Friday, November 21, 2008

The Health of Indigenous Peoples: Information from the World Health Organization

Who Are Indigenous Peoples?

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous peoples living in more than 70 countries worldwide. They represent a rich diversity of cultures, religions, traditions, languages and histories; yet continue to be among the world's most marginalized population groups. The health status of indigenous peoples varies significantly from that of non-indigenous population groups in countries all over the world.

An official definition of "indigenous" has not been adopted by the UN system due to the diversity of the world’s indigenous peoples. Instead, a modern and inclusive understanding of "indigenous" has been developed and includes peoples who:
  • Identify themselves and are recognized and accepted by their community as indigenous.
  • Demonstrate historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies.
  • Have strong links to territories and surrounding natural resources.
  • Have distinct social, economic or political systems.
  • Maintain distinct languages, cultures and beliefs.
  • Form non-dominant groups of society.
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

In some regions, there may be a preference to use other terms such as tribes, first peoples/nations, aboriginals, ethnic groups, adivasi and janajati. All such terms fall within this modern understanding of "indigenous".1

"Indigenous peoples remain on the margins of society: they are poorer, less educated, die at a younger age, are much more likely to commit suicide, and are generally in worse health than the rest of the population". (Source: The Indigenous World 2006, International Working Group on Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA), ECOSOC Consultative Status, p10)

Indigenous Peoples Concept of Health and Healing

Health is defined in WHO’s Constitution as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This definition extends beyond the traditional Western biomedical paradigm which treats body, mind and society as separate entities and reflects a more holistic understanding of health. Indigenous peoples have a similar understanding of health, as well-being is about the harmony that exists between individuals, communities and the universe.

In all regions of the world, traditional healing systems and Western biomedical care co-exist. However, for indigenous peoples, the traditional systems play a particularly vital role in their healing strategies. According to WHO estimates, at least 80% of the population in developing countries rely on traditional healing systems as their primary source of care.2

"Children born into indigenous families often live in remote areas where governments do not invest in basic social services. Consequently, indigenous youth and children have limited or no access to health care, quality education, justice and participation. They are at particular risk of not being registered at birth and of being denied identity documents." (Source: United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Fourth Session, UN Document E/C.19/2005/2, Annex III, Item 13)

Ensuring Equality

Overt or implicit discrimination violates one of the fundamental principles of human rights and often lies at the root of poor health status. Discrimination against ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities, indigenous peoples and other marginalized groups in society both causes and magnifies poverty and ill-health.

The UN World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance encouraged States to adopt action-oriented policies and plans, including affirmative action, to ensure equality, particularly in relation to access to social services such as housing, primary education and health care.8

"Information and statistics are a powerful tool for creating a culture of accountability and for realizing human rights" (Source: United Nations Development Programme, Human Development Report 2000, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 10.)

Statistical data on the health status of indigenous peoples is scarce. This is especially notable for indigenous peoples in Africa, Asia and eastern Europe. To bridge this information gap, it is important that data is disaggregated based on variables relevant to indigenous peoples such as ethnicity, cultural and tribal affiliation, language and/or geography.

With improved information on indigenous peoples' health, action can be taken to ensure access to culturally appropriate health care, as well as to safe and potable water, adequate housing and health-related education.9

For more information
WHO Media Centre
Telephone: +41 22 791 2222

  1. United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, Fifth Session, Fact Sheet 1: Indigenous Peoples and Identity.
  2. The Health of Indigenous Peoples - WHO/SDE/HSD/99.1
  3. Diabetes in Indigenous Populations, Anthony J. Hanley, Medscape Today.
  4. Health of Indigenous Peoples in Africa, Lancet Series on Indigenous Health, Vol. 367, June 2006, p. 1940.
  5. Health and Ethnic Minorities in Viet Nam, Technical Series No. 1, June 2003, WHO, p. 10.
  6. Facts on Suicide Rates, First Nations and Inuit Health, Health Canada.
  7. Health in the Americas, Volume 1, 2002 Edition, Pan American Health Organization, p.181.
  8. Source: Programme of Action, Report of the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, Durban, 2001 (A/CONF.189/12)
  9. General Comment 14 on the right to the highest attainable standard of health sets out that the right to health is an inclusive right which extends to access to safe and potable water and adequate sanitation, an adequate supply of safe food, nutrition and housing, healthy occupational and environmental conditions and access to health-related education and information, including sexual and reproductive health. General Comment 14 was adopted by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in May 2000 (E/C.12/2000/4, CESCR dated 4 July 2000)

