What Do the Sustainable Development Goals Mean for Indigenous Peoples?

The year 2017 marks the first year of implementation of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a set of 17 Global Goals measured by progress against 169 targets covering social issues like poverty, hunger, health, education, climate change, gender equality, and social justice. The goals are part of a global agenda to eradicate poverty, among other indicators of well being for people and the planet, by the year 2030. They are an extension of the previous Millennium Development Goals, which concluded in 2015.

The High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in New York is the central platform for followup and review of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals, and provides for the full and effective participation of all State members of the United Nations and specialized agencies. The Forum meets annually under the auspices of the Economic and Social Council for eight days in July. It is the main UN platform on sustainable development, and it has a central role in the followup and review of the 2030 Agenda for the Sustainable Development Goals at the global level. A central feature of the Forum are the voluntary national reviews from States on their implementation of the 2030 Agenda and the development goals.

“Sustainable Development Goals embody a new era of engagement and exploration in pursuit of equality for everyone on our planet,” said Joshua Cooper, director of International Network for Diplomacy & Indigenous Governance Engaging in Nonviolence Organizing for Understanding & Self-Determination (INDIGENOUS). “The 17 Goals outline an opportunity to organize, to overhaul global governance, to be honest for future generations; [they are] rooted in a philosophy of ‘no one left behind,’ with a human rights blueprint dedicated to ‘furthest behind first.’ Indigenous Peoples will be the moral measurement of achievement and nurturers of a new relationship with nature.”

Although significant progress has been made towards realizing the development goals, that progress has been tempered by criticism that progress has not made evenly across race, ethnicity, social status, or gender lines. Indigenous Peoples, along with other minority groups, have pushed for recognition 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 (see sidebar).

Many have additionally argued that these few indicators in which Indigenous Peoples are included do not reflect Indigenous definitions of well being. The Major Group for Indigenous Peoples explained in their 2016 paper, “For Indigenous Peoples around the world, ‘leaving no one behind’ means respecting subsistence economies and promoting nonmonetary 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. An indicator of particular interest to Indigenous Peoples under Goal 1, “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 the High-Level Political Forum in July 2017. Gam Shimray of the Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact stated, “Land is the only basis for continuity of identity and also of holistic development, which we call self-determined development. So in [Goal 1], if land is left out, we are already being left behind. That’s why land is so important when we talk about [Sustainable Development] Goals.” Janene Yazzie (Diné), Southwest United States, agreed, stating, “The lands that we are protecting conserve 80 percent 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, Maasai from Kenya, added, “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 additionally warns that “The 2030 Agenda...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 programs 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.”

The UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues has identified the following recommendations for including Indigenous Peoples in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals 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 UN 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 imple- mentation, followup, 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.

In July 2018, the next High-Level Political Forum will assess 48 countries that have signed up for the voluntary review. This is a critical opportunity for Indigenous Peoples to submit reports on how Sustainable Development Goal targets are being met in their countries and communities.

To learn more about the SDGs, visit: sustainable development.un.org. To get involved with the Indigenous Peoples Major Group or to contact organizational partners, visit: sustainable development.un.org/majorgroups/about.

CSQ Issue: