We live in a fragmented world, one that is increasingly interdependent and, at the same time, polarized. We live in a landscape of multiple and complex crises. We must also accept that globalization, new technologies, and the democratization of knowledge have helped us make great strides in our societies. But, evidence shows that current development models continue to deepen inequalities among countries and within them.

Millions of people, particularly indigenous peoples, have been excluded from the promises of “development and globalization.” They are the group most affected by injustice, violence, unemployment, insecurity, and a lack of access to healthcare and culturally relevant education. They are also the group most affected by the climate crisis. They suffer threats to their territories and livelihoods. Furthermore, they face from the risk of losing their languages, cultures, and their own historic identity.

The disconnect between the rights of indigenous peoples recognized in international instruments, and institutional and political responses, creates mistrust towards states, their domestic institutions, and their international bodies. Recent social reactions reveal this disconnect and mistrust between indigenous peoples and their governments.

Indigenous organizations in the region face the enormous challenge of channeling the demands of its peoples and finding the most effective way to act on the political stage. Regarding these challenges, I would like to share some thoughts on indigenous peoples and their organizations.

1 | The Indigenous World is Not Monolithic

Even though there are topics that unite the indigenous world, such as their struggles for decolonization, collective rights, and the defense of their lands, territories, cultures, and languages, their world is not monolithic. Indigenous peoples develop in diverse organizational structures, forms of representation, and political agendas. In each nation and in each region, there are different forms of resistance. Therefore, the strategies and actions to face and respond to their challenges should be multidimensional, holistic, and complementary. But, what is most important is that these responses must be conceived, developed, and implemented in close cooperation with indigenous peoples themselves, so as to respond to the challenges in each specific context.

2 | Not all indigenous peoples live in the countryside. We need to go beyond stereotypes.  

It is necessary to recognize the great diversity of indigenous professions, talents, and contributions to science, literature, art, economics, international diplomacy, and international law. Increasingly, indigenous peoples, particularly the youngest generations, live in urban settings. They need to strengthen their identity, but also create a different agenda based on their current reality. They must do so, for example, in the struggle against racism and discrimination, in terms of access to quality education, and in continuing their cultures and languages in an urban environment, just to name a few areas.

3 | Not all indigenous peoples have the same political positions.

Not all indigenous peoples are naturally inclined to the left or the right. Neither are they all militant political actors. Therefore, it is important to process political and partisan differences in any effort to develop agreements and work plans. This observation also entails the need to reassess the role of indigenous political parties and the potential to develop political strategies that have a nationwide scope. This should be done in partnership with other actors and sectors that share the same societal plans.

4 | It is fundamental that we distinguish the role of indigenous parties from the Indigenous Movement.

The former involves various types of political structures that aim to play roles in government and power through representative mechanisms. The indigenous movement is a social movement that aims to draw the attention of the established order and power structure with specific demands. The indigenous movement is thus broader and more diverse, and its agendas are not necessarily partisan.

5 | The voices of indigenous leaders – men and women – must not and do not pertain exclusively to indigenous issues.

The development of political plans with a nationwide scope, along with all proposals for countries and international processes, should include the active participation of indigenous leaders, including indigenous women. For example, in Ecuador, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador (CONAIE) submitted a macroeconomic proposal to overcome the recent crisis. This proposal transcends the indigenous peoples’ agenda, and it offers an alternative path to the whole of society.

Although the situation may vary among and between regions and countries, indigenous peoples worldwide face serious threats to their survival and their collective rights. They remain excluded from decision-making processes. They face the resurgence of racism and discrimination along with a lack of access to justice, freedom of expression, and the media. This is all aggravated by poverty and inequality.

Opportunities for Indigenous Peoples to Influence Politics

The current political stage is enormously complex. This requires a repositioning of the indigenous peoples’ agenda.

Let us not forget that over the last 40 years, indigenous peoples have had an active and transformative role in the domestic, regional, and international political arenas in favor of the recognition of their individual and collective rights. Important political transformations in various Latin American countries have been possible in recent decades thanks to indigenous movements.

At the international and regional levels, indigenous peoples have created new arenas for participation. They have also promoted international legislation and institutional mechanisms for the promotion and effective protection of their rights.  This spans from the 1989 ILO Convention 169 to the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It also includes the creation of institutional mechanisms within the United Nations system, such as the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the creation of the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the establishment of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples both at the UN and at the OAS. Likewise, inter-American instruments, such as the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, have been promoted. At the domestic level, indigenous peoples have promoted the adoption of laws, policies, plans, and programs to protect their rights. Some domestic constitutions have included their collective rights. However, we know that the main challenge lies in implementation. If only we could achieve true implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the American Declaration, and ILO Convention 169, the situation of indigenous peoples’ rights would be different.

If we talk about the recent past; in 2018, indigenous peoples reached two important milestones under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Firstly, the Facilitative Working Group of the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples was created. Secondly, the Green Climate Fund adopted an Indigenous Peoples Policy. These are groundbreaking achievements in the struggle for indigenous rights and the recognition of the role played by indigenous peoples in the fight against climate change . And, it is with great satisfaction that I must state that I have been personally involved in and supportive of these processes.

