By Mariele Diehl and Arnold Groh
© S.A.C.S., 2020
Only a fraction of indigenous peoples worldwide has not been displaced from their traditional homelands, even though international law protects their land rights. However, we shall look for ways to turn the CoViD-19 crisis into an opportunity for the rights of indigenous peoples. By acknowledgement of their land rights, indigenous peoples can return to their homelands, revitalise their traditional way of life, support themselves, and at the same time be protected from the pandemic.
Indigenous peoples have rights
In September 2007, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (short: UNDRIP). As often-marginalised groups, experiencing discrimination, facing eviction and poverty due to the loss of their lands, special rights and protection are essential for the survival of indigenous peoples and their cultures.
Among the frequently violated laws are those that grant indigenous peoples their Land Rights. “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands (...) that they possess by reason of traditional ownership” (Article 26) and states are obliged to prevent actions that dispossess indigenous peoples of their lands (Article 8). The UNDRIP also includes, inter alia, the right to self-determination (Article 3) and the right to autonomy or self-government in matters relating to their internal and local affairs (Article 4). Article 8 includes the right of not to be forced into assimilation, and it forbids any action that has the aim or effect of destabilising an indigenous culture. Article 11 ensures the right of indigenous peoples to practise and revitalise their cultural traditions and customs.
Current implementation of indigenous rights
Naively, one could assume that having their rights defined in a participatory process, written down and protected by the world’s largest, internationally acknowledged intergovernmental organisation, the United Nations, the situation of the world’s indigenous peoples would have changed since 2007. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
As the number of languages is an indicator of the number of cultures, there are about 7,000 cultures on this planet, with the majority being indigenous. Around 2,000 of them are severely threatened (Austin and Sallabank, 2011). We are in the middle of a culturicide that endangers the beautiful cultural diversity of this planet, although this diversity would be necessary for the survival of humanity. Humankind needs cultures to have safe-havens as niches, where they can survive when the global system becomes destabilised, be it by environmental damage and climate-change, the exponential growth of the population, or other factors (Meadows et al, 1972).
For the protection of these cultures, their Land Rights are essential. Only in their traditional homelands can indigenous peoples practice their traditional ways of life, including their millennia-old hunting and gathering techniques, preserve their knowledge of nature, and pass this on to the next generations. But it is only the exception that indigenous peoples still live in and have access to their homelands; eviction is the rule. Only 375,000 of the 476 million indigenous people across the globe have not been displaced from their original homelands (FAO, 2020; Strobel, 2018), and this number is expected to grow. This situation leads to the loss of traditional knowledge and means of survival resulting in poverty and vulnerability.
The role of social protection and the CoViD-19 pandemic
This situation of indigenous peoples has already been catastrophic before the CoViD-19 pandemic, throughout the 500 years of European Colonialism. But the 2020 pandemic has even worsened the situation for many indigenous peoples dramatically (UN EMRIP, 2020). One example is the Batwa people of Uganda. Having been evicted from their traditional homelands in the 1990s, they survived mainly on begging and feeding themselves from garbage. Only occasionally, some of them were allowed to access their forest for a few hours for hunting and gathering to prevent them from starving. Due to the CoViD-19 restrictions, the Batwa were confined to the shanties where they had been forced to stay, and even forbidden to go out for any garbage. A situation that became critical.
Yet, CoViD-19 could also be an opportunity for governments to acknowledge and execute indigenous people’s rights and letting them return to their traditional territories, where they can provide for themselves and where they are much safer from COVID- 19 infections. Unfortunately, such actions are not taken by most governments of states where indigenous peoples live. The international community should therefore put pressure on these governments to let indigenous people return to their homelands - because they have the right to do so.
The best approach to social protection for most indigenous peoples does not come from outside policies and programmes, it is already there in their cultures: Indigenous peoples know how to sustain themselves, yet without land rights they cannot do that. These rights, as well as their right to revitalise their cultures, are granted by the UNDRIP, though generally, indigenous rights are only formally acknowledged and hardly translated into action.
Indigenous peoples as an exception for social protection programmes
Non-indigenous marginalized groups may benefit greatly from well-tested social protection measures like access to education, electricity and infrastructure that provide social security and opportunities for their integration into the globalised society. But to most indigenous peoples, these programmes could even be a threat to their culture and their rights. Therefore, policy makers and NGOs should apply particular procedures when they want to improve the living conditions of an indigenous community.
