Protecting indigenous communities | Sunday Observer

Protecting indigenous communities

Pramod de Silva

Sri Lanka is one of the many countries that have an indigenous community – people who have inhabited a country long before other settlers came in. In most cases, these “foreign” settlers later dominate the population, leaving the indigenous peoples on the margins. This is what has happened in many countries from USA to Sri Lanka. In some cases, Governments have tried to assimilate them with the main population, with limited success.

There are an estimated 370 million indigenous people in the world, living across 90 countries (sometimes literally so, as they go in and out of porous borders between some countries). They make up less than five per cent of the world’s population, but account for 15 per cent of the poorest. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures. There are several completely isolated tribal peoples in very remote parts of the world who have not had regular contact with other humans for millennia, though they face the risk of extinction.


As the UN points out, indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.

Indigenous peoples have sought recognition of their identities, way of life and their right to traditional lands, territories and natural resources for years, yet throughout history their rights have always been violated. Indigenous peoples today, are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world. The international community now recognizes that special measures are required to protect their rights and maintain their distinct cultures and way of life. Many countries now provide special concessions to indigenous communities, such as hunting in protected areas, which is banned for others.

The International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples fell last week (August 9). The 2018 Theme is “Indigenous peoples’ migration and movement”. As a result of loss of their lands, territories and resources due to development and other pressures, many indigenous peoples migrate to urban areas in search of better prospects of life, education and employment. They also migrate between countries to escape conflict, persecution and climate change impacts. Despite the widespread assumption that indigenous peoples live overwhelmingly in rural territories, urban areas are now home to a significant proportion of indigenous populations. In Latin America, around 40 per cent of all indigenous peoples live in urban areas — even 80 per cent in some countries of the region.

In most cases, indigenous peoples who migrate find better employment opportunities and improve their economic situation but alienate themselves from their traditional lands and customs. Additionally, indigenous migrants face a myriad of challenges, including lack of access to public services and additional layers of discrimination.

The 2018 theme focuses on the current situation of indigenous territories, the root causes of migration, trans-border movement and displacement, with a specific focus on indigenous peoples living in urban areas and across international borders. The UN hopes to explore the challenges and ways forward to revitalize indigenous peoples’ identities and encourage the protection of their rights in or outside their traditional territories.

Additionally, the UN has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages. These are unique languages – for example, the Wanniyela Aththo in Sri Lanka speak a dialect that has some elements of Sinhalese but it is a mostly standalone language that only the members of that community can speak and understand.

Languages play a crucially important role in the daily lives of all peoples, are pivotal in the areas of human rights protection, peace building and sustainable development, through ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue.

However, despite their immense value, languages around the world, many of them indigenous languages, continue to disappear at an alarming rate due to a variety of factors. Indigenous languages are a significant factor in a wide range of other indigenous issues, notably, education, scientific and technological development, biosphere and the environment, freedom of expression and employment. Many indigenous languages are already dead and some are down to one or two speakers. This is a huge cultural and civilizational loss. Action must be taken to study and preserve these native languages, many of which are rather colourful.

It is not only languages that face extinction when tribal peoples fade away. There are cultural and social norms too that will disappear. Many tribal peoples have a deep knowledge about the medicinal properties of various plants and other substances but this knowledge will go waste if the tribes disappear. They also have traditional songs, dances, music, arts and craft and cultural traditions that also face the risk of being forgotten over time. Again, this is a colossal loss to our collective conscience and civilization.

Another valuable lesson that we can learn from indigenous communities is their commitment to Nature. They are close to Nature – it is from such communities that we have derived the concept of a “Mother Earth”. As far as I know they live a plastic free existence and most indigenous communities are car-free as well. They consume less and waste less and although they may not even know the word, they practice recycling all the time. Yes, some indigenous communities do hunt for their food, but that is only as a means of sustenance and never for ‘sport’. They hunt just enough to get by and respect all plants and animals.


Resilience in the face of adversity is another lesson to be learnt from indigenous communities. They live in some of the most hostile environments on Earth, from the Arctic Circle to the most arid deserts often with limited resources. The one thing that helps them to face such adversity is the very strong bond that exists among the community. It is a close-knit community where everyone knows everyone else and comes to the help of each other in difficult times. We have virtually given up on such bonds partly due to the impact of social media/Internet and partly due to our busy money-centric lifestyle. Talking of money, some isolated tribal communities have little or no idea what money is, but they seem to be happy with what they have got.

That is perhaps the biggest lesson that indigenous communities teach us as most of the world’s problems are due to our greed for more money and more material things. This philosophy also aligns with the teachings of the Great Religious Leaders who all urged us to shun a profligate lifestyle. Tribal communities have always been in tune with this ancient wisdom, which has helped them survive very turbulent times. Only time will tell whether they can thrive in the centuries hence.