Our Perspectives

Collective rights, the global commons, and Our Common Home


The Apiwtxa association uses participatory 3D mapping to demarcate Ashaninka territory and support community-based management of indigenous lands. Photo: Associação Ashaninka do Rio Amônia

This year’s International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples commemorates the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a monumental step forward in the recognition and protection of indigenous peoples’ individual and collective rights.

Representing 370 million people across 90 countries worldwide, indigenous peoples are communities and societies that, due to their strong dependence on natural resources, are closely rooted to earth-based traditions. Indigenous peoples’ oral histories hold generations of accumulated knowledge of the flora and fauna supported by surrounding ecosystems, as well as the principles and values that allow people to adapt and flourish. The many indigenous peoples’ communities today thrive because they respect the forces of nature and the limits to growth and development. As we begin to push planetary boundaries, we would be wise to draw on those values if humankind is to survive the catastrophic impacts of climate change now upon us.

Central to the UNDRIP is the concept of indigenous peoples’ collective rights. Whereas all persons’ individual rights to life, education, health, livelihoods, freedom of religion, speech and assembly have been enshrined under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “collective rights” under the UNDRIP recognize the rights of a people to, for example, “the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied, or otherwise used or acquired.”

Collective ownership of land captures some of the particular values indigenous peoples have in their relationship to land—that it is a right of every member of the community to share in access to, management of, and responsibility for the land and its resources, not only for their own wellbeing but also for that of generations to come.


This idea of the “commons” is no foreign concept to industrialized society, yet the management of the global commons – most recently being put to the test as the international community takes action on climate change – presents a perennial paradox for governments and citizens across the globe. Some of the clearest voices we hear on collective action on major global issues come from the world’s religious and spiritual leaders, both within and outside the indigenous community.

Pope Frances’s 2015 encyclical calls on all people to take action to protect “Our Common Home,” highlighting the inter-connected issues of the collective, common resources, the environment, sustainable development and human rights.  This June, religious and spiritual leaders of faith traditions from around the world, including indigenous representatives, affirmed the need to make the protection of the planet’s rainforests an ethical and moral priority.

Achieving the goals of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change will not be possible without the contribution of indigenous peoples. About 20 percent of the world’s land mass, including a significant proportion of rainforests, fall within indigenous peoples’ traditional territories.  Evidence is mounting that where indigenous peoples have rights to their forests, biodiversity flourishes and forests retain more carbon than forests with insecure tenure.

By practicing ancestral patterns of sustainable land management, indigenous peoples contribute significantly to climate solutions. For example, the Associação Ashaninka do Rio Amônia, winners of this year’s Equator Prize, employ traditional values and ancestral practices to sustainably manage their forests for the collective benefit of their communities and the world.

Yet, indigenous peoples constantly find themselves caught in struggles to protect their ancestral lands. They are under threat of incursion from mining activities, illegal logging, oil drilling, agricultural encroachment, infrastructure development, illicit crop production… the list goes on. Many suffer from longstanding political, physical and economic oppression, limiting their ability to fight for their rights against powerful opponents. A recent documentary produced by Global Witness found that the global timber trade is driving deforestation and abuses of indigenous communities’ rights in Papua New Guinea.

Indigenous peoples’ knowledge, experience and values shine light on innovative ways of thinking that could improve our management of forests and other ecosystems vital to humanity. But first, we must respect the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples.

On this tenth anniversary of the UNDRIP, may we stand together and renew our commitment to the protection of indigenous peoples’ individual and collective rights. It may indeed be the key to the protection of Our Common Home and our continued survival on this planet.

Blog post Indigenous people Climate change and disaster risk reduction Climate change Forests Communities and local development Sustainable development

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