- Informed consent. Every social protection programme can only be executed with the full, prior and informed consent of the members of the indigenous group concerned. They should be informed about possible threats of the programme to the survival of their indigenous culture. This information needs to be given in a way that avoids any effects of cultural dominance. When contacting an indigenous group maintaining its traditions, measures to reduce dominance effects can include: The removal of (globalised) clothes and items like watches, mobile phones, etc.; a suitable translation into the indigenous language; an interested, open, and non-judgemental attitude towards the traditional cultural customs.
- Disaster and hunger relief. Disasters like droughts, often evoked by climate change, can hit indigenous communities very hard, especially those who have lost the access and refuge of their traditional territories. Short-term measures like providing food during an immediate hunger crisis should take place in a culturally sensitive way and with the informed consent of the indigenous community.
- Legal assistance. Indigenous communities have the right not to integrate themselves into the globalised society and to rather prefer to continue living in seclusion and/or to revitalise their indigenous culture. If such a decision is made, it must be respected. In this case, the best social protection can be to simply provide legal assistance to these indigenous groups, informing them about their rights as indigenous peoples, to offer support in legal disputes. For those indigenous peoples whose land rights have been violated, defence at national and international courts should be offered.
The future of this world
Indigenous peoples are not a fossil from the past of human existence. They are the future of human existence. Because they still have the knowledge of how to live in, with and from nature, without destroying it. In contrast to that, the industrial civilisation is very skilful in consuming and destroying resources. Therefore, indigenous peoples should be seen as key figures of sustainability and as protectors of biodiversity. If we want to change our handling of the world and of its nature, we must be willing to learn from indigenous peoples. But their traditional knowledge is endangered by the ongoing process of eviction, by forcing them to integrate into the industrial culture, which is presently destroying this planet. Cut off from their forests, their water supply, their fish, their traditional ways of life, indigenous cultures are at the verge of extinction. It should be the indigenous peoples’ decision - and only theirs - as how far they want to participate in the industrial culture. And it should be marked that this freedom of decision does not invalidate any of their rights.
Implementing the rights of indigenous peoples to return to their homelands and to revitalise their culture means to protect their traditional knowledge and to prevent the extinction of their cultures. With the opportunity to sustain themselves and to live their ways of life, indigenous peoples can provide themselves with social protection. Thus, honestly acknowledging indigenous peoples’ rights is an essential and strongly needed contribution to the protection of this world’s future.
Therefore, governments should be urged to immediately apply the rights that indigenous peoples have been granted by the UN Declaration. The CoViD-19 pandemic should be used as an opportunity to eventually do so.
“This blog post is published as part of the activities to promote and disseminate the results and key discussions of the global e-Conference ‘Turning the COVID-19 crisis into an opportunity: What’s next for social protection?’, held in October 2020. The blog summarises the key messages from the e-Conference’s Side Event on Cultural diversity and the inclusion of indigenous rights into the planning processes of social protection. The session was conducted by Arnold Groh, head of the Research Unit at Structural Analysis of Cultural Systems. You can watch the full session here”.
Austin, P. K., & Sallabank, J. (Eds.). (2011). The Cambridge handbook of endangered languages. Cambridge University Press. See also: ethnologue.com (continuously updated).
FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 9 Aug. 2020). COVID-19 and indigenous peoples. Rome. Accessible here: https://doi.org/10.4060/ca9106en
Meadows, D. H., Meadows, D. L., Randers, J., & Behrens, W. W. (1972). The limits to growth. New York, 102(1972), 27.
Strobel, L. (2018). When Indigenous Peoples Are Evicted or Displaced, We Are All Culpable. Acessible here: https://medium.com/@lenystrobel/when-indigenous-peoples-are-evicted-or-d... (accessed 9 Dec. 2020).
UN EMRIP (2020). International Expert Group Meeting on the theme Indigenous Peoples and Pandemics, 7-11 Dec. 2020, New York. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Concept Note (PFII/2020/EGM).
United Nations General Assembly (2007). Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples. Resolution adopted [without reference to a Main Committee (A/61/L.67 and Add.1)] 61/295.