Last updated: 09 Aug 2022

In 1982, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 9 August as International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, commemorating the day of the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, held in Geneva in 1982. The theme for 2022 is "The role of indigenous women in the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge".

Indigenous Peoples and the Environment

As defined by the United Nations, 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, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Climate change, deforestation, pollution, development and loss of diversity are serious threats to indigenous peoples due to their dependence on the environment and the resources of the lands and territories. It causes the loss of traditional knowledge, disintegrating traditional governance structures and their cultures.

Bushmen indigenous people, Botswana © Pablo Arturo López Guijosa, UNEP/GEN

Although they comprise less than five per cent of the world population, indigenous peoples protect 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity in the ecosystems in which they have lived for centuries. With an estimated 476 million individuals in over 90 countries, indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They speak a vast majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures. There is a large overlap between indigenous peoples’ areas and areas with very high biodiversity, both in tropical forests and other biodiversity-rich ecosystems. Their social, cultural, economic and political characteristics distinguish them from those of the dominant societies in which they live, however, they share common problems related to protecting their rights as distinct peoples, therefore the environment. They face discrimination because of their distinct cultures, identities and ways of life, and are disproportionately affected by poverty and marginalisation, accounting for 15 per cent of the world’s poorest population.

International Day Observance

In 1990, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 1993 the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and on 23 December 1994, the United Nations General Assembly decided, in its resolution 49/214, that the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples shall be observed on 9 August every year. This day is celebrated to raise awareness of the needs of indigenous population groups, in commemoration of the day of the first meeting of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, held in Geneva in 1982. On this day, people from around the world are encouraged to spread the United Nation’s message on the protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples.

2022 Theme: The role of indigenous women in the preservation and transmission of traditional knowledge

Indigenous women have a central role in a range of traditional cultural practices inextricably linked to the natural environment. Many indigenous women are also taking the lead in the defence of indigenous peoples’ lands and territories and advocating for indigenous peoples’ collective rights worldwide.

A Mayan woman dressed in traditional dress, Atitlan, Guatemala © Pablo Arturo Lopez Guijosa, UNEP/GEN

Nevertheless, in spite of the crucial role indigenous women play in their communities, they often suffer from intersecting levels of discrimination on the basis of gender, class, ethnicity and socioeconomic status: they suffer high levels of poverty; low levels of education and illiteracy; limitations in access to health, basic sanitation, credit and employment; limited participation in political life; and domestic and sexual violence.

Indigenous women help protect the fragile territories in which they live. Indigenous women are crucial transmitters of knowledge related to sustainable environmental management to future generations.
Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations former Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Progress has been made by indigenous women toward the decision-making process in some communities around the world. Small but significant, this progress has led women to achieve leadership in communal and national roles, and standing on the protest frontlines to defend their lands and the planet’s decreasing biodiversity. Nonetheless, the vast reality is that indigenous women are widely under-represented, disproportionately negatively affected by decisions made on their behalf, and are too frequently the victims of multiple expressions of discrimination and violence. Forced evictions, the dispossession of lands and the decline in the environment have particularly severe impacts on indigenous women, who, as a result, often have an increased workload as they must walk long distances to find alternative sources of water or fuel wood, or are driven out of income-earning productive activities and into a situation of economic dependence on men.

International Decades of the World’s Indigenous Peoples

The United Nations General Assembly established two International Decades of the World’s Indigenous Peoples: the first 1995 – 2004 (resolution 48/163), and the second 2005 – 2014 (resolution 59/174), with the goal of strengthening international cooperation for solving problems faced by indigenous peoples in important areas such as human rights and the environment. The year 2022 marks the beginning of a new decade for the indigenous community: the celebration of the Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022 – 2032, following the celebration of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted by the General Assembly on 13 September 2007, establishing a universal framework of minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world. It is the most comprehensive instrument elaborating the rights of indigenous peoples and should be the critical starting point for any consideration of their individual and collective rights. Today, the Declaration is the most comprehensive international instrument on the rights of indigenous peoples, and it requires that free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of indigenous peoples be obtained in matters of fundamental importance for their rights, survival, dignity, and well-being.

Sixty-first Session of the General Assembly, United Nations Headquarters, New York: Haya Rashed Al Khalifa (Bahrain), President of the General Assembly, presiding over the meeting during which the report of the Human Rights Council containing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was considered © United Nations Office of Legal Affairs

Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous people

In 2001, the Commission on Human Rights appointed a Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. In 2019, this mandate got renewed, requesting the Special Rapporteur to “participate in relevant international dialogues and policy forums on the consequences that climate change has on indigenous peoples” and to “undertake thematic research and to develop cooperation dialogue with States, intergovernmental organizations, civil society and other stakeholders on effective and sustainable practices”. The current mandate holder is Francisco Cali Tzay, a Mayan Cakchiquel from Guatemala, who has represented indigenous peoples at the United Nations since the early 1980s. He was appointed and took up the role in 2020.

Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework

The Post 2020 Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) currently being negotiated will contain a set of principles to define targets and pathways for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity for the decade of 2020 and beyond. From 14 to 19 March 2022, State Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) met in Geneva to advance the negotiations in advance to the Conference of the Parties to be held in China and later rescheduled to take place in Montreal, Canada from 5 to 17 December 2022.

Side event at CBD meetings on Indigenous Peoples, © Claudia Schiavelli, UNEP/GEN

As there is a large overlap between indigenous peoples’ areas and areas with very high biodiversity, both in tropical forests and other biodiversity-rich ecosystems, the inclusion of traditional knowledge and practices, as well as the recognition of indigenous people’s rights, is imperative in the Post-2020 GBF. Several discussions and interventions on this topic took place during the negotiations and as part of the side events to the meetings.

Role of Geneva

Various international and local organizations in Geneva – listed below in alphabetical order – are engaged in the protection of indigenous peoples and the environment.

Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions

The severe and ongoing harm caused by environmental toxics to indigenous women, girls, unborn generations and indigenous peoples as a whole, requires immediate attention. These toxics include pesticides and other Persistent Organic Pollutants, as well as chemicals produced by extractive industries (coal, oil, tar sands etc.), military installations and weapons testing, waste dumping and incineration, industrial processes, all phases of uranium mining, milling and waste storage. The Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm Conventions deal with these issues. It is explicitly recognized under the Stockholm Convention that POPs affect, in particular, Arctic ecosystems and indigenous communities. The Secretariat of the Stockholm Convention, in partnership with the Arctic Monitoring Assessment Programme, carried out studies to evaluate the effectiveness of the measures taken to lower the impact of POPs pollution on the health of these populations. Because of their traditional ways of life, certain indigenous communities, who rely on natural resources like fish and marine mammals for their survival, are more subject to contamination from certain types of chemicals.

Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES)

CITES is a multilateral agreement aiming to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. As of today, it accords varying degrees of protection to more than 37,000 species of animals and plants, whether they are traded as live specimens, fur coats or dried herbs.

Indigenous peoples and local communities are among the most active groups engaged in conserving and caring for much of our planet’s wildlife and ecosystems.

Ivonne Higuero, Secretary-General CITES

In 2021, UN World Wildlife Day was celebrated under the theme “Forests and Livelihoods: Sustaining People and Planet”, highlighting the role of indigenous peoples and local communities’ livelihoods and knowledge in the conservation of forests species and ecosystems.

Center for Documentation, Research and Information (Docip)

The Center for Documentation, Research and Information was created in 1978 on the initiative of indigenous delegations attending the first International Conference on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was held at the United Nations in Geneva, in 1977. Docip is a Swiss not-for-profit foundation whose primary objective is to support Indigenous Peoples in defence of their rights, mainly within the framework of the UN and European institutions.

Food and Agriculture Office in Geneva (FAO Geneva)

The FAO’s engagement with indigenous people is guided by the framework within the FAO Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (2010),, within the overarching goal of eradicating hunger and malnutrition. Important studies and policy papers have been published by the organization including a manual on “Free Prior and Informed Consent: An indigenous peoples’ right and a good practice for local communities” and “Insights on sustainability and resilience from the front line of climate change“. The liaison office of the FAO in Geneva also engages on the topic by organizing timely events.

Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime

The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime provides a platform to promote greater debate and innovative approaches, which serve as the building blocks to an inclusive global strategy against organized crime, including environmental crime. Indigenous peoples play an important role in tackling organized environmental crime. They are on the frontlines of resisting the main industrial drivers of global biodiversity loss and climate breakdown, and they often face retribution and violence for doing so.

International Labour Organization (ILO)

The ILO has been engaged with indigenous and tribal peoples’ issues since the 1920s. It is responsible for the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169), adopted in 1989, which is the only international treaty open for ratification that deals exclusively with the rights of these peoples.

International Trade Centre (ITC)

ITC is a development agency dedicated to supporting the internationalization of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The agency enables SMEs in developing and transition economies to become more competitive and connect to international markets for trade and investment, thus raising incomes and creating job opportunities. Through its “Green to Compete” strategy, ITC supports SMEs to contribute to a nature-positive economy through conservation & sustainable use of biodiversity. Through its platform She Trades, the ITC builds capacity and supports indigenous women in trade and intellectual property.

