UN Decade of Indigenous People Ending to Mixed Reviews

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
September 10, 2004
2004 is the last year of the United Nations International Decade of the
World's Indigenous People. The program's accomplishments may be best
described as mixed.

While indigenous issues are receiving more political attention worldwide, observers say that most indigenous people remain mired in poverty. Hunter-gatherer groups, in particular, are facing persecution and attacks on their way of life.

"A lot of people only pay lip service to the indigenous issues," said Fiona Watson, a research and campaigns coordinator with Survival International, a London-based human rights group. "Governments come up with policies, but often those policies are not enforced."

There are some 300 million indigenous people in over 70 countries worldwide. They were the first known humans in their regions, from the Amazon jungle to the Arctic. For centuries most lived isolated lives.

Industrialization changed that, as millions of indigenous people were forced off their land to make way for everything from farmland to mines.

Experts say that a loss of land is still the greatest challenge to hunter-gatherers and other indigenous people.

"It's easy to blame aboriginal people for being welfare dependent after taking away their resources," said John Scott, the social-affairs officer at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. "Everyone would be welfare dependent if they had lost their land and their right to make decisions about their own lives."


Survival International recently launched a new campaign for the rights of the isolated Jarawa tribe of the remote Andaman Islands, which are located in the Bay of Bengal and belong to India.

Hunter-gatherers whose numbers have dwindled to less than 300, the Jarawa only recently began communicating with the outside world. A highway that runs through their reserve now threatens the future of the Jarawa.

"Past experience shows that if you build a road though an area where there's an uncontacted tribe, you're opening them up to disease to which they will have no real resistance," Watson said. "Even a common cold or a flu may kill a person."

Hundreds of Indian settlers and Burmese poachers are reportedly hunting and fishing along the road and coast, depriving the Jarawa of their food. The once abundant wild pigs and fish are now said to be scarce.

On the other side of the world, deep in the Brazilian rain forest, another hunter-gatherer tribe, the Awá, is in danger of being wiped out.

Once horticulturists, the Awá abandoned their settled lifestyle 200 years ago to become nomads in order to escape violent attacks by European invaders. Now they are once again victims of land grabbing, this time by cattle ranchers.

There are only about 300 Awá left. Some have settled in government outposts. Others travel through the forest as nomads in bands of 20 to 30 people. Many have experienced unspeakable violence, Watson said.

"One man had been walking in the jungle for ten years after he saw his son being massacred by ranchers," she said.

Exotic Remnants

Advocates say hunter-gatherers and other indigenous people are mistakenly seen as backward and primitive by many in the West.

"There's a misnomer that indigenous societies are somehow caught in a time-warp, that they're exotic remnants of our ancestors long ago," Watson said. "That's completely untrue."

"These people have had to adapt more quickly than anybody simply in order to survive," she said. "They're just as contemporary as any of us, and sometimes—in their medicinal knowledge, for example—they may be more advanced."

Watson says hunter-gatherers are also good conservationists.

"You will find the most forest and game in indigenous territories, because basically it's been hunted out everywhere else," she said.

What is considered development in industrialized societies may not always apply to indigenous communities.

In Africa, the Botswana government, for example, has transplanted the Gana and Gwi Bushmen from their ancestral land in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve to several settlement areas.

The Bushmen have been paid some resettlement compensation, and the government has built schools and clinics in the settlement areas. But most of the Bushmen are now unemployed, solely dependent on government handouts. Alcoholism in the settlement camps is rampant. HIV/AIDS is creeping in.

"There is an enormous problem with the perception of development," Watson said. "There is no understanding for what development for hunter-gatherers may be. The mistake is to throw money at development and think that will be enough."

A few hundred Bushmen have refused to leave the Kalahari. Some of them have been victims of torture and harassment by the Botswana government, according to human rights groups.

An organization called the First People of the Kalahari is now suing the Botswana government for evicting the Bushmen from their ancestral land. Representatives of the group are currently touring the United States to raise awareness—and money—for their cause.

Collective Rights

The good news, Watson said, is that there is now greater awareness of indigenous issues among the public, the media, corporations, and organizations like the World Bank.

"In Latin America countries now have constitutions that recognize collective rights and land ownership," she said. "Thirty years ago there was only a policy of assimilation and integration."

"The thinking was that once indigenous people were westernized, they wouldn't need their land anymore," Watson said. "That changed as indigenous people began speaking out for their rights."

Scott, the UN Permanent Forum officer, says it would be a step forward if governments stopped treating indigenous people as being separate from the rest of the population and instead as being part of their countries.

"I'm from Australia and of indigenous descent," he said. "Aboriginal people there were always seen as the 'aboriginal problem.' But we never felt that we were a problem.

"If you create a paradigm that sees indigenous people as a problem, you will run around trying to find a solution for it, and that's not going to take anybody forward," he said.

The forum has approved a resolution for a second UN decade for indigenous people. It will now be voted on by the UN General Assembly. While Scott says the first decade was useful in raising awareness about indigenous issues, he says there is a long fight ahead.

"Maybe people expected everything to be sorted out in ten years," he said. "But given that it's taken generations to entrench indigenous people in the problems what we now face, it is not going to take ten years—or even a generation—for things to be resolved."

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