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New report details indigenous struggle for land rights

The latest edition of the State of the World’s Indigenous People report examines challenges communities face in asserting their rights to lands, whether in the context of agribusiness, extractive industries, development, conservation and tourism. 

“Ensuring the collective rights of indigenous peoples to lands, territories and resources is not only for their well-being, but also for addressing some of the most pressing global challenges such as climate change and environmental degradation”, said Elliott Harris, the UN’s Chief Economist, speaking at the virtual launch in New York.  

Custodians of the Earth 

Mr. Harris is an Assistant-Secretary-General in the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), which has issued the report. 

Indigenous people are often described as “the custodians of our Earth’s precious resources”, DESA said.  Their traditional knowledge of the land, and territorial rights, are gaining wider recognition as countries confront the impacts of climate change. 

Just over five years ago, Governments adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which lays out a roadmap to a safer and equitable future for all people and the planet through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Although the 17 SDGs address key indigenous concerns, they still fall short in some respects, Mr. Harris told journalists. 

“For example, the 2030 Agenda does not fully recognize collective rights in relation to lands and resources, or to health, education, culture and ways of living”, he said.  “And yet, collective rights lie at the very heart of indigenous communities.” 

Land conflicts on the rise 

Mr. Harris outlined other serious challenges, noting that in many parts of the world, indigenous peoples’ rights to lands, territories and resources remain limited or unrecognized. Even where there is legal support, implementation is frequently stalled or inconsistent.  

Indigenous rights activists have also faced enormous risks and reprisals for defending their lands, ranging from criminalization and harassment, to assault and killings, he added. 

Anne Nuorgam, Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, reported that there has been a rise in cases of encroachment onto indigenous lands and territories during the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. 

“The sources of conflict are many, from resource extraction, logging, land for renewal energy sources and agribusiness to conflict between indigenous pastoralists, nomadic herders and farmers over shrinking grazing lands due to war, and the effects of climate change as well as the establishment of conservation areas”, she said in a statement read at the launch. 

“The lack of respect for the principle and the meaning of free, prior and informed consent by both governments and the private sector continues unabated.” 

The role of data 

The UN report concludes with several recommendations for national authorities as they strive to meet the SDGs. 

The authors advise States to include recognition of customary rights of indigenous peoples to their lands and resources in data on secure land tenure rights. 

Governments are also urged to collect better data, disaggregated by ethnicity and indigenous identity, so that challenges faced by specific indigenous communities are more accurately reflected in SDG reporting.

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