Bringing Indigenous Rights to Rio+20

Securing an approach to development which respects the rights and protects the livelihoods of the world’s indigenous peoples is one of the Center’s core goals. In March, Washington Office Director Armstrong Wiggins and staff members Gretchen Gordon and Karla General joined with indigenous peoples’ organizations at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD) to advocate for indigenous rights protections.

The Conference, referred to as Rio+20, is a political process wherein the world’s leaders come together to create a framework for international action around sustainable development. This year’s negotiations build on the progress of the historic Earth Summit held 20 years ago in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which spurred the development of several critical environmental processes and agreements, including the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the Convention on Biological Diversity.

The issue of sustainable development is particularly critical for indigenous peoples because a healthy planet is essential for their livelihoods and survival. Indigenous peoples have been practicing sustainable living for millennia, and should be looked to as a source of sustainable development strategies.  

Unfortunately, indigenous peoples have too often been subjected to development that comes at their expense; even development models deemed “sustainable” have caused great harm to indigenous peoples. The current construction of hydroelectric dams across South America, which is threatening to displace indigenous communities at record numbers, is one example of development at the expense of indigenous rights. Forest conservation programs, known as REDD+ , which threaten to cut off indigenous peoples’ access to their resources, are another example.

It is critical that commitments or frameworks coming out of Rio+20 1) take bold steps to address the sustainability crises which threaten indigenous peoples, such as climate change; 2) ensure that mechanisms are in place so that indigenous peoples’ rights and livelihoods are protected in all development activities; and 3) embrace development models which acknowledge the contribution of indigenous peoples to sustainable development. Unfortunately, what Center staff witnessed during the first round of Rio+20 negotiations failed on all three accounts.

First, States are not putting forth commitments for bold actions necessary to actually address the world’s environmental and sustainability needs, preferring a modest political statement rather than a strong commitment for future action.

Second, while the current negotiating text acknowledges the importance of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the substance of the text doesn’t incorporate the specific rights of indigenous peoples guaranteed in the Declaration. For example, indigenous peoples’ right of self-determination and to choose their own development path is absent from the text. There are also no adequate protections for the rights of indigenous peoples to their lands territories and resources or to their traditional knowledge, rights threatened daily by development activities. Some governments, most notably the United States and Canada, worked during the negotiations to eliminate any references to human rights or equity that existed in the original text, such as the right to food and the right to water.

Finally, the main focus of the current negotiating draft is less on the protection of the planet and its people and peoples, and more on the creation of a “Green Economy.” This narrow focus on the economic value of the environment and ways to utilize the market to incentivize sustainable development fails to recognize the critical cultural and social importance of the environment. It also ignores the sustainable practices employed by indigenous peoples that exist outside of markets, and risks commodification of indigenous peoples’ livelihoods.

To highlight some of these concerns, and to showcase indigenous peoples’ proposals for sustainable development, Indian Law Resource Center participated in a panel discussion, titled “Indigenous Peoples’ Key Messages for Rio+20,” together with the Coordinator of Andean Indigenous Organizations (CAOI), Indigenous Peoples' International Centre for Policy Research and Education (Tebtebba), Center for Autonomy and Development for Indigenous Peoples (CADPI) and others. The panel highlighted the indigenous concept of Buen Vivir (living in harmony with nature), discussed the impacts of previous “green development” strategies for indigenous peoples, and stressed the importance of embracing a human-rights based approach to development. For coverage of the event, see:

The Rio+20 process will include one more round of negotiations in New York City at the end of April before final negotiations in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil June 20-22. Indigenous peoples and civil society organizations should make their concerns known to their country’s delegates and urge them to ensure that the Rio+20 process promotes a sustainable development model that protects the rights of indigenous peoples as guaranteed in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, especially rights to lands, territories and resources.

The United States delegates can be reached at:

Lawrence Gumbiner, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. Department of State:

Keri J. Holland, Senior Advisor, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, U.S. Department of State:

Kerri-Ann Jones, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs:

Hilary Clinton, Secretary of State, U.S. Department of State:

You can find other countries’ delegate contact information at: