Indigenous peoples’ big win of 2016

Five days before the IUCN Congress adopted its key decision to support indigenous people’s rights; there was intense lobbying by the indigenous groups who had organised caucuses, side events, workshops and even marches to bring their issues as biodiversity defenders on the table.

Kenya’s indigenous people’s rights leader Lucy Mulenkei who heads the Indigenous Information Network (IIN) had been among the key leaders fronting for their recognition. “The IUCN needs to fully incorporate us.” Mulenkei had said on the sidelines of the IUCN World Conservation Congress held in Honolulu, Hawaii early in September. “For generations we have been on the frontlines of conservation through our traditional knowledge systems and lifestyles as hunter gatherers or pastoralists. This is an aspect that IUCN must recognize.”

The powerful and passionate lobbying by the indigenous groups paid off finally when the IUCN Members Assembly voted overwhelmingly to “create a new category of membership for indigenous peoples’ organisations.”

It was a sweet victory for the indigenous peoples who have for decades remained on the sidelines of key environmental, biodiversity and climate change debates at the global stage. Cases of multinational corporations in connivance with governments undermining the rights to culture, land, opportunities and access to resources of indigenous groups are legion.

A day earlier Mollu Kulu Galgallo who hails from the Gabbra community in Kenya’s Marsabit County had spoken in a panel of indigenous peoples from Asia, Americas, and the Pacific where he had illuminated of the challenges his Gabbra community faces when pursuing rights to cultural expression, traditional knowledge, ancestral lands and sacred spaces.

“Our sacred site is in Ethiopia and we are in Kenya. When we want to visit our sacred site for our divine and cultural expression the immigration officers of both countries interfere.” Galgallo said. “We are asking for recognition of our way of life and religious tolerance as traditionalists.”

So passionate was the indigenous rights lobby that they held numerous caucuses to gain recognition at the global body.


“You walk anywhere within the IUCN Congress and they keep talking about indigenous people but they are not facilitating indigenous people to attend and participate.” Mulenkei noted. “So we are telling IUCN that they need to recognize and help support indigenous people to be attending the congress as they are frontline custodians of ecosystems due to their lifestyles.”

The recognition has not come easily as indigenous peoples have on many occasions found themselves at the receiving end of big business and somewhat insensitive governments. .

In the US the $3.7billion Dakota Access Pipeline was recently stopped after 200 Native American groups opposed it from cutting across their lands expressing fears of its impact on their waterways.

In 2010 the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights (ACHPR) ruled in favour of the indigenous Endorois community. The commission found the Kenyan government guilty of violating the rights of the Endorois when it evicted them from their ancestral lands to pave way for Lake Bogoria national reserve.

The just released report by the UK based Forest People’s Programme (FPP) documents the difficulties indigenous people of Guyana face in protecting their forests. Without the involvement and knowledge including free, prior and informed consent forest logging concessions have been issued by the Guyanese government to private sector on untitled Amerindian community lands affecting the Barima-Koriabo, Eclipse Falls, Kokerite, Chinese Landing and Kurutuku villages.

Earlier in the year the Swedish Sami nomadic reindeer herders won a major case that had been running for 30 years land rights case. The Sami peoples are Sweden’s only indigenous peoples occupying the Arctic Circle

It is in the light of the struggles by indigenous communities across the continents that the historic decision at the IUCN World Conservation Congress got a huge vote.

The overwhelming vote by the IUCN Assembly now grants indigenous peoples a stronger position in all of IUCN’s work. Through this decision the indigenous peoples are now on a pole position to contribute at the highest policy levels on global environmental diplomacy. Key issues include traditional knowledge, bio-cultural conservation and equity concerns.  The new status at IUCN also offers them leverage in their quest for other rights such as climate justice, land rights, sacred places visits among others.

Indigenous peoples will now be a part of IUCN’s unique membership which bundles together 16,000 experts across the globe, 217 state and governmental bodies and some 1066 NGOs worldwide.

“Indigenous peoples are key stewards of the world’s biodiversity. By giving them this crucial opportunity to be heard on the international stage, we have made our Union stronger, more inclusive and more democratic.” IUCN’s Director General Inger Andersen noted after the decision was passed.

Other than this major victory the IUCN assembly also voted on a motion that acknowledges Indigenous peoples roles on forest conservation. It has been noted through years of study that forests have been vital ecosystems in the preservation of cultures and sustenance of indigenous livelihoods even despite marginalisation and the mainstream standards of wealth.

Indigenous people are custodians of traditional knowledge on earth ecosystems.” Mulenkei says. “However they don’t benefit from their knowledge and we will keep calling for recognition by governments and advocate for access and equitable sharing from biodiverse resources on land and at sea wherever indigenous peoples live.”

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