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Treat indigenous people with honour, respect

By Stephen Ndegwa
Friday, August 14th, 2020
United Nations. Photo/Courtesy
In summary

The world of indigenous peoples is narrowing down rather fast. As a result of historical vulnerabilities borne out of social, economic and political shortcomings, their numbers have dwindled drastically, making them an endangered demography.

According to 2020 statistics by the United Nations Development Programme, there is an estimated 370 million indigenous peoples globally.

These people have their homes in 90 countries, and encompass around 5,000 different cultures.

Indigenous World 2020 , published by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, identifies China, India, Indonesia, Ethiopia and the Philippines as countries with the largest indigenous people per capita.

But the group laments that while indigenes comprise a paltry five per cent of the world population, they account for 15 per cent of the extreme poor. 

Owing to historical challenges and current injustices they face, indigenes are now suffering double jeopardy as a result of increased vulnerability due to Covid-19. 

The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was ratified in September 13, 2007 embodies global consensus on the rights of indigenous peoples, and establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for their survival, dignity and well-being. 

The contribution of indigenes in sustaining life on earth and seeking solutions to problems arising from abuse of nature cannot be overemphasised.

Their territories comprise about 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity and 22 per cent of the global land area, which makes them experts of conservation.

Audrey Azoulay, the UN Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Director General laments the deteriorating status of the world’s indigenous peoples: “The disappearance of indigenous languages is a major threat to indigenous communities and their unique heritage, as well as to our global diversity and our very potential for creativity and innovation.”

Sadly though, indigenous people’s creative genius has been exploited without due recognition and compensation.

Invaluable knowledge on some means of production and rare genetic materials have been sourced from indigenous populations almost for free. 

This demography has also suffered displacement from large swathes of land and encroachment to pave way for the mining of raw materials, leading to the destruction of the very foundation of the flora and fauna that has kept them alive. 

In many countries, indigenous peoples are also used as tourist attractions, but seldom get a fair share of proceeds from tourism.

For instance, their images, architecture, music, rites and cuisine have been used to entice foreign tourists on multi-media channels.

But since they have negligible or nil representation in decision making organs, their contributed is never addressed or recognised.  

Indigenous people are actually an asset and could even turn out as a major resource in the search for a Covid-19 vaccine arising from their historical experience handling stubborn diseases using natural medications.

Open access journal Molecules notes, “Such forms of medicine as traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda, Kampo, traditional Korean medicine, and Unani have been practiced in some areas of the world and have blossomed into orderly-regulated systems of medicine.”

But indigenes should be cognisant of the fact that the world has changed in irreversible ways.

In that case, however, authorities must handle the transition with utmost care not to destroy their delicate balance with nature.

Before they are displaced or some new way of life is introduced to them, they need to be prepared both psychologically and physically for any paradigm shift, including establishing the necessary mitigation measures for a soft landing. 

The world will be poorer if indigenous peoples become extinct. Their human rights ought to be protected.

They should also be offered incentives to increase their population.  — The writer is a communications expert and public policy  analyst — [email protected]