A Thought For Indigenous Peoples

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It is safe to conjecture that by the term indigenous peoples, it should be understood that the International Day observed on August 9 each year refers to the people living in a particular geographical area before either colonialism or urbanisation, or both caught up with them resulting in the dilution of their ways of life or even wiping out such traits altogether.

There are many instances of countries where the aborigines, as they are sometimes referred to, are marginalised in the scheme of things in a territory they have the right to claim as their own.

Time was when such territories were said to be made up of fauna and flora. In other words, the humans living in those areas before the invasion by outsiders were not recognised as humans; hence, the word fauna, a reference to them as animals and attempts were made to wipe them out by people on a fabled civilising mission.

The day, therefore, is set aside to deliberately promote and protect the rights of such indigenous population. Specifically, it is meant to recognize the achievements and contributions that indigenous people make to improve world issues such as environmental protection. It was first pronounced by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1994, marking the day of the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Sub commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, in 1982.

It was celebrated every year during the first International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (1995–2004). In 2004, the Assembly proclaimed a Second International Decade, from 2005–2015, with the theme, “A Decade for Action and Dignity”. The United Nations’ intention in marking this day is to encourage people from different nations to participate in observing the day to spread the UN’s message on indigenous peoples as well as draw attention to the plight they are compelled to face by circumstances beyond their control. Activities may include educational forums and classroom activities to gain an appreciation and a better understanding of indigenous peoples.

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries. They make up less than five per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences and efforts to politically make them irrelevant, indigenous peoples from around the world doggedly hold on to the life they cherish just as they share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.

Ten years ago, on 13 September 2007, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a major milestone with respect to the cooperation and solidarity between indigenous peoples and Member States.

The Declaration is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples. It embodies global consensus on the rights of indigenous peoples and establishes a universal framework of minimum standards for their survival, dignity and well-being. It elaborates on existing human rights standards and fundamental freedoms, as they apply to the specific situation of indigenous peoples. Over the last decade, the implementation of the Declaration has achieved some major successes at the national, regional and international levels. Despite the achievements, there continues to be a gap between the formal recognition of indigenous peoples and the implementation of policies that affect them.

In Nigeria, the Gbagyi people, who rightly qualify as the indigenous people in what is today known as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) marked the day, earlier in the week, with cultural displays and other activities designed to call attention to their existence as a distinct people in the maze that Abuja has become.