Listening to the voices of indigenous peoples is the only way to protect people and planet - Spotlight on Guyana
Each year, on August 9, the United Nations (UN) celebrates the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. The date marks the first meeting of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Recognizing the multiple and intersecting challenges faced by indigenous peoples across the world, this year’s theme “Leaving no one behind: Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract” encourages us to include, involve and integrate indigenous people at all levels, to protect their rights, and to obtain free, prior, and informed consent.
The history of most indigenous peoples around the world is marked by colonisation, which led to the loss of their autonomy over their territories and natural resources. Indigenous peoples have often been marginalised, excluded from participation in society, cast as poor and uneducated, and forced to accept fate as voiceless observers of the destruction of their sacred lands and waters.
Indigenous societies have preserved, for generations, highly sophisticated knowledge of the natural world and have reconciled this with their culture, spirituality, and cosmovision of their place in the ecosystem of life. Their culture is often characterised by a harmonious, symbiotic relationship between humans and nature, making life meaningful and pleasurable. Such indigenous ability to share and transfer unique local knowledge from the older to the younger generations, to sustainably use and manage natural resources for the common good of the community is now being called for and recognised by researchers, climate scientists, and relevant international bodies as one of the best solutions to combat climate change, while restoring and protecting biodiversity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed and exacerbated many existing inequalities, disproportionately affecting indigenous populations which were already at a higher risk of poverty, illness, discrimination, and difficulties in securing livelihoods.
Many UN agencies and inter-governmental bodies, in cooperation with local, national, regional, and international stakeholders, are increasingly creating opportunities to engage indigenous peoples in problem-solving, decision-making, and knowledge-sharing to address global challenges such as biodiversity conservation and climate change. Such efforts are producing impactful actions and results within several international initiatives, such as the Inter-governmental Science Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES), the Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples’ Platform (LCIPP), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (UNCBD) and the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).
Since 1992, UNESCO’s programme on Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) has promoted the importance of indigenous knowledge in the UN system, among policymakers, governments, academia, and in research, and creates opportunities for exchange with indigenous peoples. As such, Caribbean indigenous peoples and local communities, as well as experts from meteorological and hydrological services, and institutions dealing with climate change from 16 countries, came together for the first Caribbean workshop on indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) in Georgetown, Guyana for three days in September 2019 to share their experiences of anticipating and responding to different environmental challenges, including natural disasters and climate change impacts. This enabled the elaboration of a Caribbean-wide overview of how indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) are being used to predict, prepare for and tackle the impacts of climate change, and to consider ways in which ILK, science, and policy-making can better collaborate.
In Guyana, indigenous people are one of the ethnic groups that make up the country’s diverse population and rich culture. There are nine indigenous groups settled across Guyana, and they have detailed knowledge of biodiversity and ecosystems on the coast, in tropical forests, savannas, and wetlands.
Over the years, the government of Guyana has taken several initiatives to support indigenous people, promote development of their communities, preserve their languages and culture, formalise their land titles, improve access to health, education and other services, and support the National Toshaos Council.
With a Guyana-United Kingdom partnership, indigenous communities in Guyana have been examining, documenting and explaining their knowledge of biodiversity and the environment through the use of participatory videos. The focus has been on the relationship between indigenous peoples and the national network of protected areas.
The National Toshaos Council, which represents the different indigenous leaders and peoples of Guyana, together with the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, has recently advanced a draft plan of action for the protection and promotion of traditional indigenous knowledge in Guyana. Once adopted, Guyana would join the new cutting edge of countries that effectively recognise the importance of indigenous knowledge for the development and implementation of public policies.
The Amerindian Land Titling Project has been ongoing for several years now. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been supporting the government through the Ministry of Amerindian Affairs, the Guyana Lands and Surveys Commission and other key stakeholders to investigate, demarcate, resolve, and manage land issues.
UNDP, in collaboration with the Ministry of Agriculture and with funding from the Government of Japan, provided training in the Participatory Integrated Climate Services for Agriculture (PICSA) tool to farmers in Indigenous communities in Regions Seven, Eight and Nine through the project “Strengthening Disaster Management Capacity of Women in the Cooperative Republic of Guyana and the Commonwealth of Dominica.” This tool allows farmers to use weather information to make more informed decisions towards climate resilient farming practices to enhance their food security. Building on the foundation provided by this training, with a strong emphasis on linking women farmers to finance, a micro-grant initiative was launched with six communities from Region Nine to date receiving funding to enhance their livelihood options.
UNDP, the World Food Programme (WFP), and UN Women have also joined forces with the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) on the ‘Enabling Gender-Responsive Disaster Recovery, Climate and Environmental Resilience’ (EnGenDER) Project. UNDP, in collaboration with the Ministry of Human Services and Social Security, through this project, provided food and personal care items to groups, including women and children, particularly in situations of gender-based violence, and indigenous communities affected by the economic consequences of COVID-19. Additionally, as part of the COVID-19 response, communications equipment was provided to the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, and Personal Protective Equipment was provided to the Guyana Police Force to enhance its service provision with respect to gender-based violence. Similarly, family violence is the focus of the Spotlight Initiative that is being implemented by the UN in partnership with the European Union and Ministry of Human Services and Social Security to eliminate violence against women and girls in indigenous and coastal communities.
The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has been supporting the Environmental Protection Agency to develop policies and citizens’ sensitisation of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing. It facilitated the drafting and revision of the ABS Regulation, which will enhance the negotiating capacity of the Amerindian communities.
UNDP continues to collaborate with the Office of the Prime Minister to deliver Information and Communications Technology (ICT) services to 200 hinterland, poor and remote communities. To this end, US$3.2 million worth of ICT equipment and solar solutions have been procured and preparations are ongoing to retrofit buildings for installation and commissioning of these services. The project will also support the utilisation of ICTs for the preservation and diffusion of local culture and traditions of indigenous communities.
By recognizing the depth, complexity, and vitality of indigenous knowledge systems, Member States of the United Nations can develop a new social contract, advancing on sustainable paradigms that will truly leave no one behind.
© UNDESA, 20th Session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (19-30 April 2021);
© Claudia Nuzzo. Use of participatory video in the North Rupununi region in Guyana to document indigenous local knowledge of biodiversity and the environment.
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