We must continue to build more spaces and means fro the effective participation of indigenous peoples, participatory thus enabling them to influence matters that concern them and incorporate their views in all regional and global fora for discussion and decision-making.

For this reason, as President of the United Nations General Assembly, in accordance with a General Assembly Resolution, I organized an interactive hearing with Indigenous Peoples in New York in April 2019. The purpose of this was to move forward with the establishment of a mechanism that would formalize indigenous peoples’ participation in United Nations fora and processes.

Presence and Effectiveness of Indigenous Peoples in Influencing Regional Decision-Making

Although opportunities for indigenous peoples’ participation and influence have multiplied, today, 15% of the world’s poor are indigenous peoples. In Latin America and the Caribbean there are 826 indigenous nations, of which 330 are at risk of extinction because of demographic fragility, forced displacement, food scarcity, and water source contamination (ECLAC, Social Panorama 2018). Out of the 625 million inhabitants of our region, 48 million identify themselves as indigenous; that is 7.7% (ECLAC, Social Panorama 2018). We are all, in one way or another, indigenous by way of history, by way of culture, or by way of commitment.

The situation of indigenous peoples in our region unfortunately follows the global trend characterized by conditions of extreme poverty: 43% of indigenous people live on less than $4 a day, compared to 21% of those who do not identify as indigenous Additionally, they have little access to basic services: 23% of indigenous people live without sewage systems, as compared with 16 % of non-indigenous people. Furthermore, indigenous populations are highly concentrated in areas where access is difficult and where exposure to the effects of the climate crisis is greater. Indigenous peoples continue to face discrimination, higher levels of social exclusion, and lower levels of public investment in their communities.

The situation is even worse for indigenous women in our region. They face higher levels of discrimination and violence because they are indigenous, because they are women, and because they live in extreme poverty. Therefore one of the challenges we face is recognizing indigenous women as key agents in the eradication of poverty and hunger. We should strengthen strategies and actions that favor and empower indigenous women. This should include a greater political participation.

Therefore, indigenous peoples’ participation is crucial if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. Their full and effective participation in the development, implementation, and monitoring of development plans and programs, at the local, regional, and international levels, is crucial.

Indigenous People: A Risk for Whom?

Going back to our initial analysis, we see a deepening of tensions between states and indigenous peoples.

Based on the latest information available, in The Indigenous World 2019 report by the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs, more than 400 social activists were killed. And nearly half of the defenders that were murdered were either leaders or members of indigenous communities.

Amidst the recent social unrest in Latin America in the region, we have seen a resurgence of racism and discrimination. But, we have also witnessed a repositioning of the indigenous agenda in public opinion. This leads me to make the following comments:

  1. Indigenous peoples have the right and duty to fully and effectively participate in the decisions that influence or affect their rights and livelihoods. This is a principle recognized under international law.
  2. Despite indisputable progress, legal frameworks, legislation, public policy, and international law, there are still no clear monitoring and accountability mechanisms vis-a-vis their fulfillment and impact.
  3. In light of changing social, political and economic realities, it is necessary to strengthen and reinforce integration and continental coordination mechanisms for indigenous peoples in order to connect local work to domestic, regional, and international agendas.
  4. We must highlight the central role of indigenous women as indispensable actors in the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly the equality agenda and political and economic empowerment for indigenous women.
  5. Indigenous peoples should be key actors in the strengthening of democracies and in the creation of development alternatives.

Building a more humane and more just future requires the voice, opinion, and active participation of indigenous peoples.

On March 20th, I hope to be elected as the first female Secretary General of the Organization of American States. Furthermore, I hope to take the cause of indigenous peoples’ rights to the hemispheric level. This topic should be a priority for the OAS, as is established under the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

My Priorities for Indigenous Peoples with the General Secretariat of the OAS

We must consolidate the efforts of the Inter-American System to protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples, as well as their independent social, economic, and cultural development, as expressed in the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. We must recognize that the values, world views, identities, ecosystem protection, and ways of life of indigenous peoples, as well as their strong ties to the their traditional territories and to natural resources, guarantee and safeguard the security of our nations and the development of all Abya Yala (the Americas). In this vein, my actions will be geared towards:

  1. Promoting initiatives aimed at building the capacity of the OAS to support member states in the implementation of the provisions contained in the American Declaration, thus facilitating mechanisms for indigenous peoples’ full and effective participation.
  2. Assessing the Inter-American System’s provisions and institutions to support states in effectively promoting and protecting indigenous peoples’ rights.
  3. Establishing a special initiative for the economic and political empowerment of indigenous women.
    • Proposing member states a continental initiative for hemispheric political dialogue on indigenous peoples’ rights. This initiative’s purpose should be to identify the challenges they face, identify good practices and wise policy decisions, and promote and support effective communication and dialogue between indigenous peoples’ and states.
  4. In sum, as Secretary General, I will work to promote indigenous peoples’ rights, particularly in terms of protecting their languages, culturally relevant education, intercultural health, and indigenous women’s empowerment and political participation.

María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés

January 28, 2020


[1] Fondo de Contribuciones Voluntarias de las Naciones Unidas para los Pueblos Indígenas, el Fondo Fiduciario para las Cuestiones Indígenas, el Fondo de Apoyo a los Pueblos Indígenas y la Alianza de las Naciones Unidas con los Pueblos Indígenas.

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