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

November 12-18, 2008: Five Key Indigenous Peoples Issues

Five Important Indigenous People's Issues for the Week of November 12 - November 18, 2008

Bangladesh: Indigenous Folk Art Perishing in Rajshahi

Adibashi (aborigine) folk art, originated spontaneously from the core of heart of the indigenous people, is gradually facing extinction in the Barind region. For thousands of years, the adibashi people of Rajshahi region have been nurturing the exquisite folk art which they painted on the walls of their houses, the music they sang at various ceremonies, including marriage ceremony and religious ceremony, and the stories of those which their fathers and forefathers used to tell to their children and grand children are now disappearing.

In addition to these folk-art, the charming songs, legends and sermons which have no written form and which have been preserved for ages in the mind from one generation to another are going to be vanished. The art of making of various types of handicrafts by using branches and leaves of various trees, ornaments made from mud, stones and metals by the adibashi people are also on the verge of extermination nowadays.

It is learnt, in the Barind region of the country where a huge number of aboriginal people of at least 33 separate communities live, are now virtually struggling for their ethnic and religious identity. The conversion to Christianity, migration due to poverty, NGO activities and invasion of alien culture are some of the causes that have been identified as villain for departure of aboriginal folk art, folk songs, stories, religious sermons and legends.

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and local unit of Adibashi Unnayan Sangstha (AUS) and Jatiya Adibashi Sangstha (JAS), there had been 259,240 adibashi population in greater Rajshahi districts (including Barind areas) (Natore, Naogaon, Chapainawabgang and Rajshahi) in 1991. The figure increased to 349,924 in 2001 the number of total families being 62,881. Read more about indigenous folk art here....

Australia: Government Unveils New Board To Tackle Indigenous Issues

Former governor Lieutenant General John Sanderson has been unveiled by the State Government as the spearhead of a new board intended to improve the lives of indigenous people in Western Australia.

Indigenous minister Kim Hames today announced a new body to work alongside the government, non-Government organizations and business interests to assist indigenous people and their communities.

Heading it will be the former governor, who was appointed as special adviser on Indigenous Affairs by the previous Carpenter government, but was then told his work lacked focus and his contract not renewed.

That prompted Lt Gen Sanderson to hit back, saying the previous government was in crisis management, rather than trying to fix the cause of problems in Indigenous communities.

Those problems were again brought to the fore last week in the Oombulgurri community in the Kimberley, which had its alcohol cut off by a State Government ban, on the same day as four elders were charged with hundreds of sex offences against children stretching back 15 years. Read more about Australia's new board here....

Peru: Dreaded Shining Path Returns as a Drug-Financed Movement Seeking Popular Support

After years in relative obscurity, the Shining Path, one of Latin America's most notorious guerrilla groups, is fighting the Peruvian military with renewed vigor, feeding on the profits of the cocaine trade and trying to win support from the Andean villagers it once terrorized, according to residents and Peruvian officials.

The Shining Path's reemergence has stirred chilling memories of its blood-soaked forays of decades past. In October, Shining Path guerrillas killed more people -- 17 soldiers and five civilians -- than they have in any month since the 1990s. This rising death toll is largely attributed to a fresh offensive by the Peruvian military, launched under the same president who battled them in the 1980s, to try to destroy the remnants of the once almost forgotten communist rebel group.

But those who live among them, as well as those who study the secretive group, also describe other reasons for their resurgence. The Shining Path, which has its bases in two coca-producing regions of central Peru, is now heavily involved in drug trafficking and is paying for new recruits.

