The Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples: An Essential Source of Life and Identity

Land Rights of Indigenous Peoples

For Indigenous peoples, land is not only property: it is the source of life, spirituality, culture and identity. It is also the basis of economic livelihood.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples affirms their right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned lands, territories, waters and coastal seas.

Right to the Territory

Indigenous Peoples have a deep and spiritual connection with their traditional land. For many, this ties to the land is also key to their identity and self-determination. Indigenous land rights are enshrined in international law through treaties, declarations and customary laws.

Up to 2.5 billion women and men worldwide rely on indigenous and community lands for their livelihoods. These lands make up more than 50% of the world’s surface but are legally owned by only one-fifth. These lands are at risk from commercial or government development projects.

A key issue is how to define and respect indigenous collective rights to lands, territories and natural resources. This includes the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent for projects on their lands. In addition, remedial secession should be seen as an exceptional derivation from the universal right to self-governance. In this context, a genuine demand for reparation should include evidence of deprivation of a sufficient degree of political autonomy to which the indigenous people is a rightful claimant.

Right to Life

Indigenous Peoples have a unique relationship with the land. Their intimate knowledge of the environment keeps forests, biodiversity and watersheds healthy, fights climate change, and builds resilience to natural disasters. We must support them and their efforts to preserve their traditional cultures and ways of life.

Indigenous women are particularly vulnerable, with disproportionately high rates of maternal mortality and teen pregnancy. They face discrimination and have higher levels of violence — often related to their status as Indigenous women.

Despite their rights, many Indigenous Peoples are denied the chance to exercise their self-determination. They are marginalised, with few seats in decision-making bodies at both the local and national level. This means that they have less leverage to secure redress for human rights abuses committed against them.

Right to Culture

Up to 2.5 billion men, women and children — including more than 370 million Indigenous Peoples – rely on land, natural resources and ecosystems, mostly collectively held, for their livelihood. These include forests, rangeland and wetlands that help to store climate-warming carbon.

The right to culture requires that governments obtain free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities before imposing any project on their traditional lands. This means they must be informed in a language they understand and with access to independent sources of information.

It also requires that Governments respect, preserve and promote Indigenous cultural expressions and traditions, as well as their laws, institutions, customs and ways of life. These rights are key to tackling global challenges such as climate change, biodiversity loss and poverty. Studies have linked Indigenous protected lands with low rates of deforestation and forest degradation. They are vital carbon sinks and a key bulwark in the fight against global warming.

Right to Development

The right to development is a key human rights principle that has been incorporated into international and national law. It includes obligations of States to respect, protect and promote the interests of indigenous peoples in their own development processes.

Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinct identities and characteristics, including language, traditions and customs, without prejudice to their full participation in the political, economic and social life of States. They shall not be forcibly removed from their lands or territories and may not be relocated unless they have been accorded just and adequate compensation.

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples recognizes their right to self-determination and to the development of their communities, nations, governments and economies as they choose. This is a fundamental principle in any discussion on sustainable development. It also supports the development of an indigenous worldview and understanding of ecologically and culturally appropriate sustainable development practices.

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