IDEAS For Us | August 15, 2015

The Ecology of Indigenous Peoples

un-featThe Post-2015 Agenda has, undoubtedly, been the focus of attention at the international level over the past several years, increasing in prominence since the 2012 Rio+20 conference began what has become today’s most pressing and ubiquitous discussion. At the forefront of this discussion has been the development of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets for progress to be adopted by the international community as a primary tenant of the Post-2015 framework. The SDGs – which will serve as the next step in multilateral cooperation following this year’s conclusion of the 15-year Millennium Development Goal (MDG) track – have been a source of expansive debate among the international community. Understandably, after a decade and a half of struggling to meet benchmarks for the MDGs, the global community is seeking a refined approach to these over-arching goals hoping to increase efficacy and proficiency. In that vein, intergovernmental negotiations have been taking place on a monthly basis since early this year, allowing member states to not only discuss what content they find relevant and worthy of inclusion in the SDGs, but also developing Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) to act as preliminary hard commitments to help reach these goals. As it stands, 17 SDGs are included in the current draft, prompting a pervasive motif of necessary specificity versus over-inclusion. Many states are concerned that 17 goals is too lofty, too broad, and will hinder the states’ capacities to effectively plan and reach indicator milestones. However, the problem then arises, how does one decide what not to include?

As we at IDEAS for UN have kept an ear to these intergovernmental processes, we have found this element of potentially trimming the SDGs to be one of the most puzzling, yet critical discussions on the table. For those who do not already know, the IDEAS for Us platform views sustainability and its inclusive issues as existing in five major pillars: Energy, Water, Food, Waste, and Ecology. Within each of those categories exists a cadre of topics, all of which are universal social and political struggles that require attention if we, as a species, wish to combat the pressing climate crisis. For this reason, we believe it is of paramount importance that any discussions of SDGs on a global scale not falter in failing to commit to or include the many relevant topics within the five pillars of sustainability. However, understanding that there must be some reasonable limitations, we are once again faced with the issue of what gets left out. One important social issue which seems to lie on the fence between recognition and exclusion is that of Indigenous Peoples and their roles and rights in the modern world – a topic which has taken the spotlight following the August 9th celebration of International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

For all intents and purposes the issues concerning Indigenous rights are ecological issues. While many view the category of ecology as strictly a reference to the many ecosystems and biomes which cover our planets ‘undeveloped’ or wild landscape, it is vital that we adopt the paradigm of humanity as a key playerman-black-face_2255972k in global ecology. Humans, of course, are animals, and though we often separate our lives and actions from those of the rest of the animal kingdom, we are effectively members of the same ecosystems, and all of our behaviors have impacts. Famed ecologist John Muir once stated, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” this, in essence, describes the ideology behind IDEAS’ pillar of Ecology. Consequently, issues of human interaction, both with other humans and between humans and the environment, are very much ecological issues in the same way as interspecies competition or intra-species community behaviors. Thus, the issues concerning indigenous peoples and their rights fall neatly into this category.

Additionally, the relevance of indigenous issues to the SDGs is simple: as explained by the Indigenous Peoples Major Group (IPMG) in a recent policy brief, the era of MDGs failed to recognize indigenous people as a distinct group and thus their particular issues regarding poverty and human development were not individually targeted, and in turn saw little improvement or attention. It goes without saying that this is an obvious gap in the international community’s attention to poverty alleviation. By failing to specifically distinguish indigenous peoples in the outline of goals and targets, the major group is effectively ignored despite facing incredibly real and specialized concerns. The IPMG also mentioned that this failure to differentiate indigenous populations resulted in “culturally blind” implementation of MDG development programs. This allowed for discriminatory practices in the application of educational initiatives and the employment of programs providing health and basic services, resulting in an obvious disparity between those receiving the benefits of these programs and the indigenous groups. It is clear that this disparity needs to be addressed, and while it is incredibly unfortunate that these gaps existed during the MDG era, the Post-2015 agenda provides an ideal opportunity to fix these gaps. However, therein lays the most significant problem: despite the obvious platform that the SDGs provide to ameliorate these concerns, many references to indigenous peoples have been recently deleted from Post-2015 outcome document of the Open Working Group on SDGs. This is especially shocking considering the deliberate commitments on the part of member states to address the concerns of indigenous people as a major group of key stakeholders in the Post-2015 process. For instance, in the Rio+20 outcome document, General Assembly Resolution A/RES/66/288 “The Future We Want,” paragraph 49 specifically states,

49. We stress the importance of the participation of indigenous peoples in the achievement of sustainable development. We also recognize the importance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples28 in the context of global, regional, national and subnational implementation of sustainable development strategies.”

