On December 23, 1994, the United Nations General Assembly decided in resolution 49/214 that on August 9th each year, International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples would be celebrated. This date marks the day of the first meeting in 1982 of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Watch the brief video below created by the UN in 2018 to learn a little bit more:
There are more than 476 million Indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the globe. This accounts for 6.2% of the entire world population. Indigenous peoples own, occupy or use approximately 22% of the global land area. While many Indigenous groups across the globe self-govern and are successful in their autonomy, many are still under the authority of central governments who exercise control over their lands, territories, and resources. Some examples of particularly successful autonomous Indigenous groups include the Haudenosaunee in North America and the Sámi parliaments in the Nordic countries.
Note: If we accidentally missed any, please let us know and we will make edits!
In an attempt to illustrate just how many Indigenous “reserves”, “colonies”, “pueblos”, “rancherias” and “tribes” exist just within North America alone, we created the above map. This map depicts all of the Indigenous-designated lands (including lands “in trust”), within Canada and the United States of America. Let it be noted that the only reason Mexico has not been included in this map, is because the Mexican government does not recognize Indigenous peoples or their lands in Mexico as Canada and America do. The country does not have its own enrollment system or officially designated lands; as such, the only statistics available include the percentage of residents in each state that self-identify as Indigenous (see Figure 1).
Unfortunately, in many places across the globe, Indigenous peoples lack formal recognition over their lands, territories and natural resources, and are often the last to receive public investments to fulfill basic needs and community infrastructure. As well, many experience multiple barriers to success, such as equitable access to healthcare, the justice system, inclusion in decision-making processes, and educational opportunities.
While the different groups experience different challenges due to their geographies and their experiences with non-Indigenous peoples in the area (including the government and civilians), many continue to be met with severe marginalization, extreme poverty, and many other human rights violations. Even though Indigenous peoples make up just over 6% of the world’s population, they also account for 15% of the world’s poorest.
Overall, Indigenous peoples are integral, as they work to safeguard 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. Not only that, but they hold integral ancestral knowledge that can help us to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate change risks (see Figure 2). As such, it is important that both the global community and individual nations genuinely work on reconciling with their Indigenous populations. With climate change worsening and natural disasters becoming more frequent and widespread, it is important that we all work together, Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike.
UNESCO clearly recognizes this need, proving this with their establishment of 2021’s theme for International Day of World’s Indigenous Peoples as: “leaving no one behind: Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract.” This is important, as many societies have attempted to address their colonial pasts with Indigenous peoples through apologies, truth and reconciliation efforts, and legislative and constitutional reforms at the international level. While these efforts have largely been on an international level, they have included the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007) and advisory bodies such as the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2000).
Unfortunately, despite the existence of these international instruments that were created specifically to respond to these inequalities, not enough progress is being made by its Member States. As such, UNESCO is calling for the creation and redesign of a new social contract “as an expression of cooperation for social interest and common good for humanity and nature.” However, they also highlight the need for a new social contract that is based on “genuine participation and partnership that fosters equal opportunities and respects the rights, dignity and freedoms of all.” Allowing Indigenous peoples to exercise their right to participate in decision-making processes is considered a key component to successful reconciliation between Indigenous peoples and States.
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