Descendants of the first known humans in their regions, from the Amazon to the Arctic Circle, they once lived isolated existences, free to be different in their cultures, religions, and patterns of economic and social organization.
The modern, industrialized world changed all that. Dispossessed by modernization's thirst for energy, minerals, timber, farmland and living space, millions of indigenous peoples are facing extinction as distinct peoples.
They have been pushed to what the United Nations Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, has called the "the margins of national and international life".
But their voices are finally being heard. Their concerns were on the agenda of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit) in June 1992. At the Earth Summit, States acknowledged the need to recognize indigenous peoples' values, territories, traditional knowledge and subsistence rights. They also admitted that indigenous people have a special relation with the Earth: their ecological knowledge and agricultural systems often play a vital role in promoting sustainable development.
Beginning in 1993, the International Year of the World's Indigenous People, the United Nations started promoting new partnerships to spur global efforts to help address problems of indigenous people in such areas as human rights, environment, development, education and health. It was recommended at the United Nations Conference on Human Rights, held in Vienna in 1993, that the International Year be extended into a Decade and that a permanent forum for indigenous peoples be established.
A Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004) proclaimed by the General Assembly in its resolution 48/163 will be launched on 8 December 1994. Under the theme "Indigenous people: a new relationship - partnership in action", the main goal of the Decade is to further cultivate the partnership promoted between indigenous people and the international community during the International Year. It will provide a time-frame to build on the results and lessons of the International Year.
In his speech on the launch of the Year, the Secretary-General emphasized the need for global cooperation: "I believe that the Year will be the starting point for two partnerships", he said, "one between indigenous people and States, and another between indigenous people and the United Nations. Unity through diversity is the only true and enduring unity." The seeds of new partnerships were sown: new partnerships that would be equitable and based on mutual respect and understanding, new partnerships that would allow indigenous people to be consulted and to participate more actively in the decision-making processes that affect their lives.
In their struggle to win respect for their ways of life, indigenous people have organized themselves locally, nationally and regionally. And their fight has been recognized in the international sphere as well. The Secretary-General sees the issue of the indigenous people as one that cuts across a vast portion of the United Nations agenda.
"If we are serious about development, political participation and human
rights", he said, we must address the special situation of indigenous people...
One thing is clear: the human and community rights of indigenous people
will flourish best in an atmosphere of respect and mutual tolerance."
* In Australia, a major accomplishment for the indigenous communities was the adoption by the Australian Parliament of the Native Title Act 1993, which recognizes that Australia was not terra nullius, or land belonging to no one, when first settled by the British in the late eighteenth century.
* In Colombia, a Permanent Committee on Indigenous Human Rights was established, and a council was created to assist and monitor mining in indigenous areas. The Government provided legal assistance to indigenous communities in their negotiations with private entreprises for the exploitation of mineral resources in their territories.
* In New Zealand, the Government supported many Maori initiatives in the fields of health, education and environment and provided financial assistance for projects related to these questions.
* In Sweden, a Parliament for Saami indigenous people, established as an advisory group, held its first elections in 1993. The Parliament plays an important role in policy formulation on indigenous issues.
* In Mexico, the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is carrying out a project dealing with the "Development of Indigenous Communities in Puebla". One of the project's goals is to strengthen existing indigenous grass roots organizations. IFAD offers its own expertise and works closely with the National Indigenist Institute (INI), which engages in many cultural and social projects. The Puebla project has established the Regional Solidarity Fund, thus allowing the indigenous people to participate in the project. The Fund, run by the indigenous communities themselves, processes credit applications, approves credit and pursues loan recovery. This control over their own funds allows indigenous people to participate significantly in the project's decision-making process.
* The International Labour Organisation (ILO) was the first organization in the United Nations system to act to rectify the situation of indigenous and tribal peoples: it has adopted the only two international legal instruments specifically concerning indigenous and tribal peoples - ILO Conventions 107 and 169. While ILO Convention 107 (1957) promotes integration of indigenous populations, ILO Convention 169 (1989) is based on respect for their cultural diversity and encourages States to use the participatory approach whenever development projects and matters that affect the indigenous and tribal peoples' lives are at stake. ILO has not only set up standards but has developed a mechanism to make sure that the countries which have ratified the Conventions also implement them.
Through technical assistance programmes, ILO is currently providing assistance in drafting legislation for the indigenous peoples in the Russian Federation, and is helping the Government of Guatemala to devise a policy and institutional framework to solve the problems faced by the indigenous peoples in that country.
* The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is providing technical assistance for projects that benefit indigenous communities and is promoting the sharing of knowledge and experience among them. For example, UNDP, in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), organized a meeting of Mayan leaders, scientists, educators and representatives of international organizations to discuss approaches to participatory development in the five countries of the Mayan region, with the aim of setting up a regional project.
* The World Bank has committed itself not to assist development
projects that infringe on indigenous people' traditional territories unless
adequate safeguards are provided, such as, for instance, the demarcation
and protection of indigenous lands. It has also encouraged the participation
of indigenous people and their sharing in the social and economic benefits
of the development process.
The main objective of the Year was to strengthen global cooperation for solving the problems faced by indigenous communities in areas such as human rights, environment, development, education and health.
A special Voluntary Fund was also established to support projects specifically designed for the Year.
Raising awareness in the world community about the situation of indigenous people and widening indigenous people's knowledge of the United Nations system were the two main objectives of the International Year. Meetings of indigenous women, youth and tribal elders were held. Issues of concern to the indigenous communities, such as preservation of their culture, land rights, forest conservation and environmental protection, education and health, were discussed.
In the short period of one year dedicated to the world's indigenous people, many successful activities were undertaken by indigenous people themselves and non indigenous people to build a new partnership.
The Decade will contribute to the elimination of some deficiencies observed during the Year:
- Need for the communication networks to be strengthened to ensure
proper provision of information to the indigenous communities. Some questions
related to strategic dissemination of information were raised, e.g. how
to better disseminate the information and how to reach the indigenous communities,
who, very often, live in remote areas. More documents should be translated
into indigenous languages for the information to have the expected impact;
At its last meeting, the Working Group on Indigenous Populations proposed that the International Day for Indigenous People be proclaimed by the General Assembly and observed annually on 9 August. That day marks the beginning of the recognition of indigenous people and their struggle for dignity by the United Nations system. It is the anniversary of the first meeting of the Working Group which took place in 1982.
Another objective of the Decade is the recommendation for the establishment of a permanent forum in the United Nations system with equitable representation of indigenous and non-indigenous actors. The forum is expected to play an important role in operational coordination for development and other issues.
As Ingrid Washinawatok, Chairperson of the NGO Committee on the United Nations International Decade of the World's Indigenous People, said during the 47th Annual DPI/NGO Conference (New York, 20-22 September 1994): "We must unlock the silence of our people. Unlock the silence and let us speak to the world." After a year devoted by the international community to their issues, the indigenous people feel they still have not got their message across. However, indigenous people have the will and determination to make their voices heard, to further open the channels of communication with the international community, to be better understood and to become full partners in today's world.