Many indigenous peoples profess a deep respect for the planet and all forms of life, and an understanding that the health of the Earth goes hand in hand with the wellbeing of humankind.
This knowledge will be shared more widely at the 2023 session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), a ten-day event which gives indigenous communities a voice at the UN, with sessions devoted to economic and social development, culture, the environment, education, and health and human rights).
Ahead of the conference, UN News interviewed Darío Mejia Montalvo, an indigenous member of the Zenú community in the Colombian Caribbean, and president of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
UN News: What is the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and why is it important?
Darío Mejia Montalvo: We first have to talk about what the United Nations is. The UN is made up of Member States, most of which are less than two hundred years old.
Many of them imposed their borders and legal systems on the peoples who were there long before the formation of the States.
The United Nations was created without taking these peoples – who have always considered that they have the right to maintain their own ways of life, government, territories, and cultures – into account.
The creation of the Permanent Forum is the largest gathering of peoples in the United Nations System, seeking to discuss global issues that affect all humanity, not just indigenous peoples. It is a historic achievement of these peoples, who were left out of the creation of the UN; it allows their voices to be heard, but there is still a long way to go.
UN News: Why is the Forum focusing its discussions on planetary and human health this year?
Darío Mejía Montalvo: The COVID-19 pandemic was a momentous upheaval for human beings but, for the planet, a living being, it was also a respite from the global pollution.
The UN was created with only one view, that of the Member States. Indigenous peoples are proposing that we go beyond science, beyond economics, and beyond politics, and think of the planet as Mother Earth.
Our knowledge, which goes back thousands of years, is valid, important, and contains innovative solutions.
UN News: What diagnoses do indigenous people have for addressing the health of the planet?
Darío Mejía Montalvo: There are more than 5,000 indigenous peoples in the world, each with their own worldview, understanding of the current situations, and solutions.
What I think indigenous peoples have in common is their relationship with the land, the basic principles of harmony and balance, where the idea of rights is not based solely around humans, but in nature.
There are multiple diagnoses, that may have elements in common, and can complement the diagnoses of Western science. We are not saying that one kind of knowledge is superior to another; we need to recognize each other and to work together on an equal footing.
This is the approach of indigenous peoples. It is not a position of moral or intellectual superiority, but one of collaboration, dialogue, understanding, and mutual recognition. This is how indigenous peoples can contribute to the fight against the climate crisis.
UN News: When indigenous leaders defend their rights – especially those who defend environmental rights – they suffer harassment, killings, intimidation, and threats.
Darío Mejía Montalvo: These are really holocausts, tragedies that are invisible to many.
Humanity has become convinced that natural resources are infinite and ever cheaper, and Mother Earth’s resources have been considered commodities.
For thousands of years, indigenous peoples have resisted the expansion of agricultural and mining frontiers. Every day they defend their territories from mining companies that seek to extract oil, cola and resources that, for many indigenous peoples, are the blood of the planet.
Many people believe that we have to compete with and dominate nature. The desire to control natural resources with legal or illegal companies, or through so-called green bonds or the carbon market is essentially a form of colonialism, which considers indigenous peoples as inferior and incapable and, consequently, justifies their victimization and extermination.
Many States still do not recognize the existence of indigenous peoples and, when they do recognize them, there are considerable difficulties in advancing concrete plans that will allow them to continue defending and living on their lands in dignified conditions.
UN News: What do you expect this year from the session of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues?
Darío Mejía Montalvo: The answer is always the same: to be heard on an equal footing, and recognized for the contributions we can make to major global discussions.
We hope that there will be a little more sensitivity, humility on the part of the Member States to recognise that, as societies, we are not on the right track, that the solutions to crises proposed so far have proved insufficient, if not contradictory. And we expect a little more coherence, so that commitments and declarations are converted into concrete actions.
The United Nations is the centre of global debate, and it should take indigenous cultures into account.