Indigenous peoples need recognition and reciprocity
By Martin Sommerschuh, Program Specialist and Coordinator, Equator Initiative, UNDP
The coronavirus pandemic has prompted the world to reflect on the relationships – between people within and between countries and communities, and between people and nature around the planet. The virus has also reminded us of the complex interrelationships that make up our world and our responsibilities to others, especially the most vulnerable members of society.
The theme for this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous People is “Leaving No One Behind: Indigenous Peoples and the Call for a New Social Contract”. The idea of a “social contract” – an agreement between members of a society to cooperate for the benefit of all – goes back centuries. What is new, however, is an emerging understanding of the vital role indigenous peoples play in providing benefits to all humanity.
First, indigenous peoples have built sustainable food systems and social safety nets that help us reinvent a path for all of society. Three Equator Prize winners from 2020 and 2021 show how their robust social systems have enabled them to remain resilient and resourceful, even during a pandemic.
- When the pandemic first struck in March 2020, the women of the Asociación de Mujeres Indígenas del Territorio Cabécar Kábata Könana in the Talamanca region of Costa Rica quickly organized a barter system to ensure that families and communities isolated have enough food. The work of the association is based on rotary and regenerative agriculture, anchored in traditional knowledge.
- In the Ecuadorian Amazon, the first containment due to the coronavirus coincided with torrential rains and flooding. Thanks to the swift actions of the Kichwa leaders, food and hygiene products reached even the most remote families of the Pueblo Originario Kichwa de Sarayaku. The group is now working with the GEF Small Grants Program to revitalize ancestral knowledge of traditional medicines.
- In Kenya, the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy combines cutting-edge science with land management and traditional Maasai farming practices. Profits from entrepreneurial initiatives have helped support food and hygiene delivery programs to thousands of people during the pandemic.
Second, indigenous peoples are the custodians of much of the land, water and biodiversity that provide a planetary safety net for humanity. According to two recent reports, Living Territories and The State of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, indigenous peoples are the custodians of one-third of the earth’s surface. These territories have proven to be more ecologically intact than other areas and are of critical importance to global water security, our climate goals and biodiversity conservation, to name but a few. some. Simply put, we cannot achieve the 2030 Agenda without the support and collaboration of the world’s indigenous peoples. Three examples of Equator Prize winners illustrate just how important (and vast) these lands and waters are.
Despite this critical importance of indigenous territories to global goals, encroachment by mining and illegal logging continues to expand. Indigenous peoples have legal rights to only about 10% of the world’s land, despite their stewardship over more than a third. Intimidation, violence and murder of conservationists continue to escalate.
Indigenous peoples provide us with valuable models of knowledge and practices, based on reciprocity and sharing. Their lands and waters are of untold benefit to all mankind. Yet our current social contract has failed to recognize these contributions.
The time has come for a new social contract. A good start for such a contract could include: recognizing unique knowledge and practices that can help us chart a new course towards a more sustainable society; strengthen legal recognition of indigenous territories and protection against illegal mining and logging; ensure the safety of conservationists; and ensure a much stronger place at the table of local, regional, national and global dialogues that affect their future. The new social contract is therefore a contract that supports indigenous peoples locally and helps achieve goals globally.