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Indigenous Women and Sustainable Development

Posted on: Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Keywords: Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Indigenous Rights

A MADRE Position Paper

Indigenous Peoples have fought for centuries against genocide, displacement, colonization, and forced assimilation, preserving their cultures and their identities as distinct Peoples. The ongoing attack has left Indigenous communities among the poorest and most marginalized in the world, alienated from state politics and disenfranchised by national governments. Today, Indigenous Peoples, who occupy some of the last pristine environments on Earth, are at the forefront of the struggle against corporate globalization and privatization of natural resources.

The United Nations estimates that there are over 300 million Indigenous Peoples living in 70 different countries. But this number, like most figures on Indigenous Peoples, is imprecise. The lack of data on Indigenous Peoples is an urgent concern, because it is used by states to avoid responsibility for guaranteeing Indigenous rights, such as access to basic services. The statistics that are available paint a picture of poverty and inequality. Indigenous Peoples in the Americas have a life expectancy 10 to 20 years less than the general population. In Central America, Indigenous Peoples have less access to education and health services, are more likely to die from preventable diseases, suffer higher infant and maternal mortality rates, and experience higher levels of poverty than non-Indigenous populations.

The richness of Indigenous Peoples' natural resources and culture stands in contrast to their lack of material wealth. Indigenous women play a key role in preserving their Peoples' natural resources and traditional knowledge, which are the foundation of Indigenous wealth and culture. Traditionally, women are responsible for conservation and maintenance of natural resources and for preserving and transmitting Indigenous knowledge. Indigenous women are the primary producers of food in their communities and the custodians of biodiversity for many of the world's ecosystems. They are practitioners of medicine, pharmacology, botany, and nutrition, and the keepers of the agricultural technology that sustains the polycultures critical to maintaining biodiversity the world over. In addition to being the stewards of environmental, technical, scientific, cultural, and spiritual knowledge, Indigenous women are the primary transmitters of this knowledge to younger generations. As such, Indigenous women hold the keys to combating poverty in their communities and creating and implementing strategies for sustainable development.

Respect for collective rights, such as sovereignty and self-determination, is vital for protecting Indigenous Peoples' human rights. Violations of Indigenous Peoples' sovereignty make Indigenous communities uniquely vulnerable to the abuses of corporate globalization. In most places, corporations are not required to compensate or even consult with Indigenous communities before cutting down their forests, drilling for oil on their lands, mining their mountains, or displacing people from their homes. Meanwhile, the vast natural wealth found on Indigenous Peoples' lands makes Indigenous communities a target for profit-seeking corporations and governments. Indigenous cultural heritage, including extensive knowledge of plants and animals, is also vulnerable to exploitation. Historically, this knowledge has been developed, shared, and used collectively. But international trade rules like the World Trade Organization's TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) fail to recognize collective intellectual property. As a result, Indigenous Peoples' knowledge—particularly in the areas of pharmacology and botany—is being appropriated by individuals and corporations seeking patent rights.

Recently, Indigenous Peoples have made significant progress using the international arena to demand their individual and collective rights. Indigenous activists have established worldwide networks to carry their issues to the highest levels of international decision-making bodies, forcing national governments and international bodies to recognize their human rights.

Indigenous women have been at the forefront of the international Indigenous movement, and have stressed that gender equality and increased political participation of Indigenous women are essential aspects of Indigenous Peoples' human rights. Historically, pervasive disparities between women and men within Indigenous communities have been reinforced by colonization and neoliberalism, while egalitarian Indigenous beliefs and practices have been undermined. Indigenous women must therefore defend both the rights of their Peoples as a whole and their rights as women within their communities. Today, Indigenous women activists are working in the international arena to push for a rights-based approach to meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals and win the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Many Indigenous women see the Declaration as a key to establishing a framework for Indigenous human rights law—including recognition of Indigenous Peoples' collective rights—that is essential to empowering Indigenous Peoples and defending their social, economic, and cultural rights.

MADRE supports this work by facilitating the International Indigenous Women's Forum (IIWF/FIMI), a global network of Indigenous women working to secure the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples in the international arena and the rights of Indigenous women within their communities. MADRE also supports Indigenous women's community-based work for human rights in Colombia, Guatemala, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru.


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