These were Ban Ki-moon’s words at the opening of the annual meeting of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York, 16th May 2011.
He gave the example of indigenous peoples in Peru who are responding to climate change by reintroducing native potato varieties and so are “helping to conserve the earth’s biodiversity”. “Indigenous peoples have been living a ‘green economy’ for centuries,” he added — economists should look to old practices in indigenous communities for new ways to achieve sustainable development.
Research by IIED and partners shows that indigenous peoples sustain an enormous diversity of traditional crop varieties, practices and knowledge, and that these play an important part in building resilience to climate change. Genetic diversity makes it possible to select desirable traits for adaptation. So the value of diversity increases as variability and uncertainty grows because it reduces risk. In the example of the Peruvian Potato Park cited by Ban Ki-moon, indigenous peoples conserve over 1,500 different varieties of potato.
Traditional varieties are also better adapted to cope with more extreme conditions resulting from climate change — such as drought, pests and nutrient shortage. In South West China for example, traditional varieties survived the big spring drought of 2010, while most hybrid varieties did not. Here, combining traditional and scientific knowledge through Participatory Plant Breeding is showing real potential for tackling climate change. Our research also shows that indigenous peoples and their economic systems are good biodiversity managers and are good at preventing poverty.
While governments and indigenous communities met at the UNPFII, we launched a new website to present the findings of our research, which involves research partners and indigenous communities in Peru, Panama, China, India and Kenya. The website explains the vital importance of indigenous knowledge and biocultural systems, and presents tools and methods for strengthening these systems and related rights of indigenous peoples — Traditional Resource Rights.
The good news is that the importance of indigenous knowledge and agricultural practices for adaptation to climate change is increasingly recognised — for example, by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity Ad Hoc Technical Group on biodiversity and climate change.
Yet, as Ban Ki-moon went on to say, “one indigenous language dies every two weeks”. UNESCO estimates that up to 90% of all languages — a proxy for traditional knowledge — will be extinct or threatened by the end of this century.
Indigenous peoples face many disincentives to sustain their knowledge and biodiversity. For example, agriculture policies and subsidies promote modern agriculture that replaces diversity with monocultures. Insecure land and resource rights deter indigenous peoples from investing in sustainable resource management and continuing traditional occupations. And growing poverty and inequality force people to find work off-farm. As Ban Ki-moon said “millions of indigenous peoples continue to lose their lands, their rights and their resources”. Indigenous peoples make up a third of the rural poor and have higher mortality and child mortality rates than any other group.
The UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights has finally got the consensus it deserves, but their rights are still far from recognised at national and local levels. The World Bank only recognises indigenous peoples’ rights to Free, Prior and Informed Consultation rather than Free, Prior and Informed Consent. This means that indigenous peoples cannot say no to developments proposed on their land. It seems that many decision makers do not believe that ‘protecting indigenous peoples’ rights benefits us all’ — the only thing believed to benefit us all is profit.