About indigenous peoples
Indigenous peoples represent more than 4,000 different languages and cultures each having their own unique merits. Despite this enormous diversity, we highlight some features that indigenous peoples from a more general perspective, and to varying degrees, have in common.
Land is Life
Even though today many indigenous people have moved to urban areas, due to loss of land and poor living conditions, many still live more or less traditional life styles on their own territories. We can broadly distinguish three different life styles:
- Pastoralists: who are mainly dependent on keeping cattle for own consumption, clothing and shelter, but also to trade or barter. These peoples often lead a nomadic or semi-nomadic life. Many nomadic people in Africa, such as the Tuareg are pastoralists.
- Hunter-gatherers: who hunt for game, fish and bird and gather fruits and insects from the forest for own consumption, clothing and shelter, but who also trade and barter. The non-timber forest products are also used for medicine, stimulants, poison and pesticides. Many of the indigenous peoples of the Amazone, the Penan in Malaysia and the Ogiek in Kenya are hunter-gathers.
- Farmers: who farm on a small scale and the so called 'shifting cultivators', to provide for the basic needs of the family, with often nothing left to trade. The farming is usually complemented with hunting, fishing and gathering. The indigenous peoples of the highlands of South America, such as the Aymara are subsistence farmers.
Biological and cultural diversity and traditional knowlegde
These ways of life make it possible to survive in harsh circumstances and living with nature in a sustainable way. For most indigenous peoples land means life. Not only because they depend on it for their daily subsistence, but because their whole cultural, social and spiritual identity is connected with it. It is widely recognized that indigenous peoples due to their ways of life, their attitude towards nature and their ecological knowledge have played a crucial role in the conservation of biological diversity on earth.
According to a study from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) by Gonzalo Oviedo, there is a strong correlation between areas with high biological diversity and areas with high cultural diversity. Eighty percent of the Global 200 eco-regions (areas identified as richest in biological diversity) is inhabited by one or more indigenous people(s). In their long history of managing the environment, indigenous peoples have accumulated vast amounts of ecological knowledge, which is embodied in their languages. Local knowledge is a pillar of traditional medicine and health systems. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme up to eighty percent of the non-industrial world’s population rely on traditional forms of medicine.
However, as the pressures on the earth’s resources intensify, indigenous peoples bear disproportionate costs from resource-intensive and resource-extractive industries and activities such as mining, oil and gas development, large dams and other infrastructure projects, logging and plantations, bio-prospecting, industrial fishing and farming, and also eco-tourism and imposed conservation projects. These pressures also accelerate some unsustainable economic activities undertaken by indigenous peoples themselves, notably where indigenous rights have not been respected, thus leaving communities with insufficient land and resources.. More info on the issues and threats to indigenous peoples>>
Organizational structures and justice systems
Indigenous peoples have their own administrative structures, customary laws and justice systems that may differ completely from the often western based systems which now prevail in most countries. Some people were able to preserve these structures and systems over time, but many have disappeared under pressure of the now dominant structures and systems. In some countries, however, such as Ethiopia and Colombia, traditional justice systems are acknowledged. They coexist with the national justice systems, which is referred to as legal pluralism. In other situations, such as in Mindanao in the Southern part of the Philippines indigenous peoples are working to revive their own legal structures and customary laws.
Most indigenous cultures are based on collectivism, meaning for instance that land is seen as something to be shared with the community and not as something to be possessed privately. They share the fruits of the land with the community, a system referred to as 'communal land tenure'. However, in most countries where private ownership and neo-liberal market theories prevail, this system and the traditional methods of subsistence (pastoralism, hunting/gathering and small scale farming) are seen as backward and slowing down economic growth. Nevertheless, many of these methods have proven to be far more sustainable and less destructive for the environment than most of the large scale, market-oriented economic activities.
Cultural expressions & sacred sites
For indigenous peoples spirituality and cultural identity cannot be separated from the natural environment. Their ceremonies not only regulate and confirm the relationship between individuals, clans, societies and nations, but also between all life on earth. They are also practised for the transmission of norms and values and in educating the youth. Cultural objects, which play an important role in these ceremonies, can be physical objects, but they can also be a part of a landscape such as a mountain or a waterfall. That is why the dispossession of many of these objects, by private collectors or museums, or through loss of land, has eroded indigenous cultures significantly.
Development with culture and identity
Indigenous peoples often have a different vision on development than the western, dominant vision. The western vision is more based on economic growth by exploiting labour, capital and natural resources. Indigenous peoples value more a good life and a healthy balance between man and nature. This does not mean that indigenous cultures do not change, or reject the western lifestyle completely. They just want to have the freedom to choose their own path of development, based on their own values.
Cultural poverty: A Dayak perspective
The following seven principles summarize the way in which the Dayak achieve their ideal of life, based on their cultural values and how they compare with modern values:
- Sustainability (biodiversity) versus productivity (monoculture)
- Collectivity (cooperation) versus individuality (competition)
- Naturality (organic) versus engineered (inorganic)
- Spirituality (rituality) versus rationality (scientific)
- Process (effectiveness) versus result (efficiency)
- Subsistence (domesticity) versus commerciality (market)
- Customary law (locality) versus state law (global)
Failure to achieve these ideals is believed to result in barau (Jalai Dayak): a situation when nature fails to function normally, and thus results in chaos. Barau is a result of Adat* transgression—a broken relationship with nature. “Poverty” for the Dayak is linked directly with failure to exercise the Adat that governs the way in which the people should live.
* Adat: set of local and traditional laws.
Source: UN Document State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, New York, 2009, p. 15
 UN document UNEP/GC.23/INF/23, p.18.
 UN Document State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, New York, 2009