worse because of the war on terrorism. A national security report published by the United States, for instance, had identified indigenous peoples as potential terrorists, which she said had come about because of their strong resistance against the exploitation of their territories.

Addressing the issue of United States army bases in Colombia, Ms. Cunningham said that indigenous communities in that country had been concerned by the placement of such bases on their land, and were now engaged in a dialogue with the Government. There was no outcome, yet, on those talks.

Encroachment on indigenous territories was not only at the hands of the military, but also corporations, she said, explaining that, in Guatemala, indigenous peoples had consulted mining companies numerous times to try to become active parties to decisions to mine their lands. The indigenous community there was now fighting to turn the results of those talks into binding agreements.

In Peru, however, arguments over mining on indigenous territory had turned violent, she said, causing 30 people to lose their lives in June 2009. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous persons had recommended that dialogue take place, but so far none had been held

Ms. Tauli-Corpuz said the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues was currently exploring ways to work with the Special Representative on business and human rights to push Governments to adhere to the State duty to protect against human rights violations by third parties, including multinational corporations. It would also advocate for more corporate responsibility to protect rights, and for greater access to both judicial and non-judicial processes for indigenous peoples.


Date of publication: 
14 January 2010
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