In New Report, UN Says Indigenous Peoples Still Struggling for Land Rights

548 views | Akanimo Sampson | March 15, 2021

In spite of the fact that the world’s indigenous peoples live in areas that contain around 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity, many are still struggling to maintain their legal rights to lands, territories and resources, going by a new UN report. 

The world’s indigenous peoples call 22 per cent of the global land surface home. They live in areas where you find about 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity and much of the world’s non-commercially exploited land and many of its remaining mineral and forest resources, major rivers, fossil fuels and sources of renewable energy.

While often described as the custodians of our Earth’s precious resources, they are frequently denied their rights to lands, territories and resources, according to a new UN DESA publication.

The latest volume of the State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples entitled Rights to Lands, Territories and Resources, examines these continuing obstacles along with some of the major risks and reprisals that indigenous human rights defenders face for protecting and defending their land, including increasing criminalisation, harassment, assault and killings. But the new publication also offers solutions and ways forward.

“Ensuring the collective rights of indigenous peoples to lands, territories and resources is not only for their well-being, but also for addressing some of the most pressing global challenges, such as climate change and environmental degradation”, said UN Chief Economist and Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development, Elliott Harris, at the launch of the publication on March 12.

“Advancing those rights is an effective way to protect waterways and biological diversity. Achieving the Sustainable Development Goals overall is not possible without fulfilling the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands, territories and resources”, Harris said.

Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Anne Nuorgam, says “we can do so much better. We have the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that the United Nations adopted 17 years ago.

“What we need is […] real action and for my part and on behalf of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, we are ready to work with governments on this.”

UN DESA’s Division for Inclusive Social Development is inviting audiences from around the world to join two launch events on 15 and 16 March to learn more about this new publication and its findings. Access the complete publication here.

The latest edition of the State of the World’s Indigenous People report examines challenges communities face in asserting their rights to lands, whether in the context of agribusiness, extractive industries, development, conservation and tourism. 

“Ensuring the collective rights of indigenous peoples to lands, territories and resources is not only for their well-being, but also for addressing some of the most pressing global challenges such as climate change and environmental degradation”, said Harris.  

Custodians of the Earth 

Indigenous people are often described as “the custodians of our Earth’s precious resources”, DESA said.  Their traditional knowledge of the land, and territorial rights, are gaining wider recognition as countries confront the impacts of climate change.

Just over five years ago, Governments adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which lays out a roadmap to a safer and equitable future for all people and the planet through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Although the 17 SDGs address key indigenous concerns, they still fall short in some respects, Mr. Harris told journalists.

“For example, the 2030 Agenda does not fully recognize collective rights in relation to lands and resources, or to health, education, culture and ways of living”, he said.  “And yet, collective rights lie at the very heart of indigenous communities.”

Land conflicts on the rise 

Harris outlined other serious challenges, noting that in many parts of the world, indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources remain limited or unrecognized. Even where there is legal support, implementation is frequently stalled or inconsistent.

Indigenous rights activists have also faced enormous risks and reprisals for defending their lands, ranging from criminalisation and harassment, to assault and killings, he added.

Anne Nuorgam reported that there has been a rise in cases of encroachment onto indigenous lands and territories during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns.

“The sources of conflict are many, from resource extraction, logging, land for renewal energy sources and agribusiness to conflict between indigenous pastoralists, nomadic herders and farmers over shrinking grazing lands due to war, and the effects of climate change as well as the establishment of conservation areas”, she said in a statement read at the launch.

“The lack of respect for the principle and the meaning of free, prior and informed consent by both governments and the private sector continues unabated.”  

The UN report concludes with several recommendations for national authorities as they strive to meet the SDGs.

The authors advise States to include recognition of customary rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and resources in data on secure land tenure rights.

Governments are also urged to collect better data, disaggregated by ethnicity and indigenous identity, so that challenges faced by specific indigenous communities are more accurately reflected in SDG reporting.

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