Indigenous Peoples and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs)

Last year at the sixteen session of the United Nations Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples’ Issues (UNPFII) held in April 2017, and in recognition of the importance of selfdetermined sustainable development of Indigenous peoples in their territories. The Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues recommended that the Economic and Social Council authorize the organization of a three-day international expert group meeting on the theme: “Sustainable Development in the Territories of Indigenous Peoples.” In July 2017, the Council authorized the expert group meeting to be held from 23 to 25 January 2018 by the secretariat of the Permanent Forum.

In early January 2018, I was thrilled to receive an invitation from the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to attend the Expert Group Meeting on Sustainable Development in Territories of Indigenous Peoples. The gathering took place on 25th to 27th January 2018 in NYC. In this working group meeting we engaged in in-depth discussions about the theme “Sustainable development in territories of Indigenous peoples.”

I was humbled to be given the opportunity to discuss along with other Indigenous academics, community leaders and members of State about Indigenous Food Sovereignty, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) and the role of Indigenous Peoples in the proposed UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) 2030. In particular, I provided research-based evidence about Indigenous food sovereignty frameworks based on my empirical analysis of “the relationship between food sovereignty, self-determination and sustainable development.” Based on my study of the Quechua people of Peru and Māori people of Aotearoa New Zealand, I noted that Indigenous communities living in settler colonial societies such as Aotearoa and Peru have been experiencing the disruption and erase of their food systems with the endorsement of GMOs and dumping policies. Also, the accumulation of power on food companies which undermine the collective capacities of humans to define their own food security systems as well as the appropriation of Indigenous land of both material wealth and cultural sovereignty are clear examples of ‘food injustice.’

The disruption of Indigenous food systems has led to a changing in dietary habits from traditional food systems to unhealthy commodity foods. Thus, it is not a surprise why Indigenous peoples are facing  high levels of food insecurity as well as obesity. There is a growing Indigenous food sovereignty movement that recognizes these challenges and is making efforts to revert to traditional sustainable agricultural practices. These efforts require land, and land tenure concerns continue to negatively impact the ability of Indigenous peoples to achieve lasting food security.

Coalition Building: Resilience and Resistance

One of the things that I enjoyed the most in these international gatherings is extending relations with Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples who support Indigenous peoples’ aspirations, and together we build up coalition in support of Indigenous peoples’ rights. One of them is Native American scholar Jannie Hipp whom I had the pleasure and honoured to be part of the same UN Expert Working Group. Jannie Hipp talked about the conceptualization and advancements of the Native American Farm Bill. More info about it in this link

Indigenous leaders who came from as far as the Artic, the Amazon and Andean regions remarked that an important topic that needs to be addressed is the issues of lands, territories and resources, which are inextricably linked to sustainable development, and self-determination of Indigenous Peoples. We discussed about land tenure and food security in particular in North America, Latin America and Africa. Participants noted that land tenure concerns continue to negatively affect the ability of Indigenous communities to build lasting food security and sustainable development activities. Continuing dialogue and alliance development is critical in this period of rapid change and heightened pressures throughout the world on issues related to food sovereignty and land.

While I support “Goal 2 of the UNSDGs Agenda 2030: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” I believe that to achieve the goal the voices, knowledge and concerns of Indigenous peoples globally need to be heard and recognised.  Because land is vital for the continuance subsistence of Indigenous peoples and humanity especially for ensuring the right to food then it is important to address land tenure and food security as seen through an Indigenous lens. Examples of food injustice in North America were noted by Janie Hipp who explained that “some of the economic activities of indigenous peoples in the United States have been measured and that an estimated $3 billion of agricultural commodities come from Indian and Alaska Native producers. Most of this food leaves tribal lands to benefit the wider United States population. Meanwhile Indigenous peoples are disproportionately likely to live in food deserts, which are areas of low food access, on the basis of the distance to the nearest supermarket.”

I supported Jannie Hipp’s intervention by expressing the view of land from an Indigenous perspective and one, which transcends beyond understandings of the land as an agricultural space. The land represents – Mother Earth and the sacred space where all of the forms of life flourish in a nurturing environment, and ultimately promote the well-being and food sustenance of humanity. The rights of Indigenous peoples to self-determination, development and their lands, territories and resources are enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. These rights are also recognized by many States at the national level as well as by local governments. Despite these advances, Indigenous peoples continue to suffer from land loss, and are particularly vulnerable to displacement, and land grabbing which poses a threat to their food security and well-being.

Because of the disruption of Indigenous peoples’ food systems by being disconnected from their territories; Indigenous peoples’ resistance and resilience continue and in April, the 17th Session of the United Nations Permanent Forum of Indigenous People (UNPFII) was held at the UN headquarters in New York City. The gathering attracted over 1,000 participants, including governments, Non-State actors, civil society, academia, and the private sector. This year’s special theme focused on “Indigenous peoples collective rights to lands, territories and resources.” The dialogue with Indigenous peoples included discussions on a number of topics, including the assessment of the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People on its eleventh anniversary, the development and implementation of national action plans and the establishment of guidelines for free, prior and informed consent; and the need for effective engagement of Indigenous peoples in the UNSDGs 2030 Agenda.

Although, immediate solutions addressing land tenure and Indigenous peoples’ issues to healthy and culturally appropriate food are not available.  The role of the UNPFII, as well as all people who are actively engage in supporting Indigenous Peoples’ rights are vital in advancing Indigenous peoples rights and aspirations for a sustainable future. Indigenous scholars like myself will continue working towards moving forward the notion of “Indigenous food sovereignty” that is relevant to several Sustainable Development Goals and more importantly is fundamental for restoring the sacred relationships and responsibilities that Indigenous peoples have with the land and thereby regaining autonomy over their well-being.


  1. Abigail McClutchie

    Awesome that you have been able to make a difference with your scholarship at the international level Mariaelena! I take your point about food sovereignty and the power big companies are weilding both over Indigenous peoples over communities but in fact over all countries. We have seen evidence of that with the loss of sovereignty over water, energy and now food. This is problematic and we all need to be concerned because if we don’t control energy, food or water within our nations and territories and this is put at the whim of a CEO then how can any of us maintain any form of sovereignty?


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