Experts said the guerrillas have renounced the brutal tactics espoused by their original leader, Abimael Guzmán, who was captured in 1992. Unlike Guzmán, who said 10 percent of the Peruvian population had to be assassinated for the Shining Path to take power, the new leaders tell their followers they must protect the villagers and instead target the military and anti-drug authorities. Read more about indigenous people in Peru here....

Canada: Big Oil's Pipe Dream

The Gateway Pipeline Project, proposed by Calgary-based Enbridge Gateway Pipelines Inc., would snake through the unceded territories of over 40 Native communities. If fully developed, the Gateway Pipeline would transport a half-million barrels of oil per day from Alberta's tar sands through sensitive ecosystems of BC's northwest coast.

The proposed Gateway Pipeline, along with other extractive industries, has become flashpoints for resistance in BC. Dominion editor Dawn Paley talked to Dustin Johnson, a member of the Tsimshian Nation and co-ordinator of North Coast Enviro Watch.

Dominion: Is the current resource rush in Northern BC a continuation of colonialism?

Dustin Johnson: Oil corporations in northern Canada use a classic divide-and-conquer strategy of tokenism and special deals to buy off Native political elites in rural areas. The Gateway Pipeline Project can no longer expect to just bulldoze through non-surrendered, unceded Indigenous territories, so Enbridge and other corporations are looking for other sophisticated means to pacify indigenous and environmental resistance to the ecocidal threats posed by these pipe dreams. One tactic used by oil companies is to take out 100-year leases and wait a decade or two for the last generations of dissident indigenous people, knowledgeable elders in particular, to die off. Staking mining claims online has been attracting corporate invasion in BC in particular in the last few years as well. This "arm chair" staking, carried out by people who may have never set foot in the territories they are claiming, is akin to claiming territory by mapmaking, as was done in previous centuries.

D: How does international and indigenous law play out related to resource extraction projects in BC?

DJ: Over 90 per cent of BC remains unceded, non-surrendered Native land. Neither Canadian, nor international, nor indigenous laws recognize that the territories in question have been legally surrendered to non-native settlers.

D: What are some of the concerns of people in Northern BC over resource extraction?

DJ: If the Gateway Pipeline Project reaches the northwest coast, tanker traffic will increase by 300 oil tankers up and down the coast. The Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska is the most well-known environmental catastrophe resulting from the sloppiness of the oil industry's greed. People are worried that if the Gateway Pipeline is implemented, there could be a breach or rupture resulting in spills or leakage that would travel through the water system and negatively affect the earth and people's health. Current estimates show the pipeline crossing more than 1,000 rivers and streams. Read more about the British Columbian pipe line here....

Costa Rica: Free Trade Agreement Legislation is Finalized Without Controversial Provision on Indigenous Rights

Costa Rican lawmakers approved the last of 13 laws to implement the Free Trade Agreement between the United States and Central America and the Dominican Republic (CAFTA), concluding just over a year of intense debate and two postponements.

The final law —and one of the most hotly debated — originally included an article that would have risked intellectual property rights for Costa Rica’s indigenous population. But a last-minute omission of the article allowed for the law to pass.

That first version of the proposal, dubbed “the sweeping bill” for the number of issues it grouped, called for allowing private companies to limitless patents of animal and vegetable species, a clear threat to ancient knowledge, specifically of medicinal plants.

The first version was thrown out by the Constitutional Chamber of Costa Rica´s Supreme Court for not including previous consultation of the country´s indigenous peoples, a requirement clearly outlined by the International Labor Organization´s Convention 169 on native peoples for laws or other measures that affect their communities.

Now, CAFTA will go into effect on Jan. 1, 2009.

When lawmakers introduced the bill to give companies open access to patent indigenous traditional knowledge and biodiversity, members of the Awapas (indigenous healers) and the Kekepa Women Council, which guards the traditional, ancestral knowledge of the Talamanca indigenous communities in southeastern Costa Rica, marched to the Legislative Assembly on Oct. 13 demanding that their communities be consulted. Read more about the Costa Rican trade agreement here....

Last weeks Five Key Indigenous People's Issues can be found here.

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