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What do the Sustainable Development Goals Mean for Indigenous Peoples?

Image:  Secretariat of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples Issues "Indigenous Peoples and the 2030 Agenda"

This week marks the 2017 High Level Political Forum at the United Nations in New York, discussing the first year of  implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The goals are part of an agenda looking towards eradication of poverty other indicators of well being for people and the planet by the year 2030, as an extension to the earlier Millennium Development Goals which concluded in 2015. The High-Level Political Forum is the central platform for follow-up and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, and provides for the full and effective participation of all States Members of the United Nations and States members of specialized agencies.


Although significant progress has been made towards realizing development goals, that progress has been tempered by the criticism that progress has not made evenly across race, ethnicity, social status, and gender lines.  Indigenous Peoples, along with other  minority groups, have pushed for parties to recognize that the next steps for development must “Leave No One Behind.”


Yet, Indigenous Peoples have faced difficulty in seeing their perspectives reflected in the 2030 agenda. Although all of the 17 goals are relevant for Indigenous Peoples, only 4 out of 230 indicators specifically mention Indigenous Peoples:


  • Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture
    • Indicator 2.3: By 2030, double the agricultural productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers, in particular women, indigenous peoples, family farmers, pastoralists and fishers, including through secure and equal access to land, other productive resources and inputs, knowledge, financial services, markets and opportunities for value addition and non-farm employment
    • Indicator 2.3.2 Average income of small-scale food producers, by sex and indigenous status
  • Goal 4. Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all
    • Indicator 4.5 By 2030, eliminate gender disparities in education and ensure equal access to all levels of education and vocational training for the vulnerable, including persons with disabilities, indigenous peoples and children in vulnerable situations
    • ​​​Indicator 4.5.1 Parity indices (female/male, rural/urban, bottom/top wealth quintile and others such as disability status, indigenous peoples and conflict affected, as data become available) for all education indicators on this list that can be disaggregated

Many have argued that these few indicators on which Indigenous Peoples are included do not reflect Indigenous definitions of well-being.  The Major Group for Indigenous Peoples (IPMG) explained in their 2016 paper,  “For Indigenous Peoples around the world, ‘leaving no one behind’ means respecting subsistence economies and promoting non-monetary measures of well-being. For instance...the financial measure of $1.25/day for extreme poverty is inappropriate for Indigenous Peoples, for whom security of rights to lands, territories and resources is essential for poverty eradication. From this perspective, the linear monetary measure of poverty can contribute to further impoverishing Indigenous Peoples under the guise of the theme "leaving no one behind."


The Indigenous Peoples Major Group is one of nine sectors of society that have been identified as stakeholders in sustainable development and have been involved in the processes at the UN level.  To get involved with the Indigenous Peoples major group, contact organizational partners:


An indicator of particular interest to Indigenous Peoples under Goal number one, “End poverty in all its forms everywhere,” focuses on the “proportion of total adult population with secure tenure rights to land, with legally recognized documentation and who perceive their rights to land as secure, by sex and by type of tenure.”


Questions have been raised about whether this indicator is exclusively focused on individual land tenure rights or may be also inclusive of communal land title, held by an entire Indigenous community.  The Indigenous Major Group commented, “The targets under SDG Goal 1 do not fully reflect the special situations of Indigenous Peoples and could be detrimental for traditional economies that are based on subsistence and harmonious relationship with natural environment.”


Indigenous experts participating at the UN gathered for a live discussion on Indigenous land rights within the SDGs at this year’s High Level Political Forum. Watch below:


Gam Shimray, Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact:

“Land is the only basis for continuity of identity and also of holistic development which we call self determined development. So in this SDG, [Goal 1]  if land is left out, we are already being left behind. That’s why land is so important when we talk about SDG goals.”


Janene Yazzie, Diné, Southwest United States:

The lands that we are protecting conserve 80% of the world’s biodiversity.  In the 2030 agenda, there is an emphasis around land measurement based on individual ownership, that threatens our ability to collectively manage our traditional territories...In the Southwest United States that can translate into policies at the federal level being implemented under the guise of sustainability that inhibit our peoples’ ability to continue traditional practices of land management.


Daniel Ole Sapit, Kenya:

“Land for Indigenous Peoples is not just a means of production. It is an interactive space for us to engage with all of our livelihood options and opportunities.   If you remove the land from the discussion, you are leaving us completely off, not just behind, but completely off the discussion.


The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has also identified the following risks that may develop for Indigenous Peoples as the Sustainable Development Goals are implemented across the globe: “The 2030 Agenda, however, also involves serious risks for indigenous peoples, such as clean energy projects that encroach on their lands and territories. To avoid negative impacts, the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals needs to take place in conformity with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples… It is also important that programmes to implement the 2030 Agenda are culturally sensitive and respect indigenous peoples’ self-determination as well as collective rights in terms of land, health, education, culture and ways of living.”


Moving forward

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has identified the following recommendations for including Indigenous Peoples in the implementation of the SDGs moving forward:

  • Implementing the 2030 Agenda with full respect for the rights of Indigenous Peoples:  By protecting and promoting the rights of indigenous peoples, as reflected in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, States will be able to address challenges faced by indigenous peoples and ensure that they are not left behind.  
  • Making indigenous peoples visible in data and in the review of the 2030 Agenda: At the national level, relevant indicators for indigenous peoples should be identified and included in national indicator lists. Data-disaggregation and recognition of indigenous identity in national statistics as well as integration of community-based data from indigenous communities will allow for assessing progress for indigenous peoples.  
  • Ensuring indigenous peoples’ participation in implementation, follow-up and review: Indigenous peoples can contribute to the development of national action plans, follow-up and review at all levels, including for the voluntary national reviews at the high-level political forum.