If this commitment was not sufficient on its own, two years later the World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP, a High Level General Assembly Plenary) adopted A/RES/69/2, an action-based outcome document for Belo-Monte-dam-protest-008ensuring the commitment to indigenous peoples’ rights and concerns as an independent and focused priority. Within this secondary resolution there is even explicit mention of an international commitment to ensure equitable access for indigenous peoples to health care, education, and other basic services that the MDGs had unfortunately neglected. However, if somehow this recent and incredibly thorough resolution on the rights and priorities of indigenous peoples was still not enough to ensure theirinclusion in the Post-2015 agenda, these documents themselves are specifically and expressly founded on the pre-existing foundation established by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, all of which were established prior to the 2014 World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (the outcome document includes a clause celebrating these prior achievements). Admittedly, this list of accomplishments demonstrates an impressive amount of prior action to ensure that the voices and concerns of indigenous peoples are heard by the international community and that the issues facing these peoples do not go unnoticed in high level dialogues. Clause 37 of the WCIP’s resolution, again one of the most recent on the subject, goes as far as explicitly stating,

“We note that indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development. In this regard, we commit ourselves to giving due consideration to all the rights of indigenous peoples in the elaboration of the post-2015 development agenda”

However, the clear irony in celebrating these accomplishments is that they clearly have not come full circle. Despite all of the aforementioned efforts to ensure participation, references to indigenous peoples are still being omitted from the Open Working Group on SDGs’ outcome documents. In the interest of clear and direct communication, it is frankly unacceptable.

As it relates back to the IDEAS for Us Five Pillars of Sustainability, this exclusion of indigenous peoples is problematic on several levels. First, there is simply the ecological issue of excluding a major stake-holding group. As mentioned ad nauseam, human interaction is inherently ecological, and ignoring the Indigenous Peoples Major Group is thus perpetuating a discrepancy in our ecological harmony. In short, we create a massive gap in human rights. Secondly and expectedly, this gap ripples into additional externalities. These subsequent externalities are exhibited in the IPMG’s list of priority issues:

By ignoring the interests and rights of indigenous people we place additional strains on issues of land use, resource allocation, resource protection, and more, expanding into nearly every other pillar. Third, and finally, this omission of indigenous peoples’ and their concerns carries overwhelmingly negative implications for the projected success of these new goals and commitments. If the international community can not commit to fulfilling the obligations with which they have charged themselves in regards to indigenous peoples, how can we expect the commitments of the SDGs to play out differently? Setting aside the issue of hypocrisy in ignoring the long list of promises made to the IPMG, it boils down to an issue of following through. Thus far the discussion surrounding the SDGs and the Post-2015 agenda have been generally promising. Major polluting nations have made progressive and bold commitments to mitigate their climate impacts and the horizon looks slightly less foggy (or smoggy) than before. But amidst this air of aspiration, the issues concerning indigenous peoples represent a serious, self-inflicted nail in the tire of forward progress. To continue the metaphor, we must patch this hole before we reach a point of replacing the whole tire.

Ultimately, as is typical for issues of this breadth and gravity, there are no easy fixes. Reintroducing the language regarding indigenous peoples to the outcome documents would be a markedly easy start, and the IPMG has presented a series of other detailed suggestions that would further bolster these efforts, but overall progress will require a significantly more serious disposition than the international community is currently showing. It is well understood that the SDGs must have limits, it would be foolish not to draw the line somewhere, but it is clear that this is not the place to begin writing off issues. If member states are concerned with excess in the SDG discussions then the procedure should be one of consolidation, not exclusion. After all, this is the spirit of multilateralism: “how can we bring all perspectives together?” rather than, “who can we afford to ignore?” because the answer is assuredly, “no one.”