Indigenous issues

IndigenTeduray_couple_GerardvanDorpous peoples' painful histories of being excluded, exploited and discriminated, are reflected in their situation today. They belong to the most marginalized and vulnerable people in the world. At the same time, indigenous peoples are the custodians of some of the most biologically diverse areas on earth. They speak a majority of the world’s languages, and their traditional knowledge, cultural diversity and sustainable ways of life make an invaluable contribution to the world’s common heritage. This means that the issue of indigenous peoples is a challenge for the international community in terms of upholding human rights, promoting cultural diversity and peaceful coexistence as well as protecting biological diversity and achieving ecological sustainability. NCIV therefore works to advocate the rights of indigenous peoples, with special attention for the position of indigenous women, as they are often even more marginalized and vulnerable.

Mayor threats for indigenous peoples

Some of the mayor underlying causes of the marginalized and vulnerable position of indigenous peoples are:

Discrimination and assimilation

As a result of centuries of colonization and discrimination indigenous people have been killed, driven away and subordinated while their lands and territories have been taken away from them without their consent. Until today indigenous peoples are often discriminated by the dominant group in the country where they live. On the one hand they are excluded form society (for example they do not have the right to vote or access to public services such as water, health and education), and on the other hand they are forced to assimilate to the dominant culture (for example they only receive education in the dominant language and about dominant cultural values). This has a negative impact on the survival of the indigenous language, culture and traditions, which are seen as backward by the dominant culture.

Economic globalisation

In recent decades, indigenous peoples have faced the increasing negative impacts of economic globalization on their natural environment and their well being. The growing global economy has increased the demand for natural resources. Many governments rely upon massive extraction of natural resources for export to generate foreign exchange to pay for foreign debts. And in many of these and also other countries, indigenous peoples’ territories are the last frontiers where such resources are found, because indigenous peoples had so far been able to successfully defend their territories from being exploited.[1] According to Ms. Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the majority of the world’s remaining natural resources – minerals, freshwater, potential energy sources and more – are found within indigenous territories.[2] Many of these resources are taken from or developed on indigenous peoples' territories, and very often without their free prior and informed consent. A study of the International Forum on Globalization Committee on Indigenous Peoples, ‘Paradigm wars’[3], provides a better insight into the differences between indigenous worldviews and worldviews of the industrialized world, and maps out globally how several economic sectors impact indigenous territories, including extractive industries, hydro-electric dams, logging, tourism and industrial agriculture.[4]

Climate change

Although indigenous peoples have not or only to a very limited extent contributed to the causes of the present climate changes they are increasingly confronted with its negative consequences. Best known may be the situation of the Inuit who are direct victims of the melting polar ice and permafrost in the Arctic region. But at the same time indigenous peoples in the Himalayas and in the Andes face a change in the flora and fauna on which they depend for their daily lives. For indigenous peoples living in desert areas, the breeding of cattle is getting more and more difficult because of increasing droughts. In tropical rainforests the reduction of rainfall and an increased chance of forest fires can be a serious threat for the numerous indigenous peoples living in these areas. Indigenous peoples living in coastal areas or on islands are being threatened by the rising sea level, and in temperate ecosystems the weather is getting more and more unpredictable, dry periods for instance becoming too short to dry the fish and seaweed.

Even though indigenous peoples are among the first victims of climate change and some have already developed new strategies to adapt to climate change, they hardly have a voice in policies to combat climate change.  International policies for carbon emission reductions can even have further negative consequences for indigenous peoples. In some cases these policies promote the planting of trees or other crops for the production of biofuels that are a threat to indigenous territories.

Conflict areas

In many areas of the world indigenous peoples are involved in violent conflicts. The exploitation of natural resources, the lack of political participation, poverty and repression have forced some indigenous groups to use violence in conflicts with governments and multinationals. In other cases indigenous peoples have become trapped in violent conflict caused by other parties. This, for instance, is the case in Colombia, where indigenous peoples have become a target for both the armed opposition group (FARC), as well as for governmental military troops.

Negative impacts on the lives of indigenous peoples

The developments and issues described above have severe negative impacts on the life and well-being of the world’s indigenous peoples, including:

Human rights violations

Despite the recognition of the vital role indigenous peoples play in today’s world, gross violations of indigenous peoples’ rights continue to take place, which is well documented by the United Nations and other independent human rights monitoring bodies[5]. Indigenous peoples therefore advocate their human rights to regain control over their lands, territories and natural resources, their culture and institutions and their development. The adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the General Assembly of the United Nations, on 13 September 2007, was a major step forward in this endeavour.

