Here amidst of the Andes in Peru, the enormous contributions of indigenous peoples to human civilization are everywhere on display – from the sacred ruins of the Inca empire to the crops that grow on the mountainsides. In the jungles of the Amazon too, indigenous communities have lived for millennia in harmony with the rainforest, and they continue to do so today.
And throughout Latin America, one sees the extraordinary diversity of indigenous cultures and the potential contribution their knowledge and values can make to poverty reduction, sustainable agriculture, and indeed to our conception of life. From here in Peru to the Philippines, and from the deserts of Australia to the ice-covered lands of the Arctic circle, indigenous peoples have much to teach our world.
But to come to the Andean region is also to appreciate how fragile the existence of many indigenous peoples is. In the region – and in other parts of the world, too – indigenous lands, waters, languages, health and cultures, long devastated by the legacy of colonial oppression, continue to be under grave threat. The environment is being destroyed, and indigenous people are too often excluded from decisions that crucially affect the life of the communities. They suffer from prejudice, poverty, and disease. Some indigenous groups even face the terrible threat of extinction.
The discrimination and marginalization faced by indigenous children is particularly disturbing. The United Nations Children’s Fund will soon launch a report that shows the unacceptably high rated of infant mortality, and the unacceptably low levels of birth registration, vaccination and education, among indigenous communities.
The international community can no longer tolerate this situation. Nor should any society where it is happening. I hope everyone will take the UNICEF report as a call to action to promote the highest standard of health and nutrition, to guarantee multicultural education of high quality, and to give indigenous children a voice in the decisions that affect their lives.
Indigenous peoples must be full partners in efforts to protect their children, just as they must participate in all decisions that affect their communities and the countries of which they are citizens. Already, indigenous women are making a special contribution to these processes. They must be allowed and encouraged to do more.
Indigenous peoples must play their full part at the international level, too. They can now, at last, voice their collective aspirations at the United Nations through the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where their leaders and experts help to shape the policies and priorities of the United Nations as a whole. This year, the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues highlighted the urgent need for action to give indigenous children a better life. And the Committee on the Rights of the Child just adopted stronger measures to monitor states’ fulfilment of their responsibility to protect and promote indigenous children’s human rights.
Let us all listen to the voices of indigenous peoples, and act as their partners to protect indigenous rights, particularly those of indigenous children. This will not only help to right historic wrongs and remove current injustices. It will truly enrich us all.
With our help, the indigenous children of today can be leaders of tomorrow.
Kutimunay kama. (“You will always be with me”)
Photo copyright United Nations
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