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States Should Partner with Indigenous People

Raja Devashis Roy (Chakma), Bangladesh, Former UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Member

There is traditional knowledge in many spheres and many contexts. But with regard to forests, water bodies, mountains, hills, ecosystems . . . that is one area where Indigenous Peoples have a lot of knowledge. There is also traditional knowledge in regards to many other aspects of life including governance, justice, development, even representation of people, democracy. Indigenous traditional leaders, chiefs, and other sub-chiefs, we have certain expertise that is handed down through the generations and which we use for the benefit of our communities. That is why we still exist. Where the number of Indigenous Peoples is very small, then it is almost impossible for you to get elected to local bodies. Forget parliament—you go unrepresented. These are questions for Indigenous Peoples: for democracy, for representation, for knowledge that is going to disappear and die unless and until these people’s voices are heard, unless and until Indigenous Peoples’ efforts to speak for themselves and represent themselves, is supported by the States and the UN system.

In many countries in South and Southeast Asia there is a conflict between States that want to hold onto lands they call forests, and Indigenous Peoples, mostly forest-dependent communities. Indigenous Peoples, when we look at land and forests, we think intergenerationally: what is going to happen in my granddaughter’s time, great granddaughter’s time, so that my community, my family, my clan, my people can have access to that same land or forest and use it for their benefit, and also for the benefit of their lives. Our perspective is intergenerational and sustainable for three, five, seven, ten generations. States think ahead only ten years, fifteen years. They call it a forest, but they do not have knowledge, they do not know which bird eats what seeds, what fruit sits on what tree, how that tree must be maintained, what sort of stream or river can protect which tree, which bird, which animal.

We know, and that is where language also comes in. Because if we know the name of a plant and the name of a bird, we also know where that plant lives and dies and is healthy or sick. Also, which bird, which animal sits on which tree, and what sort of water body—the forest ranger does not know that. Indigenous Peoples are managing their own lands and are doing it sustainably and intergenerationally. If the world wants to realize that there are certain things Indigenous Peoples know better than those government forest and environment departments, then it is for the benefit of all. The State should ask Indigenous people to be the partners. And Indigenous people should, where they have existing efforts, be encouraged and supported by the State. The links between linguistic diversity and biological diversity are clear. Where all the peoples and communities speak a lot of languages, they also know a lot of names of local animals, birds, plants, and flowers, and they know how they survive and sustain. It is in people’s identities, languages, their ways of life, their system of democracy or governance. All of this needs to be realized for the benefit of humanity, not just Indigenous Peoples.

We are seeing with other aspects of culture like dress, food, and festivals, Indigenous Peoples need support. Indigenous Peoples’ voices must be heard with sympathy and understanding. Any other efforts taken by non-Indigenous entities with regard to Indigenous Peoples’ cultures, languages, and knowledge should be with their Free, Prior and Informed Consent only. The biggest challenge lies with Indigenous Peoples taking effective steps for themselves to first know their knowledge, because it is not written. In many cases it’s oral, so they have to find a way where, without losing the essence, the heart of the matter, and take steps to gather and know what they have. They have to work in partnership with the States, universities, research institutions, and others to find out the best ways of protecting what they have and pass it down to the next generation—not in a way that it is going to be sold in the market through patents or copyright, but for the benefit of Indigenous people, and, of course, for the rest of humanity.

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