International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is marked on August 9 every year; the date was chosen in recognition of the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, held in Geneva in 1982.
For Indigenous communities and human rights groups around the world, it is an opportunity to celebrate their traditions and knowledge, but also to denounce the illegal exploitation of natural resources as well as the political and economic marginalization of Indigenous peoples.
German organizations are also marking the day: “There are problematic cases on every continent,” Eliane Fernandes of the German NGO Society for Threatened Peoples tells DW, “in North America, in South America, in Central America, in Australia, Asia, even here in northern Europe or in Russia.”
Indigenous peoples are the descendants of populations from inhabited areas that were conquered, colonized or became an established state.
According to the UN, there are about 476 million members of Indigenous communities living in 90 countries worldwide. While they make up less than 5% of the world’s population, they account for 15% of the poorest.
“Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment,” according to the Society for Threatened Peoples.
Protecting Indigenous peoples’ rights
Nearly half of all working Indigenous peoples have no formal education. Indigenous peoples are nearly three times more likely to live in extreme poverty than their non-Indigenous peers.
Indigenous peoples speak the vast majority of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures, according to the UN.
In 2007, the UN adopted the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The non-binding declaration defines the rights of Indigenous peoples, condemns discrimination and stipulates rights of participation. The declaration is intended to help countries work together with their Indigenous peoples. The primary goal is to preserve their cultural heritage — their culture, identity, language, work, health and education.
An Indigenous activist from Brazil in Germany
The Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), a United Nations advisory body, has been bringing together representatives of Indigenous peoples for regular meetings since 2007.
The EMRIP advises the UN Human Rights Council. Its most recent meeting was in Geneva in July 2023.
One of the participants was Beto Marubo, who represents the Union of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil’s Javari Valley (UNIVAJA) and has been invited to participate in a human rights action in Hamburg on August 9.
Marubo advocates for people living in remote Indigenous communities in the Amazon rainforest. Their situation was much worse under the regime of former President Jair Bolsonaro.
Illegal logging has destroyed the habitat of many Indigenous people. But even the new government under President Lula da Silva must first prove itself. “We will not give the new government a free pass,” says Marubo. “We will make demands and we will be strong.”
An awareness event in Hamburg
To draw attention to the difficult situation of Indigenous peoples, the Society for Threatened Peoples has organized an event in the northern German city of Hamburg marking International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.
The organization will give a stage to six Indigenous activists to tell their stories, including Marubo and fellow Indigenous activist Josiel Kaiowa, who also comes from Brazil. “They planned to kill us,” Kaiowa said, “but we decided not to die.”
“Indigenous peoples are on the front line of the climate crisis,” notes human rights organization Survival International, “living where the impacts of climate change are already most severe. Their livelihoods and way of life are largely dependent on their natural environment.” Yet the Indigenous communities contribute the least to climate change, adds the organization: “Many of the drivers of climate change — including oil and gas exploration, mining and deforestation — have already destroyed Indigenous lands.”
An exhibition in Frankfurt
A current exhibition at Frankfurt’s Weltkulturenmuseum (Museum of World Cultures) also explores the cultural survival strategies of Indigenous peoples.
“We wanted to make an exhibition that deals with crises and the possible ways to overcome them,” say curators Mona Suhrbier and Alice Pawlik.
Many of the works by Indigenous as well as non-Indigenous artists deal with healing, which is why the exhibition is titled “Healing. Life in Balance.”
The living conditions of Indigenous peoples were not made easier by the COVID pandemic. Health, work, economy, politics, social interaction — almost all areas of life were affected, the curators point out.
“In response to the crisis, there is search for balance which is connecting people worldwide,” the curators explain.
This article was originally written in German.