Indigenous peoples redefine development

Jan 18, 2010

The word ‘development’ did not originally exist in most indigenous languages, but over the centuries, the lives of indigenous peoples have been turned upside down in the name of economic development. Many were forced or lured into leaving their lands to give way to huge industries, energy plants and other enterprises. Meanwhile, indigenous peoples all over the world have missed out on the fruits of this development, and they continue to suffer from disproportionally high rates of poverty, health problems, crime and human rights abuses. They are among the first to feel the impacts of climate change even though their lifestyles are practically carbon neutral. In fact, while indigenous peoples make up around 370 million of the world’s population – some 5 per cent – they constitute around one-third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people.

But human development that reflects the rights of indigenous peoples can create real opportunities and empower them to lead their lives in their own way. This was agreed by more than 16 indigenous community representatives that attended a UNDP meeting organized to prepare for the 20th anniversary of UNDP’s flagship Human Development Report.

”Human development for the indigenous peoples must provide them with the possibility to continue to live in their lands and to decide how their natural resources are going to be used,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, Chairperson of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “It also means that they can decide for themselves what kind of cultural, economic and spiritual development they should have.”

The meeting was held to review the concept of human development and rethink indicators of people’s well-being. Indigenous communities were invited to ensure that their concerns – self-determination, cultural preservation, identity and spirituality – are addressed in any new approach to development.

“Human development is the community’s well-being, articulating natural, environmental and social organizational values with rights. It is the possibility of maintaining a balance between these elements.”

These concerns are also highlighted in the groundbreaking UN report, State of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, recently launched with indigenous representatives Victoria Tauli-Corpuz and Myrna Cunningham, chair of Nicaragua’s Center for Indigenous People’s Autonomy and Development, who was also one of the authors. The publication’s statistics illustrate the gravity of the situation in both developed and developing countries. Poor nutrition, limited access to care, lack of resources, and the contamination of natural resources are all contributing factors to the terrible state of indigenous health worldwide. The report also shows that:

• Indigenous peoples’ life expectancy is up to 20 years lower than their non-indigenous counterparts;
• Indigenous peoples experience disproportionately high levels of maternal and infant mortality,
malnutrition, cardiovascular illnesses, HIV and AIDS and other infectious diseases such as malaria and
• Suicide rates of indigenous peoples, particularly among youth, are considerably higher in many countries; for example, up to 11 times the national average for the Inuit in Canada.

Other resources:

Fast Facts – UNDP and Indigenous Peoples:

UNDP’s work with indigenous peoples:

“Poverty in Focus: Indigenizing Development”:

Eighth Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues:

UNDP Around the world