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."

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