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Indigenous leaders: What we wish Westerners knew

© Aaron Joel Santos/Aurora Photos

Editor’s note: Indigenous peoples make up approximately 5 percent of the world’s population (370 million people). Though they act as stewards of nearly a quarter of Earth’s land and the vast majority of its wildlife, they still face critical challenges — including legal rights to their lands and natural resources.

On International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples — and the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples — Human Nature is revisiting an interview with members of Conservation International’s (CI) Indigenous Advisory Group. These leaders sat down with Minnie Degawan, the director of CI’s Indigenous and Traditional Peoples Program, to discuss the challenges and successes of indigenous peoples around the world.

Minnie Degawan: What do you want Westerners to know about indigenous peoples?

Ole Kaunga, Kenya: Indigenous people are people — they are human beings. They are not tourist attractions and they are not primitive; they are living in cultures close to nature and expending a lot of effort to make sure they’re using natural resources in a sustainable way.

David James, Guyana: I faced a lot of discrimination as a youth attending school in the capital, where not many indigenous people were. It’s important that people try to understand the philosophy of indigenous peoples and how they see the world.

Kittisak Rattanakrajangsri, Thailand: For those who doubt, the rights laid out for indigenous peoples aren’t special, they’re basic — we need them for survival, we need them to be recognized.

Kevin Iro, Cook Islands: If you’re a Cook Islander, you know the ocean is the lifeblood of your existence, so people should understand the fundamental connection that indigenous peoples have with the environment. Our kids are in danger of losing that connection, and we want them to grow up understanding there’s also a living to be made in the Cook Islands as marine biologists, engineers and more — it’s not just about conservation, but having Cook Islanders engaged in wisely using the ocean’s resources.

Joenia Wapichana, Brazil: Indigenous peoples were once invisible to some societies. People should understand why we want to be visible and have a voice, why we’re asking to participate more in the international process, so they can support improvements. We can make a difference through land conservation, but we need legal land ownership.

Read the full post here and meet Jamer Agustín, one of CI’s former Indigenous Fellows, in the video below.

Sophie Bertazzo is senior editor at CI.

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