For more than two decades August 9 has been celebrated as the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – a day that recognizes the achievements and contributions that indigenous people make to improve world issues such as environmental protection. Their way of life reflects the experiences and lessons of harmonious living with nature and the sustainable use of natural resources.

This year’s theme, COVID-19 and the Indigenous Peoples’ Resilience, recognizes their rights, and their continued assertion for their lives, land and culture, and how their struggle is made even more difficult amidst the pandemic.

Farmers work in the Banaue rice terraces, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The terraces were declared a GE free zone, by the provincial government in 2009. © Greenpeace/John Novis

Estimates indicate that there are 370 million indigenous peoples living in more than 90 countries. They make up 5% of the global population, and comprise 15% of the world’s extreme poor. And in Asia and the Pacific, there are more than 260 million indigenous peoples, making up 70% of the world’s total indigenous population. While indigenous territories and ancestral domains are considered the bastions of ecologically sustainable ways of life – making them the foundation for a sustainable food base – they continue to be the most marginalized and vulnerable communities in the region.

Because their lives are deeply rooted in their relationship with the land and environment, they have been subjected to the violent brunt of development aggression that has rendered them to become the victims of human rights violations, displacement from their ancestral domain.

To this day, they continue to experience an absolute disregard for their cultures, traditions and rights to basic services. And while their indigenous food systems are locally and climatically adapted and resilient to climate threats, the worsening climate crisis makes them particularly vulnerable to its excesses like typhoons, flooding, and drought.

The remaining high-biodiversity and resource-rich areas today are part of the ancestral domains and territories of indigenous peoples. And this is the reason why corporations and governments are targeting indigenous territories for the unbridled use of resources. Especially now that the COVID-19 global health pandemic has pushed different governments into economic recession, they are trying to jump-start the economy by opening up their “assets” for businesses, which unfortunately include their natural resources. Several governments in Asia have indicated that they are opening up their countries for projects related to mining and extraction, as well as the fossil fuel industry. This further threatens the indigenous communities’ rights and way of life. Aside from the looming disregard for their territories and possible displacement from their land, the environmental effects of these projects are surely to affect these already vulnerable communities. Moreover, the continuously shrinking democratic spaces in most countries in Asia would put them at a greater risk of oppression as they have historically been the targets of harassment and persecution as a result of their assertion of their rights.

March 2017. Papuan activists in front of Presidential Palace, Jakarta, bound their feet into concrete inside wooden boxes as an act of solidarity to Kendeng farmers that are against the development of a giant cement factory. One farmer, Patmi passed away as she also bound her feet into concrete with 50 farmers during the protest earlier this month. They urged government to cancel the development of the cement factory that destroyed the environment in their area. ©Jurnasyanto Sukarno / Greenpeace

We are at a very critical juncture. The pandemic has put a spotlight on the cracks of the system in different governments. The “normal” as we know it was already a crisis which we need to fix. And this can only be done if we tackle the root of the problems.

The principles for a Just Recovery can guide us in seeking solutions towards our aspiration for a future which is just, equitable, sustainable, resilient and pro-people – a future which leaves no one behind, especially the most marginalized and vulnerable. Different institutions, including governments, international financial institutions and the private sector, have routinely abdicated their responsibility to indigenous peoples. It is time to ensure that indigenous peoples are visible in this future that we aspire for. They have to be part of the decision-making processes as we move forward. We must respect and uphold their rights to land, territories, culture, and ways of life.

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