Ten years after: A decade of progress for indigenous peoples

The United Nations International Decade for the World's Indigenous People has focused new attention on the plight of these vulnerable peoples. Now, more than a decade after the adoption of the ILO Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) - World of Work examines what progress has been made, and what problems still face these people in today's globalized world.

GENEVA - There are an estimated 350 million indigenous people in the world. Most are marginalized in almost every aspect of daily life. Globalization, rising world population and mounting demands for natural resources are putting pressure on their traditional lands, and they face increasing poverty, ill health, and discrimination. They are often the subject of projects directed to the poorest of the poor, which don't always manage to address the specific needs and concerns of indigenous and tribal peoples.

The General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the International Decade in December 1993, with the theme, "Indigenous people: Partnership in action". The purpose of the Decade was to strengthen international cooperation towards solving problems faced by indigenous people in areas such as human rights, the environment, development, education and health.

As a contribution to the Decade, the Project to Promote ILO Convention No. 169 was set up in 1996. It has two main objectives: to promote the adoption and implementation of legislation and policies which incorporate the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples; and to provide capacity-building for these peoples.

Convention 169: A History

The ILO first began to address the situation of so-called "native workers" in European colonies as early as 1921. Later, following the creation of the United Nations in 1945, the ILO began to address indigenous and tribal peoples generally - not just in their capacity as workers - and after leading a development programme for Andean Indians, the ILO began work on the Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, 1957 (No. 107). It became the first international treaty ever to be adopted on this subject.

As the years passed, however, concerns over Convention No. 107 began to appear. The Convention assumed that indigenous and tribal peoples must integrate into the larger society, and that decisions regarding development were the concern of the state rather than of the people most affected. A Meeting of Experts convened in 1986 concluded that "the integrationist approach of the Convention was obsolete".

In June 1989, the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (No. 169) was adopted. While Convention No. 107 assumed the gradual disappearance of indigenous and tribal populations through integration, Convention 169 states at its heart that the ways of life of indigenous and tribal peoples should and will survive, and that these peoples and their organizations should be closely involved in the planning and implementation of development projects which affect them.

Since its adoption, Convention No. 169 has gained recognition as the foremost international policy document on indigenous and tribal peoples. It sets minimum international standards, and seeks to bring governments, organizations of indigenous and tribal peoples, and other non-governmental organizations together in the same dialogue.

Promoting the Convention

With the establishment of the Project, a growing focus by other ILO projects on indigenous and tribal peoples has made the ILO one of the lead UN agencies on the question of indigenous people in the fields of discrimination, forced and child labour, education and general human rights questions.

The Project cooperates with governments, and employers' and workers' organizations, NGOs, and indigenous and tribal peoples' organizations to achieve its objectives. It aims to increase the capacity of these peoples to participate in, and take responsibility for, development and policy processes which affect them directly. To that end, the ILO recently established the indigenous and tribal peoples fellowship programme (implemented in close cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights). Fellows experience first-hand the workings of the ILO for a three-month training period at ILO headquarters in Geneva, learning the necessary tools - theoretical and practical - to promote and protect their rights on return to their communities. The scheme also provides the ILO with a great opportunity to learn from these indigenous people.

The ILO is currently undertaking a review of the role it has played in the advancement of the goals of the Decade, and of the impact which Convention No. 169 and ILO technical co-operation activities have had. Despite the obvious achievements of the Decade, there is still a long way to go, and it is imperative that work continues to promote and protect the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples all over the world.

"After the fellowship programme, I intend to implement activities in my own community to develop principles and guidelines to reconcile indigenous rights with conservation initiatives."
- Nobirabo Musafiri, Batwa "pygmy" fellow, Democratic Republic of the Congo

"I now have the knowledge, tools and contacts necessary to support my work and my community and country… defending our cultural diversity, traditional knowledge and systems of beliefs, organizing and egalitarian development."
- Victoria Garcia Ajucum, Maya-K'iche' fellow, Guatemala

Native Americans - Gambling on success: Entrepreneurship as a mixed blessing

Native Americans - the indigenous peoples of the US - often live in poverty and despair, whether on federally established reservations or in urban centres. Now, new enterprises are providing hope for a better life. Among these are gambling and hospitality. Journalist Savita Iyer examines the extent to which Native Americans have benefited from such enterprises, and why more and better education is needed to improve their lot.

Native Americans today face grinding poverty and soaring unemployment. Life on the reservations where many of them live is hard - besides poverty, they face 50 to 80 per cent unemployment and conditions which can engender demoralization, substance abuse, violence and crime.

A move to urban centres in the 1950s and 1960s did little to improve matters. Says C. Matthew Snipp, a Stanford University sociologist, "Basically, [the relocation] took a group of people with relatively few skills and put them in large cities where they were completely out of place."

Still, some Native American communities are finding new sources of income in private enterprise. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975 - which granted more autonomy to tribal governments to manage their own affairs - encouraged many tribes to turn toward private enterprise. These businesses may include trailer parks or manufacturing and selling tobacco products. Now, gaming has become the most lucrative.

Today, Native American gaming is a US$16 billion industry - amounting to a hefty 36 per cent of national gaming revenue. The success of casinos such as the Connecticut-based Foxwoods casino, owned by the Mashuntucket Pequot tribes, or the Mohegan tribe's Mohegan Sun casino, has been instrumental in creating new jobs for tribal members and raising revenue for health care, education and further business ventures.

In California, where revenues from Indian gaming reached around US$5 billion last year, casinos are providing jobs in an otherwise depressed job market - not just for Native Americans, but for other minorities as well. The industry continues to boom as tribes expand casino offerings and open hotels, resorts and spas.

Still, challenges remain. Despite strict rules on how gaming revenues are spent and tax breaks, the business hasn't been a panacea for unemployment and poverty. The remote location of many tribes and their gaming enterprises doesn't provide access to a broad client base, and the benefits of gaming revenue aren't widespread since only a few gaming enterprises - 19 per cent - account for 70 per cent of total Native American gaming revenues.

Jerry Lamb, a member of the Gros Ventre tribe of Montana, and Executive Director of American Indian Business Leaders (AIBL) says private enterprise may be the only way forward. Developing new sources of revenue isn't easy, Lamb says, but may be the only way to create both revenue and employment. Lamb also believes the only way for Native Americans to continue expanding business opportunities is through more and better education. Says Lamb, "We want our members to get a good education and to acquire solid skills in order to direct business and lead our tribes forward, while fostering our cultural heritage and preserving our community."