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"Enhancing Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination in the context of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: emphasizing the voices of Indigenous youth”. Source: UNDESA - Photo: 2024

A Sustainable Future Must Respect Indigenous Peoples’ Worldviews

By Dario José Mejía Montalvo*

The writer is Chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

NEW YORK | 1 April 2024 (IDN) — The recent sessions of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) have addressed crucial issues and persistent and emerging challenges for the realization of Indigenous Peoples’ rights. For example, during the 2022 session, amidst the pandemic, the main theme was “Indigenous Peoples, business, autonomy and the human rights principles of due diligence including free, prior and informed consent”.

It was evident that many of the institutions and achievements obtained through decades of Indigenous Peoples’ struggles have been weakened or set aside in favor of measures for economic recovery, often justified under the language of energy transition or to develop adaptation or mitigation measures against the effects of climate change. During the 2022 session, I presented a study on Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the context of the global energy matrix transition, where we identified several risks and made recommendations.

In an endeavor to delve deeper into these issues, the Permanent Forum opted to center the 2023 session around the theme “Indigenous Peoples, human health, planetary and territorial health, and climate change: a rights-based approach.” During the session, the Permanent Forum heard insights from representatives from States, United Nations bodies and Indigenous Peoples from the seven socio-cultural regions of the world. A consensus emerged among participants, acknowledging that the solutions pursued by States to tackle the effects of climate change predominantly stem from market dynamics and models of resource extraction projects.

Furthermore, it was observed that these solutions often employ language closely aligned with environmental conservationism and other frameworks that are not inherently aligned with Indigenous Peoples’ worldviews, ways of life, and rights. These strategies, largely semantic in nature – change of words and language-–have inadvertently exacerbated the pre-existing vulnerabilities faced by Indigenous Peoples. This situation is exacerbated by the disproportionate impact of climate change on Indigenous Peoples, despite their minimal contribution to pollution or environmental degradation.

“Indigenous Peoples in a Greening Economy”

Taking note of these realities, the Permanent Forum recommended to ECOSOC the development of an international expert meeting on “Indigenous Peoples in a Greening Economy”.

Simultaneously, to provide an opportunity to expand on the multiple statements of Indigenous Peoples that highlighted the increasing vulnerabilities to Indigenous Peoples’ rights in the context of transitioning economies, particularly the right to self-determination, the Forum agreed that the 2024 session would address the theme “Enhancing Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination in the context of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: emphasizing the voices of Indigenous youth”.

A brief reflection on this matter underscores that the recognition of Indigenous Peoples within international legal frameworks not only entails acknowledging their distinctiveness, but also involves recognizing them as collective rights holders; a category that adds to the categories of individual subjects and collective rights that had already been gradually incorporated.

The right to self-determination lies at the core of Indigenous Peoples’ collective nature and is indispensable in safeguarding their present and future existence. For this reason, the Permanent Forum has given emphasis to the voices of Indigenous youth, because the right to self-determination is closely related to the conditions, capacities, and values that present generations will transmit to future ones.

In preparation for the Permanent Forum, we participated in the International Expert Group Meeting on “Indigenous Peoples in a Greening Economy”. The event took place from January 23 to 25 at the University of Colorado, Boulder, USA.

Among several conclusions, I could highlight that it was reaffirmed that Indigenous Peoples from all regions of the world have their own perspectives on the economy. Consequently, terms like green economy, circular economy, nature-based solutions, or other expressions are actually adaptations of prevailing economic paradigms rooted in market-driven models. Thus, it’s crucial to recognize that these terms do not belong to Indigenous Peoples and cannot be interpreted as their own views.

Relating to Mother Earth

As a corollary of this conclusion, for example, the ways in which Indigenous Peoples relate to Mother Earth have enabled them to maintain diverse forms of life within their territories—which science calls biodiversity. Consequently, these ancestral knowledge systems represent one of humanity’s primary assets in addressing the challenges posed by climate change. For this same reason, it cannot be interpreted that Indigenous Peoples’ knowledge and ways of life are equivalent or can be attributed to the commitments and goals that States have agreed upon in climate and biodiversity conferences.

With this accumulation of reflections and concrete working experiences gleaned from engaging with diverse Indigenous Peoples around the world, there is no doubt that Indigenous Peoples not only have the right to be heard in global decision-making forums discussing possible paths to address various challenges, including climate change and peace. They are also prepared and ready to contribute at levels of rigor and creativity commensurate with the task at hand.

Indigenous Peoples contribute to the purpose of caring for the various forms of life on the planet, yet States still face enormous challenges in recognizing the capacities and contributions of Indigenous Peoples, beyond mere declarations of goodwill. Rather than capitalizing on the potential represented by having Indigenous Peoples within their national borders, many governments refuse to recognize their right to self-determination, including the right to self-identification.

To hinder recognition of Indigenous Peoples, some governments argue a supposed intention to undermine sovereignty or territorial integrity. This argument does not correspond to reality and has already been overcome in international debate when the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Upcoming Permanent Forum

As the upcoming session of the Permanent Forum (15-26 April 2024) draws near, we eagerly anticipate the valuable contributions that will be offered by various observers. Our foremost aspiration is for the dialogues to be marked by openness and humility, acknowledging the pressing challenges that demand attention. When Indigenous Peoples gather at the UN headquarters, they do so not only with the expectation of being heard, particularly given the constraints they often face in their own countries, but also with a sense of joy and purpose. They seek to honor the legacy passed down by their ancestors, aspiring to pave the way for their own and other culture’s future generations to live in peace, prosperity, harmony, and balance with Mother Earth.

Each session presents an invaluable opportunity to review the meaning and purpose of the different actors. UN entities play a very important role in realizing human rights, regardless of the stances some States may occasionally take. Meanwhile, States can always find in UN forums, particularly during the Permanent Forum’ session, an opportunity to review their own progress, engage in dialogue with others who have learned replicable lessons, and establish mechanisms for productive dialogue with Indigenous Peoples. All parties are aware that it is not about masking our realities but being creative in facing challenges from diversity.

As clearly stipulated in one of the provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples establishes, States should not miss the opportunity to promote harmonious and cooperative relationships with Indigenous Peoples based on principles of justice, democracy, respect for human rights, non-discrimination, and good faith.

* The views expressed in this blog are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of UN DESA. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: “Enhancing Indigenous Peoples’ right to self-determination in the context of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: emphasizing the voices of Indigenous youth”. Source: UNDESA

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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