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by Wayne Campbell
“Indigenous women help protect the fragile territories in which they live. Indigenous women are crucial transmitters of knowledge related to sustainable environmental management to future generations.” – Victoria Tauli-Corpuz- Former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
Oftentimes indigenous peoples are absent from the discourse concerning the protection of their rights and status.
The tendency is for non-indigenous people to speak on their behalf. The United Nations estimates that there is an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples in the world living across 90 countries. They represent less than 5 per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and comprise 5,000 different cultures.
According to the United Nations (UN) globally, 47 per cent of all indigenous peoples in employment have no education, compared to 17 per cent of their non-indigenous counterparts. This gap is even wider for women. Indigenous peoples are nearly three times as likely to be living in extreme poverty compared to their non-indigenous counterparts. Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of “indigenous” has not been adopted by any UN-system body.
Instead a modern understanding of this term indigenous is based on the following: Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member. Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies; distinct social, economic or political systems.
Distinct language, culture and beliefs; resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.
The UN declares indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples. Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history; their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world.
The international community now recognises that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.
Culture and Knowledge
Indigenous peoples are the holders of unique languages, knowledge systems and beliefs and possess invaluable knowledge of practices for the sustainable management of natural resources. They have a special relation to and use of their traditional land. Their ancestral land has a fundamental importance for their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples. Indigenous peoples hold their own diverse concepts of development, based on their traditional values, visions, needs and priorities.
Indigenous peoples often have much in common with other neglected segments of societies, such as the lack of political representation and participation, economic marginalisation and poverty, lack of access to social services and discrimination.
Despite their cultural differences, the diverse indigenous peoples share common problems also related to the protection of their rights. They strive for recognition of their identities, their ways of life and their rights to traditional lands, territories and natural resources.
In 1990, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 1993 the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. On 23 December 1994, the United Nations General Assembly decided that August 9 yearly shall be observed as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
This day is celebrated to raise awareness of the needs of indigenous population groups. On this day the United Nation’s message concerning the protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples is given importance. This year’s theme: “The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge”.
In the Caribbean region there is indisputable evidence that the people we now refer to as Tainos discovered Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards. Our earliest inhabitants were the Caribs, Arawaks and Ciboney groups of indigenous peoples who migrated from South America. Today, descendants of these groups along with other indigenous people such as the Maya, Garifuna, Surinen and Tainos are still to be found in our Region.
The Taínos are the Arawakan-speaking peoples of the Caribbean who had arrived from South America over the course of 4,000 years. The Spanish had hoped to find gold and exotic spices when they landed in the Caribbean in 1492, but there was little gold and the spices were unfamiliar.
While not discounting the contribution of men in the dialogue on indigenous peoples, indigenous women are the backbone of indigenous peoples’ communities and play a crucial role in the preservation and transmission of traditional ancestral knowledge.
The UN adds that many indigenous women are also taking the lead in the defense of lands and territories and advocating for indigenous peoples’ collective rights worldwide. Nevertheless, in spite of the crucial role indigenous women play in their communities, they often suffer from intersecting levels of discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
The Committee of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) highlighted some of the major issues encountered by indigenous women, particularly indicating the high levels of poverty; low levels of education and illiteracy; limitations in access to health, basic sanitation, credit and employment; limited participation in political life; and the prevalence of domestic and sexual violence.
Indigenous women reproduce and protect indigenous identity, culture, and societal roles on the lands and territories they have historically used and occupied.
Given their relationship with the land and natural environment and the marginalisation they face for being women and indigenous, indigenous women are disproportionally affected by the loss of territory due to climate change, the development of megaprojects, and occupation of their lands.
Additionally, patriarchal norms in indigenous communities, created by colonisation, have increased discrimination. In many cases, this has hindered equal access to land rights and resources, limiting development opportunities and women’s participation in decision -making processes.
Historically the voices of women have been muted. This is especially so for indigenous women whose knowledge can be ignored, stolen or lost, as in the case of misappropriation of traditional plants, human remains, and other cultural artifacts taken from burial/cultural sites by collectors, anthropologists, curators, or biologists.
Finally, excluding women’s knowledge from the design of programmes and policies can limit the full enjoyment of indigenous women’s fundamental rights, for example through exclusion of indigenous medicine from State health care systems. Indigenous women are widely under-represented, disproportionately negatively affected by decisions made on their behalf, and are too frequently the victims of multiple expressions of discrimination and violence.
Indigenous women are often excluded from decision-making processes, as international and national institutions overlook their contributions. In order to protect and recognize the role of indigenous women nations, international organizations and indigenous peoples must adopt a culturally appropriate human rights-based approach in accordance with the standards set out in United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
The UN mentioned that the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic poses a grave health threat to Indigenous peoples around the world. Indigenous communities already experience poor access to healthcare, significantly higher rates of communicable and non-communicable diseases, lack of access to essential services, sanitation, and other key preventive measures, such as clean water. Even when Indigenous peoples are able to access healthcare services, they oftentimes face stigma and discrimination.
The UN states there is a large overlap between indigenous peoples’ areas and with very high biodiversity, both in tropical forests and other biodiversity-rich ecosystems. Their social, cultural, economic and political characteristics distinguish them from those of the dominant societies in which they live, however, they share common problems related to protecting their rights as distinct peoples, therefore the environment. Indigenous peoples face discrimination because of their distinct cultures, identities and ways of life, and are disproportionately affected by poverty and marginalisation, accounting for 15 per cent of the world’s poorest population.
A Time of Engagement
Generally, the work of indigenous peoples goes unnoticed and this is problematic. As the international community pauses to acknowledge the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples let us be mindful that the special bond and connection of many indigenous peoples with nature have also led to the protection of the general environment. In this digital age, it is no longer an option to circumvent the voices of the indigenous peoples. This time in history calls for a consultative framework so as to engage indigenous peoples who are still marginalized in the political process.
We have a duty to learn more about indigenous peoples. There is a need for non-indigenous communities to redouble their efforts at creating and fostering a culture of respect and dignity towards indigenous peoples. Undoubtedly, the teaching of history should be compulsory in our education system so that younger generations can be more informed. In order for nations to achieve sustainable development it is critical that governments facilitate a partnership with indigenous peoples in a spirit of harmony and respect. In the words of Chief Tashka Yawanawá, we are tired of anthropologists, environmentalists, church-related organizations and other specialists speaking for us and using us for their self-interest.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. [email protected] @WayneCamo© #IndigenousDay #IndigenousPeoplesDay #WeAreIndigenous