UN report: Indigenous peoples’ cultural/physical survival threatened

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NEW YORK – The world’s 370 million indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately high rates of poverty, health problems, crime, unemployment, human rights abuses, and their cultural, and in some cases, physical survival are threatened with extinction, according to the first ever United Nations report on the issues.

State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples” stresses that land rights, self-determination, and the principles of free, prior and informed consent are necessary for the survival of the world’s indigenous peoples both in developed and developing countries.

The report includes a number of alarming statistics:

  • In the United States, a Native American is 600 times more likely to contract tuberculosis and 62 percent more likely to commit suicide than the general population;
  • In Australia, an indigenous child can expect to die 20 years earlier than his non-Native compatriot. The life expectancy gap is also 20 years in Nepal, 13 years in Guatemala, and 11 years in New Zealand;

  • In parts of Ecuador, indigenous people have 30 times greater risk of throat cancer than the national average;

  • Worldwide, more than 50 percent of indigenous adults suffer from Type 2 diabetes – a umber predicted to rise.

While indigenous peoples make up around 370 million of the world’s population – some 5 percent – they constitute around one-third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people. The report says.

“Every day, indigenous communities all over the world face issues of violence and brutality, continuing assimilation policies, dispossession of land, marginalization, forced removal or relocation, denial of land rights, impacts of large-scale development, abuses by military forces and a host of other abuses,” according to the report.

Regional facts and figures North America

Well under the poverty line: The average income of Native Americans is less than half the average for the United States overall. Almost a quarter of Native Americans and Alaska Natives live under the poverty line in the United States compared to about 12.5 percent of the total population.

60 percent of aboriginal children in urban areas in Canada live below the poverty line.

Tuberculosis, suicide, malnutrition and other risks higher: In Canada in 2006, the tuberculosis rate among First Nations peoples was 35 times higher than that of the non-aboriginal population. The Inuit rate is just over 150 times higher than the non-aboriginal population. Suicide rates among the Inuit are the highest in Canada, at 11 times the national average.

Native Americans and Alaska Natives have higher death rates than other Americans from tuberculosis (600 percent higher), alcoholism (510 percent higher), motor vehicle crashes (229 percent higher), diabetes (189 percent higher), unintentional injuries (152 percent higher), homicide (61 percent higher) and suicide (62 percent higher).

Malnutrition among indigenous peoples in North America contributes to an increasing prevalence of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. The Pima Indian Tribe in Arizona has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world, with around 50 percent of adults aged 30 – 64 suffering from diabetes.

Suicide rates for American Indian and Alaska Native youth are significantly higher than the national average for other population groups. For 5 to 14 year olds, the suicide rate is 2.6 times higher than the national average; for 15 to 24 year olds it is 3.3 times higher.

Dropout rates hinder economic prospects: In Canada, around 70 percent of First Nations students on-reserve will never complete high school. The education deficit clearly has an impact on economic outcomes: While the total unemployment rate in the United States declined from 6.5 to 5.9 percent between 1994 and 2003, during the same period it increased from 11.7 to 15.1 percent among American Indians and Alaska Natives.

High incarceration rates: While indigenous peoples in Canada represent only 3 percent of the total population, they make up around 19 percent of federal prisoners. Violence against women: Native American women are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually violated than women in the United States in general.

For more information, see: www.un.org/indigenous

The report was launched Jan. 14. at the UN headquarters in New York at a press conference with Myrna Cunningham, one of the authors of the publication and Ms. Vicki Tauli-Corpuz, chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

“We are pleased today to be able to present this report .The first thing that is important to acknowledge is that the report was written by indigenous peoples, so this is the first time we can say that people are not writing about us, we are writing about the current situation we are living in different parts of the world,” Cunningham said.

The report is organized into seven thematic chapters covering poverty and well-being, culture, environment, contemporary education, health, human rights, and emerging issues.

“It makes sense to have a first chapter on poverty and well-being, indigenous peoples are really over-represented in the number of poor people all over the world. We live in territories that have the richest resources whether its oil, gold, forests, water, and yet you find this kind of poverty in our territories and among our people,” Tauli-Corpuz said.

But it should not be so, she said.

“We indigenous people say we are not poor, we are impoverished because our access to our land and territories and resources have been curtailed very drastically by states and also corporations, and therefore we’ve become poor. We should not be materially poor, but we are also saying that we are very rich in culture and also in knowledge in terms of how to address the issues of natural resources management.”

The report notes the “remarkable contribution” that indigenous peoples make to cultural diversity across the world. But while indigenous peoples are increasingly recognized for their cultural identities and productions, their unique relationship with their environments, and their traditional knowledge and spirituality, they also “face the duel and somewhat contradictory threats of discrimination commodification,” the report notes.

Indigenous peoples speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s 7,000 languages, and while some indigenous languages are being revitalized, 90 percent of all languages will disappear over the next 100 years, the report states. Since cultures are contained within languages, indigenous cultures are therefore threatened with extinction.

The report repeatedly stresses the importance of land and territories to indigenous cultural identity and survival and speaks about land and territorial rights as “the space” in which indigenous peoples “reproduce their culture.”

While a few countries recognize indigenous land rights, the laws protecting such lands are rarely if ever enforced.

“Even in those countries, land titling and demarcation procedures have often not been completed, suffer delays or are shelved because of changes in political leadership and policies,” the report says.

New technologies such as the introduction of cash crop cultivation and large plantations, and unsustainable development such as large dams and mining activities, continue to dispossess indigenous peoples of their lands and territories and force their relocation.

“When indigenous peoples have reacted and tried to assert their rights, in most instances they have suffered physical abuse, imprisonment, torture and even death,” the report says.

Traditional foods extend indigenous peoples lives, according to the report.

“It is now emerging that indigenous peoples’ overall health, well-being and cultural continuity are directly related to their ability to consume their traditional foods and continue their tradition food practices.”

Governments, therefore, are being called upon to integrate culture into the development of sustainable agriculture through policies and programs that respect and support the well-being of indigenous peoples.

Among the emerging issues affecting indigenous peoples are violence and militarism, globalization, and migration and urbanization.

“A common theme is indigenous peoples’ vulnerability in the face of outside pressures and the need to develop specific policies that address this vulnerability, while simultaneously ensuring that the principle of free, prior and informed consent is respected and that indigenous peoples’ participate in decision-making processes that affect their well-being,” the report says.