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Since 1994 the UN has celebrated the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on 9 August with special events, conferences and meetings around the world.
Who are the indigenous peoples of the world?
Indigenous people are the first people to live in a particular place – the original population that first created a community on that land before other people came to live in, conquer or colonise the area. People self-identify as indigenous. That means they decide for themselves whether they consider themselves to be indigenous.
There are more than 350 million indigenous people living in 90 countries. They represent 5,000 different cultures and speak the great majority of the thousands of languages that are spoken around the world today. Indigenous communities often have distinct beliefs, culture and customs. Many indigenous people still live in very close contact with the land, with a respect for and understanding of their natural surroundings.
What challenges do they face?
Indigenous peoples are not the dominant groups in the societies they live in. The dominant groups are the people that arrived later. This means that indigenous peoples have suffered from many problems related to a lack of economic power, social protection and political representation.
Although indigenous people make up less than five per cent of the world's total population, they represent 15 per cent of the world's poorest people. They are more likely to have limited access to healthcare and education, and members of indigenous communities live shorter lives than non-indigenous groups. Their languages are not normally taught in schools, and many of these languages are in danger of disappearing. It is estimated that one indigenous language is lost every two weeks.
Many indigenous peoples do not have control over their land. Governments and companies take their land to cut down trees, to farm cows or for other activities that use these natural resources and damage the environment. This often forces indigenous people to leave their land, losing their ancestral homes and their source of wealth and food.
What has been done?
Recently, in New Zealand, one of the local Maori tribes won a legal battle to protect the river that runs through their land. The new law protects the river as if it were a person, a Maori ancestor or a member of the tribe. Another historic legal battle was won by the Waorani people of Ecuador, when they successfully stopped 500,000 acres of Amazonian rainforest from being mined by oil companies.
Making sure indigenous peoples have legal rights over their land and resources is a matter of human rights. It also brings environmental benefits to the planet. Deforestation rates in Bolivia, Brazil and Colombia were two to three times lower in forests officially belonging to indigenous communities.
Progress made by indigenous communities is supported by the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document that has been agreed on by 148 countries. Importantly, the declaration defends indigenous peoples' right to make decisions about the use and protection of their ancestral land. It also sets out many rights, including indigenous peoples' rights to education and healthcare, participation in political and legal processes and the protection of indigenous languages.
What more needs to be done?
Despite the progress made, indigenous communities still legally own only a very small percentage of their land globally. The UN document is an important step, but more countries need to commit to it, and the countries that have signed need to do what they have promised. All around the world, indigenous people are fighting for their rights, as well as protesting against deforestation and climate change. Part of the movement to support them is the celebration of the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on 9 August. Why not join in?