International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)

The International Union for Conservation of Nature, headquartered in Gland, plays a defining global role in the definition and management of indigenous and traditional peoples and protected areas through its Global Protected Area Programme. Additionally, the IUCN Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy (CEESP) on the Theme of Human Wellbeing and Sustainable Livelihoods provides evidence that conservation led by Indigenous Peoples and local communities, based on their own knowledge systems and stewardship, is the best strategy for people and nature.

The rights of indigenous peoples and local communities underpin their central role in conservation, as leaders and custodians of biodiversity.

Marseille Manifesto, IUCN World Conservation Congress, Marseille 2021

Luc Hoffman Institute

The Luc Hoffmann Institute follows the principles of systems thinking, convening and co-creation to incubate and accelerate new ideas and approaches that will deliver significant gains for biodiversity. By convening a wide range of stakeholders, the institute is a leading catalyst for innovation and transformative change to maintain biodiversity. The role and contribution of indigenous communities and local peoples’ ecological knowledge, through the leadership of indigenous peoples’ community organizations, are more recognized and influential than in the past. Thus, in May 2022, the Luc Hoffman Institute published the report “Exploring Possible Futures for Conservation NGOs”, in which indigenous peoples and their legitimate representatives are regarded as stakeholders that must come to the fore in the future.

Mava Foundation  

Founded by naturalist Luc Hoffman, MAVA supports conservation that benefits people and nature. MAVA accompanies key partners on their conservation journey, helping them develop the skills they need and strengthening their ability to deliver. Through the project “Conservation of the natural and cultural heritage in wetlands: Global leadership for an integrated approach through the Ramsar Convention” (March 2015 – March 2018), Mava Foundation supported the report “The relationship of indigenous peoples and local communities with wetlands” requested by the Conference of the Parties to the Ramsar Convention in Resolution XII.2, in 2015.

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights)

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights carries out a range of country-specific and regional activities to advance the rights of indigenous peoples.

Partnership for Environment and Disaster Risk Reduction (PEDRR)

PEDRR is a global alliance of UN agencies, NGOs and specialist institutes seeking to promote and scale-up implementation of ecosystem-based disaster risk reduction and ensure it is mainstreamed in development planning at global, national and local levels. Around the globe, indigenous communities have faced disasters such as floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, typhoons, coastal erosion and drought, amongst others, which have caused enormous losses including of lives, property and sources of livelihood. Indigenous peoples understand their environment and practice risk reduction strategies and methods that originated within their communities and have been enhanced and passed down over generations. Among other activities, PEDRR is advocating for an ambitious post-2020 biodiversity framework, notably through the promotion of Nature-based Solutions.

Ramsar Convention on Wetlands

The Ramsar Convention has a long-standing commitment to the full and effective participation of indigenous peoples and local communities in the management of wetlands. It was the first multilateral environmental agreement to use the term “indigenous peoples” in official documents, in line with UN standards since the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Although wetlands cover only around 6% of the Earth’s surface, they provide vital habitats for 40% of the world’s species. The Ramsar Strategic Plan 2016-2024 has become an important benchmark for the Convention’s policy with regard to indigenous peoples and local communities. Strategic goal 3 includes Target 10 on traditional knowledge, innovations and practices, and in Resolution XII.2, the Conference of the Parties “ENCOURAGES Parties to promote, recognize and strengthen active participation of indigenous peoples and local communities, as key stakeholders for conservation and integrated wetland management.”

Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

In 2001, the Commission on Human Rights decided to appoint a Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as part of the system of thematic Special Procedures. The Special Rapporteur’s mandate was renewed by the Commission on Human Rights in 2004, and by the Human Rights Council in 2007.

Other special procedures can address the situation of indigenous rights in the field (e.g. Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities, Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, and more).

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB)

TEEB is a global initiative focused on making nature’s values visible. Its principal objective is to mainstream the values of biodiversity and ecosystem services into decision-making at all levels. It aims to achieve this goal by following a structured approach to valuation that helps decision-makers recognize the wide range of benefits provided by ecosystems and biodiversity, demonstrates their values in economic terms and, where appropriate, captures those values in decision-making. Through different projects, it aims to strengthen indigenous practices.

United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD)

UNCTAD‘s member States address the protection of traditional knowledge as part of UNCTAD’s work in the area of trade and environment. Protecting the knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities is important to ensure that the benefits of cumulative innovation associated with traditional knowledge accrue to its holders while enhancing their socio-economic development, as well as to prevent the improper appropriation of traditional knowledge with little or no compensation for its custodians and without their prior informed consent.  

