Indigenous peoples need recognition and reciprocity

August 6, 2021

There is growing understanding of the vital role Indigenous peoples play in providing benefits to all humanity.

UNDP Peru/Mónica Suárez Galindo

The coronavirus pandemic has invited the world to reflect on relationships – between people within and across countries and communities, and between people and nature around the planet. The virus has also reminded us of the intricate interrelationships that comprise our world and of our responsibilities to others, especially society’s most vulnerable members.

The theme of this year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is “Leaving no one behind: Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract.” The idea of a ‘social contract’ – an agreement among members of a society to cooperate for the benefit of all – dates back centuries. What is new, however, is an emerging mainstream understanding of the vital role Indigenous peoples play in providing benefits to all humanity.

First, Indigenous peoples have constructed sustainable food systems and social safety nets that help us reimagine a pathway for all of society. Three Equator Prize winners from 2020 and 2021 showcase how their robust social systems enabled them to remain resilient and resourceful, even during a pandemic.

  • When the pandemic hit first in March 2020, the women of the Asociación de Mujeres Indígenas del Territorio Cabécar Kábata Könana in Costa Rica’s Talamanca region quickly organized a barter system to ensure isolated families and communities would have enough food. The association’s work is based on rotational and regenerative agriculture, rooted in traditional knowledge.
  • In Amazonian Ecuador, the first lockdown due to the coronavirus coincided with torrential rain and flooding. Thanks to the quick actions of Kichwa leaders, food and hygiene products reached even the most remote families of the Pueblo Originario Kichwa de Sarayaku. The group is now working with the GEF Small Grants Programme to revitalize ancestral knowledge of traditional medicines.
  • In Kenya, the Nashulai Maasai Conservancy brings together cutting-edge science with traditional Maasai land management and agricultural practices. Profits from entrepreneurship initiatives helped support food delivery and hygiene programmes to thousands of people during the pandemic.


Second, Indigenous peoples are stewards of a large portion of the lands, water and biodiversity that provide a planetary safety net for humanity. According to two recent reports, Territories of Life and The State of Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities, Indigenous peoples are custodians of a third of the planet’s terrestrial surface. These territories are proven to be more ecologically intact than other areas and are critically important for global water security, for our climate goals and for the conservation of biodiversity, to name only a few. Simply stated, we cannot achieve the 2030 Agenda without the support and collaboration of the world’s Indigenous peoples. Three examples from Equator Prize winners illustrate how important (and vast) these lands and waters are.


Despite this critical importance of Indigenous territories to global goals, encroachment through illegal mining and logging continues to expand. Indigenous peoples have legal rights to only about 10% of the world’s land despite their stewardship over a third. Intimidation, violence and murder of environmental defenders continues to accelerate.

Indigenous peoples provide us with invaluable models of knowledge and practice, based on reciprocity and sharing. Their lands and waters are of incalculable benefit to all of humanity. Yet our current social contract has failed to recognize these contributions.

It is time for a new social contract. A good start to such a contract could include: recognizing the unique knowledge and practices that can help us chart a new pathway toward a more sustainable society; strengthening legal recognition of Indigenous territories and protection against illegal mining and logging; ensuring safety for environmental defenders; and guaranteeing a much stronger seat at the table of local, regional, national and global dialogues that affect their futures. The new social contract, then, is one that supports Indigenous peoples locally, and helps achieve goals globally.

Indigenous peoples provide us with invaluable models of knowledge and practice, based on reciprocity and sharing.