Forced evictions though loss of land and/or privatisation of land

The concept of private ownership of land is alien to most indigenous peoples, who live by the concept of a collective right to use the land. They have therefore never claimed legal titles of ownership to the land. That is why national governments and companies do not consider indigenous peoples as the legal owners of the land. Although the international convention ILO 169 and UNDRIP recognize the collective right of indigenous peoples to their ancestral territories, only very few countries respect this. Especially when there is a commercial interest in the natural resources on indigenous territories, indigenous peoples are often evicted from their lands, without their free, prior, informed consent and often with the use of force and without any form of compensation.  Fortunately, in the last decades, indigenous peoples have been increasingly successful at national and international courts in claiming their land titles. Read more about these successes >> [link naar IPs at national level]

Environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity

Through exploitation of the land where indigenous peoples live, the land becomes degraded and polluted and much of its biodiversity is lost. Since indigenous peoples are dependent on the land and its biodiversity, a life on this land is no longer possible for them. The people are forced to move elsewhere, usually without any compensation.


The loss of land, pollution of their environment and exclusion from social and medical provisions have made that indigenous peoples are among the poorest people in the world. They are lagging behind on the realization of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and get little support from national governments to improve their situation. Many indigenous people move to urban areas in order to find work. However, due to discrimination and poor education, they often get little possibilities for getting proper jobs, which leaves them among the poorest in the city.

Loss of biocultural diversity and traditional knowledge

All the issues described above pose a great threat to the culture, and lifestyles of indigenous peoples. It is expected that roughly 90 percent of all existing languages may become extinct within the next 100 years, the associated traditional ecological knowledge will also be lost. The protection of indigenous knowledge and their ways of life is not just relevant to indigenous peoples, but to the planet and its inhabitants, in order for us all to be able to live in a sustainable manner.

Social problems and gender issues

The often poor conditions in which indigenous peoples live and cultural changes have also caused many social problems, such as drugs and alcohol abuse and (domestic) violence. This affects especially indigenous women. In indigenous communities men and women have different gender roles and responsibilities and for that reason they also often have different needs, wants and interests. In traditional times, indigenous men would generally respect women. However, indigenous women’s roles have eroded due to the compounding factors of loss of natural resources and depletion of the ecosystems, the transition to a cash economy, changes in local, social and decision-making structures, and their lack of political status within States. Poverty among indigenous peoples has led male members of the family to move away in search of work, leaving women and children at home. Many indigenous women have become household heads, looking after children and elders in the family. The increasing migration of indigenous women to cities in search of wage work as labourers in formal and informal sectors has added further problems as they are mostly exploited and treated inhumanely. There is often a reluctance to address the gender dimensions of indigenous peoples, as this is seen as ‘interfering with culture’ or ‘imposing westerns values’. However, seen from socio-economic and poverty reduction perspectives, gender analysis is simply a tool to identify and address gender-differentiated needs in a more accurate and targeted way.[6] For such reasons, Indigenous women are increasingly organizing themselves in networks and meetings in order to discuss and address their own specific problems, views and positions.

[1] A similar analysis on the causes of poverty among indigenous peoples can be found in UN document E/C.19/2005/4/Add.13 on page 6 and 7: Structural causes of indigenous peoples' poverty

[2] United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Backgrounder, Indigenous Peoples – Lands, Territories and Natural Resources

[3] Meander, Jerry and Tauli-Corpuz, Victoria, Paradigm wars, Indigenous peoples’ resistance to economic globalization; A special report of the International Forum on Globalization Committee on Indigenous Peoples

[4] See:

[5] See the report of the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples: / or The Indigenous World 2008, in IWGIA's series of yearbooks. These books provide an update on the state of affairs of Indigenous Peoples around the world.

[6] UNPFII, briefing note 1 gender and indigenous peoples

About NCIV

Since 1969, NCIV is an NGO that supports the promotion, recognition and protection of indigenous peoples' rights. NCIV brings the issues and views of indigenous peoples to the attention of the Dutch government, civil society, business and science and works to encourage them to make a positive contribution to improving the situation of indigenous peoples at national and international levels.