Indigenous peoples continue to be marginalised
Indigenous women are the backbone of indigenous communities.

“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

Oftentimes indigenous peoples are absent from the discourse concerning the protection of their rights and status. The tendency is for non-indigenous people to speak on their behalf.

The United Nations estimates that there is an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples in the world living across 90 countries. They represent less than five per cent of the world's population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world's estimated 7,000 languages and comprise 5,000 different cultures.

According to the UN, globally, 47 per cent of all indigenous peoples in employment have no education, compared to 17 per cent of their non-indigenous counterparts. This gap is even wider for women. And indigenous peoples are nearly three times as likely to be living in extreme poverty compared to their non-indigenous counterparts.

A Taino family

Considering the diversity of indigenous peoples, an official definition of indigenous has not been adopted by any UN body. Instead, a modern understanding of this term is based on the following:

*Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member

*Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies

*Distinct social, economic, or political systems

*Distinct language, culture, and beliefs

*Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities

The UN declares that indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples. They have sought recognition of their identities, way of life, and their right to traditional lands, territories, and natural resources for years, yet throughout history, their rights have continuously been violated.

A depiction of Christopher Columbus

Indigenous peoples today are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognises that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life.


Indigenous peoples possess invaluable knowledge of practices for the sustainable management of natural resources. Their ancestral land is of fundamental importance to their collective physical and cultural survival as peoples. They hold their own diverse concepts of development based on their traditional values, visions, needs, and priorities.


Despite their cultural differences indigenous peoples often have much in common with other neglected segments of society, such as a lack of political representation and participation, economic marginalisation and poverty, lack of access to social services, discrimination, and lack of protection of their rights. They strive for recognition of their identities, way of life, and their rights to traditional lands, territories, and natural resources.


In 1990 the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 1993 the International Year of the World's Indigenous Peoples. On December 23, 1994, the United Nations General Assembly decided that August 9 shall be observed as the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. This day is celebrated to raise awareness of the needs of indigenous populations, and the UN's message concerning the protection and promotion of the rights of indigenous peoples is given importance.

This year's theme is 'The Role of Indigenous Women in the Preservation and Transmission of Traditional Knowledge'.


In the Caribbean region there is indisputable evidence that the people we now refer to as Tainos discovered Christopher Columbus and the Spaniards.

Our earliest inhabitants were the Caribs, Arawaks, and Ciboney groups of indigenous peoples who migrated from South America. Today, descendants of these groups, along with other indigenous peoples, such as the Maya, Garifuna, Surinen, and Tainos are still to be found in our region.

The Tainos are the Arawakan-speaking peoples of the Caribbean who had arrived from South America over the course of 4,000 years. The Spanish had hoped to find gold and exotic spices when they landed in the Caribbean in 1492, but there was little gold and the spices were unfamiliar.


While not discounting the contribution of men in the dialogue on indigenous peoples, indigenous women are the backbone of indigenous communities and play a crucial role in the preservation and transmission of traditional ancestral knowledge.

The UN adds that many indigenous women are also taking the lead in the defence of lands and territories and advocating for indigenous collective rights worldwide. 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 socio-economic status.

The Committee of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) highlighted some of the major issues encountered by indigenous women, specifically indicating the 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 the prevalence of domestic and sexual violence. Indigenous women reproduce and protect indigenous identity, culture, and societal roles on the lands and territories they have historically used and occupied.

Given their relationship with the land and natural environment and the marginalisation they face for being women and indigenous, indigenous women are disproportionally affected by the loss of territory due to climate change, the development of megaprojects, and occupation of their lands. Additionally, patriarchal norms in indigenous communities, created by colonisation, have increased discrimination. In many cases, this has hindered equal access to land rights and resources, limiting development opportunities and women's participation in decision-making processes.

Historically, the voices of women have been muted. This is especially so for indigenous women whose knowledge can be ignored, stolen, or lost, as in the case of misappropriation of traditional plants, human remains, and other cultural artifacts taken from burial/cultural sites by collectors, anthropologists, curators, or biologists.

Finally, excluding women's knowledge from the design of programmes and policies can limit the full enjoyment of indigenous women's fundamental rights, for example, through exclusion of indigenous medicine from State health-care systems. 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. Indigenous women are often excluded as international and national institutions overlook their contributions.

In order to protect and recognise the role of indigenous women nations, international organisations and indigenous peoples must adopt a culturally appropriate human rights-based approach in accordance with the standards set out in United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The UN mentioned that the novel coronavirus pandemic posed a grave health threat to indigenous peoples around the world as they already experience poor access to health care, significantly higher rates of communicable and non-communicable diseases, lack of access to essential services, sanitation, and other key, preventive measures, such as clean water. Even when indigenous peoples are able to access health-care services, they oftentimes face stigma and discrimination.


Generally, the work of indigenous peoples goes unnoticed and this is problematic. As the international community pauses to acknowledge International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples let us be mindful that the special bond and connection of many indigenous peoples with nature have also led to the protection of the general environment.

In this digital age it is no longer an option to circumvent the voices of the indigenous peoples. This time in history calls for a consultative framework so as to engage indigenous peoples who are still marginalised in the political process.

We have a duty to learn more. There is a need for non-indigenous communities to redouble their efforts at creating and fostering a culture of respect for idigenous peoples. Undoubtedly, the teaching of history should be compulsory in our education system so that younger generations can be more informed. In order for nations to achieve sustainable development it is critical that governments facilitate a partnership with indigenous peoples in a spirit of harmony and respect.

In the words of Chief Tashka Yawanawá, leader of the Yawanawá people in Acre, Brazil, "We are tired of anthropologists, environmentalists, church-related organisations, and other specialists speaking for us and using us for their self-interest."

Wayne Campbell

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or

Wayne Campbell

Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at


  1. We welcome reader comments on the top stories of the day. Some comments may be republished on the website or in the newspaper; email addresses will not be published.
  2. Please understand that comments are moderated and it is not always possible to publish all that have been submitted. We will, however, try to publish comments that are representative of all received.
  3. We ask that comments are civil and free of libellous or hateful material. Also please stick to the topic under discussion.
  4. Please do not write in block capitals since this makes your comment hard to read.
  5. Please don't use the comments to advertise. However, our advertising department can be more than accommodating if emailed:
  6. If readers wish to report offensive comments, suggest a correction or share a story then please email:
  7. Lastly, read our Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy

Which long-term investment option is more attractive to you at the moment?