As part of its work on trade and the environment, UNCTAD has launched the BioTrade Initiative to support the objectives of the CBD. BioTrade refers to those activities of collection, production, transformation, and commercialization of goods and services derived from native biodiversity under the criteria of environmental, social and economic sustainability. Since 1996, the initiative has developed a unique portfolio of global, regional and country programmes as well as a network of partners and practitioners working in over 65 countries. It recognizes indigenous peoples and traditional knowledge through two of its criteria: Criterion 6.3 Rights of local and indigenous communities (territory, culture, knowledge) should be respected; and Criterion 7.3 Access to traditional knowledge should be granted only where prior informed consent has been granted.

United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)

UNECE promotes sustainable use and preservation of ecosystems by supporting the development of biodiversity conservation policies in the region, and the integration of nature conservation in sectoral policies. Through its Committee on Environmental Policy, UNECE provides collective policy direction in the area of environment and sustainable development, prepares ministerial meetings; develops international environmental law, and supports international initiatives in the region involving all stakeholders. The UNECE Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, also known as Aarhus Convention, was adopted on 25 June 1998 and it protects every person’s right to live in an environment adequate to their health and well-being. It establishes that sustainable development can be achieved only through the involvement of all stakeholders, linking thus environmental rights and human rights. Recent reports have highlighted serious threats to environmental defenders, working on land rights, indigenous peoples’ rights and environmental rights, including in Parties to the Aarhus Convention, thus, the topic remains on UNECE’s agenda.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)  

UNEP recognizes the importance of Indigenous Peoples’ participation and the inputs that traditional knowledge – gained through trans-generational experiences, observations and transmission – can contribute to sustainable ecosystem management and development. Through its Governance Affairs Office, UNEP assists the Member States and major groups and relevant stakeholders, such as indigenous peoples to engage with UNEP’s work. This work is led from Nairobi, as well as the work of the Ecosystem division of UNEP on biodiversity and indigenous-related issues in the environment. The Geneva-based UNEP agencies are nonetheless engaged in various streams of work to protect nature and halt biodiversity loss. 

United Nations Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples

The UN Voluntary Fund for Indigenous Peoples was established pursuant to General Assembly resolution 40/131 of 13 December 1985. Its scope has been expanded over the years in various resolutions to include participation in new UN mechanisms, sessions and processes. The Fund offers financial support in the form of grants. These grants aim to help representatives of indigenous communities and organizations to participate in UN mechanisms and processes most relevant to indigenous issues.

United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN-REDD) 

The UN-REDD Programme is a collaborative initiative from the FAO, UNDP and UNEP. The programme supports nationally led REDD+ processes and promotes the informed and meaningful involvement of all stakeholders in national and international REDD+ implementation. By protecting forests, REDD+ mechanisms can not only maintain vital ecosystem services and preserve globally significant biodiversity but also sustain livelihood and mitigate climate change. UN-REDD has devised and implemented a wide range of policy instruments and development practices to help countries promote the participation and inclusion of indigenous peoples and local communities in forest-based climate solutions. It has also helped more than 30 countries establish participatory and inclusive platforms for REDD+ policies and processes. These platforms are key to continuing the participation of indigenous peoples and local communities through REDD+ financing, including performance payment schemes and emerging carbon market opportunities.

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)

WIPO’s Intergovernmental Committee (IGC) is undertaking text-based negotiations with the objective of reaching agreement on a text (or texts) of an international legal instrument (or instruments) which will ensure the effective protection of traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions and genetic resources.

WIPO Traditional Knowledge Division carries out WIPO’s work on the intersection of intellectual property and genetic resources, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions.

WWF International

WWF is one of the leading organizations in wildlife conservation and endangered species. Working in numerous countries around the globe, WWF collaborates with people to develop and deliver innovative solutions that protect communities, wildlife, and the places in which they live. WWF works to help local communities conserve the natural resources they depend upon; transform markets and policies toward sustainability, and protect and restore species and their habitats. This organization recognises that indigenous peoples are among the Earth’s most important stewards of natural resources, as well as the importance of conserving their cultures, working with many indigenous peoples and organizations to conserve and sustainably use natural resources and to advocate on issues of common concern.

Past GEN Events

Previous events that relate to the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment organized by the Geneva Environment Network can be found in this section.

CBD Side Event | Applying a Human Rights-based Approach in the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework

Swedbio at SRC, FPP, Global Youth Biodiversity Network, ICCA Consortium, IIFB, W4B, UNEP, WWF, Natural Justice, OHCHR, CBD & Geneva Environment Network |  19 March 2022, 13:15–14:45 CET | CICG A, B, C & Online

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