For Indigenous peoples, higher U.N. status gained, but rights still lacking

By Sandra Cordon

From 22 April to 3 May, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNFPII) will hold its 18th session at the UN Headquarters in New York. The theme of the event is “Traditional knowledge: Generation, transmission and protection,” and sessions will cover a wide range of topics, from landscape restoration to tenure to achieving the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Ahead of the Forum, Landscape News spoke with Joan Carling, an Indigenous activist from the Cordillera region of the Philippines and co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group for Sustainable Development. Here, she gives a preview of items on the Forum’s agenda, the importance of traditional knowledge, and why Indigenous rights are fundamental to a more sustainable future for all.

Tell us about what’s in store for this year’s Forum.

This annual event brings together Indigenous peoples from across the world to discuss Indigenous peoples’ issues and calls the attention of the UN system to these issues. It’s really a forum where Indigenous peoples have a voice. People arrive with their traditional attire, so it’s one of the most colorful – if not the most colorful – meetings in New York.

The theme is around traditional Indigenous knowledge, and because this is also the (UN) Year of Indigenous Languages, there will be a lot of discussion around these two issues. There are of course other outstanding issues such as sustainable development, education, health and human rights of Indigenous peoples.

What is your personal connection to the Forum?

I have been involved with this forum since the beginning, since 2000. To me, the added value of participating in this forum is that you can learn a great deal about what is happening all over world. You can do a lot of networking but also build solidarity with Indigenous peoples and other participants coming from academic institutions, research groups and NGOs. 

It’s a way of also providing updates and information, as well as outlining challenges that we face in our engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) processes and opportunities to discuss how can we better influence those SDG processes to bring Indigenous peoples’ rights and issues to the center.

Read More : Decision-making by Indigenous, local communities essential for restoration

Can you give us a preview what you will discuss at the Forum?

The key message is that the SDGs cannot be achieved without the recognition, respect and protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights, and particularly our rights to our land and resources, because that is at the very core of our well-being.

Without that respect, the work is not going to be transformative. It’s going to be business as usual, where our resources are treated more as commodities. It’s not going to lead us anywhere in relation to the SDGs or climate change. We cannot solve the problem of climate change without ensuring protection of Indigenous peoples’ rights to land and resources. We have 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity in our territories, and we are not protected.

Do any examples come to mind that illustrate this?

Look at what is happening now in Brazil, where the present government is already selling so much to miners and ranchers. The biodiversity in the Amazon, which is protected now by the Indigenous peoples, will be gone.

Why do you think that some view Indigenous peoples as problematic?

There is a narrative that says that we [Indigenous peoples] are anti-development, and that needs to be corrected. We are opposing mining, we are opposing large dams and agribusiness, but nobody asks why we are opposing this.

We do this to sustain the planet for everybody. We support a just transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, but not if it’s done without social and environmental safeguards and protection of our rights. That way will lead to more inequity and displacement of Indigenous peoples.

Big windmills, solar energy… they are implementing these on Indigenous territories without even a discussion with us, without consultation and without getting our consent. So we are being sacrificed once again in the name of renewable energy. That is against the very principle of SDG 1: leaving no one behind.

How fundamental are Indigenous rights to achieving the SDGs?

If you don’t respect our rights, we will not only be left behind but we will even be pushed behind. Because when they grab our lands, how are we going to survive? And it’s not just on economic terms, but also because that land is where our dignity, our well-being, our spirituality comes from, that’s why we’re distinct.

Yet, when we protect our lands and resources, we are criminalized. We are attacked, we are killed, we are put in jail. We’re protecting our lands and resources for all of humanity, and yet we are being criminalized. We don’t have access to justice. We are penalized.

Where does work on landscapes and restoration fit into this?

Of course, when you speak about landscapes, you are talking about our territories, our sustainable management of our resources. And not just landscapes in the physical sense, but landscapes where the reciprocal relations of humans and the environment should be taken into account. 

The way we interact with nature is in a reciprocal way. We take care of nature at the same time that we use it for our survival. We make sure that it is conserved in a way so that future generations will have something to live on and to support their wellbeing and their dignity. We manage it sustainably, not just to support our economic needs, but also to also make sure that traditional knowledge will continue to flourish.

How does traditional knowledge, the theme of this year’s Forum, apply to landscapes? 

It applies to almost all sorts of landscapes, from the forest to the tundra, to the mountains to the oceans. Because we have been living for thousands of years on these landscapes, and because of our interactions with all of these landscapes, we have been able to learn from them. We learn what plants can be used for medicinal purposes, what can be used for food, what is the right time to harvest so we don’t exhaust the resources; how we can preserve seeds and save meat, so we have something to eat during winter and rainy seasons.

This traditional knowledge emanates from centuries of interactions and learning about how we are attached to our landscapes.

Who needs to hear these messages, and how do you reach them?

The States [independent countries] are the primary audiences because it is the States who should regulate the private sector. It’s the States who come out with the policies and laws on how businesses will be conducted.

You find this under the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which is really about the principles of ‘protect, respect and remedy.’ The ‘protect’ element of that is the responsibility of the State; for business, its role is to respect; and the remedy should be provided by both, the State and the private sector. But the main responsibility lies with the State because it has the political power – or at least that is how it’s supposed to be. 

Unfortunately, too often, the States serve business.

What is the impact of this on sustainable development?

The biggest debate concerning the SDGs right now comes from the worsening levels of inequality. That’s not because there isn’t enough wealth, but because it’s all in the hands of the few.

With that comes distribution of power, and if you don’t have a vibrant democracy in a country, then people’s participation is neglected. And how can you then achieve people-centered development if people are not part of the decision-making?

This your 18th session of the UNPFII. Do you think that much has changed over these 18 years?

The change is that we have been given a higher profile within the UN system, but the reality on the ground has not really changed that much. Even if some countries have made laws in relation to Indigenous peoples, our lands and resources continue to be under threat despite those new laws.

That’s also why, as activists, we believe that it is our strength on the ground that will enable us to protect our lands, because that is where things are happening.

Source: Global Landscapes Forum

Related to SDG 10: Reduced inequalities, SDG 13: Climate action and SDG 16: Peace, justice and strong institutions

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