Rights of indigenous peoples continue to be trampled on, with equality a distant goal

The United Nations has declared 9 August the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, highlighting the diversity and uniqueness of indigenous cultures.

Rani-Henrik Andersson, university lecturer in North American studies at the University of Helsinki, points out that the majority of the world’s languages are those spoken by indigenous peoples. Furthermore, indigenous peoples inhabit some of the richest areas in terms of biodiversity in the world. Peoples classified as indigenous live on every continent.

“In certain areas, centuries-old colonialism has nearly eradicated their cultures, while in other areas indigenous peoples still have a strong presence. The definition of indigenous peoples has been difficult, an issue linked to questions of land ownership, culture, language as well as identity,” Andersson says.

Equality yet to be achieved, UN gives a voice

For decades, indigenous peoples have demanded an equal role among international operators. In 1989 the International Labour Organization under the UN adopted the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, which is at best a compromise of sorts that does not meet all of the demands of indigenous peoples. At the same time, Finland and several other countries are yet to ratify the Convention.

Today, indigenous peoples are able to make their voice heard, for example, through organisations operating under the UN.

“The UN helps indigenous peoples highlight their cultures and increase others’ awareness of them and their customs as well as their political and economic situation.

Peoples classified as indigenous are numbered in the hundreds globally, with greatly varying cultures, worldviews and cultural and political circumstances. However, they also have many similarities.

Economic growth and industrial activity continue to relegate indigenous peoples to the role of underdog

“I’m sure that it’s clear to everyone that indigenous peoples all over the world have suffered from colonialism and imperialism originating in Europe. It would be naive to think that a way of thinking and behaviour founded on colonialism would have disappeared from the world,” Andersson says.

Indigenous peoples continue to experience discrimination, have financial problems and are forced to defend the lands that they still have against mining companies, loggers and oil drillers.

“For example, the indigenous peoples of the United States and Canada have attempted to prevent the construction of large oil pipelines through their lands, while in Finland the Sámi have continuously had to struggle against both Finnish and international mining companies or the Arctic Railway.”

Agency of indigenous peoples gaining strength globally – Contributions to the fight against climate change

According to Andersson, there have also been positive developments in spite of the numerous problems.

“Various indigenous movements, such as Idle No More, NoDAPL and Suohpanterror, have taken a strong stance on the status of indigenous peoples in different parts of the world. The revitalisation of cultures and languages has also become a significant part of curricula established by indigenous peoples in Latin America, Australia and New Zealand.

Another area where indigenous peoples have assumed a prominent role is the fight against climate change.

Although indigenous peoples’ relationship with nature is no longer seen in stereotypical terms as a nearly mythical connection, Andersson posits that their link to nature does indeed differ from that of the western world. For indigenous peoples, human beings are part of nature, which is composed of both the visible and invisible world.

“It’s a kind of holistic perception of nature where people are only a part of the whole, without the right to control or exploit nature.”

Many indigenous peoples in both the Arctic region and Amazonia face the effects of climate change in a very concrete way, as it directly affects their livelihoods.

“Not all indigenous peoples now live ‘at the mercy of nature’, no more than any other people in the world, but many peoples’ livelihoods are directly linked to the changes taking place in the environment.”

Also in academia, the concepts and knowledge of indigenous peoples have increasingly become part of western scientific research, and specific degree programmes in indigenous studies have been established at many universities where the research conducted takes the conceptions and views of indigenous peoples into consideration.

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