By Robin Gomes
With Covid-19 having a devastating impact on more than 476 million indigenous people in some 90 countries, the United Nations is calling for the upholding of their rights by ensuring their inclusion and participation in response and recovery strategies against the pandemic.
“From the outset of the global pandemic, United Nations agencies have been working to uphold indigenous peoples’ rights. We have been helping to safeguard health and safety and provide access to social protection and economic opportunities,” UN Secretary-General said in a video message ahead of the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, Sunday.
“Indigenous peoples,” he said, “must be consulted in all efforts to build back stronger and recover better.”
The 9 August observance commemorates the date of the inaugural session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations at the United Nations in 1982. The theme of this year’s observance is, “COVID-19 and indigenous peoples’ resilience”.
Vulnerability of indigenous people
Pointing out that throughout history, indigenous peoples have been decimated by imported diseases from which they had no immunity, the UN chief is calling on countries to marshal resources to respond to their needs, honour their contributions and respect their inalienable rights.
According to UN figures, indigenous peoples who make up 6.2 % of the world population, are nearly three times as likely to be living in extreme poverty compared to their non-indigenous counterparts.
Guterres lamented that even before Covid-19, the indigenous people “faced entrenched inequalities, stigmatization and discrimination”, with inadequate access to healthcare, clean water and sanitation which increases their vulnerability.
More than 86% of indigenous peoples globally work in the informal economy, compared to 66% for their non-indigenous counterparts.
The UN chief pointed out that their traditional occupations and subsistence economies have been adversely affected by the pandemic. Women, who provide food and nutrition for their families, have been hard hit with the closure of markets for their handicrafts, produce and other goods.
Globally, 47% of all indigenous peoples in employment have no education, compared to 17% of their non-indigenous counterparts. This gap is even wider for women.
The UN chief noted that indigenous children do not have access to virtual learning opportunities.
During the Covid-19 crisis, indigenous peoples have been facing increasing encroachment on their lands by illegal miners and loggers because of lapsed enforcement of environmental protection. Many of them have been victims to threats and violence, and many have lost their lives.
Despite all this, the UN Secretary-General praised the “extraordinary resilience” demonstrated by the indigenous peoples. With the autonomy to manage their lands, territories and resources, they have ensured food security and care through traditional crops and traditional medicine.
Strategies such as the “Kroh Yee” (village closure) of Thailand’s Karen people to fight the pandemic, Guterres said, have been applied in other Asian countries and in Latin America.
Pope Francis and indigenous people
Pope Francis who has very much at heart the suffering and vulnerability of indigenous peoples, convoked a Synod on the Pan-Amazon Region, October 6-27 in October last year. Members of various indigenous peoples from the Amazonia region participated in it.
Earlier in January 2018, when the Pope visited the Amazonia region for the first time at Puerto Maldonado in southeast Peru, he said that the “native Amazonian peoples have probably never been so threatened on their own lands as they are at present”.
Prior to that, during his visit to Brazil in 2013, the Pope pointed out that the Church’s presence in the Amazon cannot be one of someone with bags packed and ready to leave after having exploited everything possible.
In his encyclical, Laudato Si', the Pope urges care for “indigenous communities and their cultural traditions”. He says,“They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners, especially when large projects affecting their land are proposed.” He laments that “in various parts of the world, pressure is being put on them to abandon their homelands to make room for agricultural or mining projects which are undertaken without regard for the degradation of nature and culture.”
The UN will be marking the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on Monday, August 10, at the UN headquarters in New York, with a virtual interactive panel discussion involving several guest speakers.