This Friday is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, and if you happen to be in New York you should absolutely check it out! The days marks the inaugural session of the Working Group on Indigenous Population within the United Nations in 1982. The event will bring together indigenous peoples’ organizations, UN agencies, member states, and any interested civilians to hear from keystone speakers and presenters. The theme will be a continuation of the larger UN 2019 theme, the Year of Indigenous Languages. You might ask–why languages? Shouldn’t we be focusing on environmental issues?

The answer lies in the fact that environmental and social issues are often inherently linked. Sustainable development is a complex idea, and while environmental issues certainly comprise a good portion of sustainability, social issues belong to this concept as well. Did you know that one estimate says that ½ of the languages in the world could become extinct by 2100? Indigenous languages make up the vast majority of languages that would die out if we do not act soon. According to the UN, “They [languages] are central to their identity, preservation of culture, worldview, the environment they inhabit, and ultimately function as an expression of self-determination. In essence, when indigenous languages are under threat, so too are indigenous peoples and their cultures.” 

Embera in Panama

And when you pair the facts that we are on the brink of a 6th mass extinction and that indigenous people manage or have tenure on approximately ¼ of the world’s land, the critical role of these people becomes obvious. A recent study conducted at the University of British Columbia compared biodiversity (in Australia, Canada, and Brazil) in areas managed by indigenous people to formally protected areas. Astonishingly, the study found an equal or even slightly higher number of species inside areas managed or tenured by indigenous peoples rather than the areas formally protected by governments and organizations. 

Margarita from our Kichwa partner community Sani Isla, Ecuador

Indigenous people have to fight daily for the right to land their ancestors have lived on for millennia. As deforestation and unsustainable agriculture in the Amazon continues, more and more communities are threatened. One of the leaders of the study, Professor Richard Schuster, said, “Going forward, collaborating with indigenous land stewards will likely be essential in ensuring that species survive and thrive.” As we draw nearer to the precipice of environmental disaster, we have to begin looking at what some might consider unorthodox solutions. But for Rainforest Partnership, this idea embodies exactly what we stand for–preserving both the people and the forest, culture and the environment. When we begin to think of them jointly rather than as separate entities, we are making progress in the area of sustainable development. Take a moment to think about these people and their cultures this Friday!

Works Cited