Let us learn from Indigenous peoples

Over ten days the UN Pertmanent Forum on Indigenous Issues will focus on protecting and learning from the 5,000 indigenous peoples around the world

Between 17 and 28 April the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) will hold its 22nd session at the UN Headquarters in New York under the theme “Indigenous Peoples, human health, planetary and territorial health and climate change: a rights-based approach”.

This annual meeting discusses socio-economic issues among the world’s 5,000 (plus) indigenous communities. In his address at the opening of the meeting yesterday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared that we should learn from these communities, since they “hold many of the solutions to the climate crisis and are guardians of the world’s biodiversity”.


Definition: “Indigenous” means any group of people native to a specific region who lived there before colonists or settlers arrived, defined new borders, and began to occupy the land.

476 million Indigenous people

5% of the world’s population

Live in more than 90 countries

Over 5,000 different peoples

Over 4,000 languages

70% in Asia

Country with biggest indigenous population: PR China (125 million) 55 groups, 8,9% of the population.

Other countries with a large number of indigenous peoples: India (8.6%), Philippines (15%), Vietnam (15%), Kenya (25%), Mexico (10%).

80% of biodiversity in the hands of indigenous peoples

Learning from Indigenous peoples

While indigenous peoples are challenged by climate change they are very often the first to find solutions. In his opening remarks, Secretary-General António Guterres stressed that  “The United Nations is committed to keep promoting the rights of Indigenous Peoples in policies and programming at all levels and amplifying your voices,” adding “Let us learn from and embrace the experiences of indigenous peoples.”


Greed. Business interests steal land, exploit mineral resources without respecting ancestral rights to territory, evict the local population and commit physical attacks and murder.

Discrimination. Indigenous peoples make up 15 per cent of the world’s extreme poor; they suffer extremely high rates of landlessness, malnutrition and internal displacement.

Genocide. Historically, and around the world, indigenous peoples have been subjected to massacres and other inhumane actions amounting to genocide and leaving societies destroyed with high crime rates.

Remembering those massacred

Dario Mejia Montalvo, of the Zenú Community in the Colombian Caribbean, President of the UNPFII, also speaking at the opening of the meeting, paid homage to the leaders of indigenous communities and their allies who gave their lives raising awareness, allowing that the current Forum carries forward the work they began and were murdered for.

He stated: “The issues of climate change and biodiversity cannot be resolved without the real and effective participation of indigenous peoples”. 

“Urgent climate action involves stopping the persecution, homicide and criminalization of indigenous brothers and sisters and their actions defending human rights and the rights of nature,” declared Mr. Montalvo.

Csaba Körösi, President of the General Assembly, stressed that the ancestral knowledge of indigenous people over the centuries has given us numerous medicines and underlined that the health of the planet and the health of the people are undeniably linked.

The Permanent Forum

UNPFII is a high-level advisory body to the Economic and Social Council, founded to deal with issues relating to socio-economic development, cultural issues, the environment, education, health and human rights. Together with the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, it is mandated specifically to focus on indigenous issues.

Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey can be reached at [email protected]

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Author`s name Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey