Indigenous Peoples are those descended from the earliest inhabitants of a country before colonisation, who live in culturally distinct societies and communities.
The term ‘Peoples’ recognises the differences between Indigenous ethnicities, such as the different First Nations of Canada or Australia, or Native American tribes in the US.
There are approximately 476 million people who self-identify as Indigenous worldwide, less than 5% of the world’s population. There are Indigenous Peoples all across the Americas, Asia, India, Africa, Australasia, Northern Europe, the Middle East and Russia.
As the earliest known inhabitants of an area, Indigenous Peoples often have a close and even spiritual connection with their land and environment. The UN estimates that the land that Indigenous Peoples live on is home to 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity.
Indigenous Peoples often have unparalleled knowledge of how to look after nature, and how to use natural resources sustainably. This comes from generations living within particular lands and native wildlife dating back centuries, or even millennia.
Colonial invasion and settlement subjected Indigenous Peoples to often brutal systems of oppression and deadly diseases. Colonisers also brought unsustainable farming practices – like cattle rearing and single-crop plantations like cotton and sugarcane.
Despite the continued disruption of violent colonialism worldwide, Indigenous land protection is the most effective form of conservation. Indigenous-occupied land is better preserved than even government-protected areas like parks and wildlife reserves in Canada, Australia and Brazil.
In places like the Andes in South America, Indigenous knowledge is proving essential in the ability to measure the impacts of climate change, and develop adaptation strategies.
In the US and Australia, governments are coming around to the idea that ancient Indigenous fire-management practices may hold the key to preventing devastating fires that destroy millions of acres of land.
Indigenous Peoples’ human rights
For many Indigenous Peoples, access to land, housing, food, water and culture – for example their language and religion – is intimately bound up with the specific land they live on. These basic human rights are frequently disregarded or violated by state governments, or powerful global corporations working with government support.
Violence and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples
Violent land-grabbing by farmers, loggers, miners, or state police is traumatic and devastating for Indigenous communities. Long-term impacts include forced moves to urban areas, lack of affordable food, water or fuel, leading to poverty and poor mental and physical health.
Discrimination against Indigenous Peoples is a huge problem worldwide. Like any racial discrimination, it has serious impacts on rights to dignified work, healthcare and political participation.
Killings of Indigenous land defenders are rife across the world, and are especially common in Brazil. Deep in the Brazilian Amazon, the Yanomami People have even faced genocide at the hands of invading gold miners. Perpetrators rarely face justice.
Oil and gas, mining and industrial farming
Governments all over the world continue to violate Indigenous Peoples’ human rights through ever more extreme forms of oil and gas extraction, mining and heavily-industrialised agriculture.
States allow companies to drill for oil, mine and develop industrial farms on Indigenous lands. These are often the very same companies and governments that are causing climate change through their extraction of oil and gas, and through deforestation for industrial farming.
In the US, plans to build new oil pipelines have threatened Native American reservations’ water supplies. In Canada, First Nations living with pollution from the Alberta Tar Sands suffer poor health, and have lost their hunting and trapping traditions – often leaving them little choice but to take work with the oil companies causing the damage.
In Brazil, Indigenous Peoples have long been threatened by deforestation for industrial cattle farming, soya plantations and toxic mining operations in the Amazon rainforest.
How to help protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights
International law says that Indigenous Peoples have a right to be consulted on any activity affecting their lands and livelihoods. Because governments tend to prioritise economic development, this is often ignored.
Lobbying governments and companies with global supply chains affecting Indigenous communities is an important way to help protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights.
Asking governments and corporations to protect and secure Indigenous Peoples’ rights is not only the right thing to do. Indigenous knowledge is essential for biodiversity conservation, and in the fight against climate change – for example through wildfire prevention burns, or preservation of carbon-absorbing forests like the Amazon.