Skip to main content

Press Conference by Chair of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

16 May 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference by Chair of United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues

The tenth session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues would give delegates an opportunity to review more than 200 recommendations made over the last decade in discussing such issues as the role of indigenous peoples in the sustainable development debate, Forum Chair Mirna Cunningham said at a Headquarters press conference today.

She said the Forum, which opened at Headquarters today, would move beyond a discussion of indigenous peoples’ right to water in the sense of access to safe drinking water and sanitation as it explored the link between water and other fundamental rights, such as territory and cultural and spiritual practices.  It would explore how to wrap the indigenous perspective into the process leading up to “Rio+20”, the Fourth United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, to be held in Brazil next June 2012, the implementation of the Nagoya Protocol, and the concept of green economy.  The Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits Arising from their Utilization was adopted by the Conference of Parties to the Convention in Nagoya, Japan, last October.

The Forum’ two-week session will give more than 1,300 delegates a chance to analyse progress on recommendations made in three areas:  economic and social development; the environment; and free, prior and informed consent.  “There are still gaps between what we recommended and what has been implemented on the ground,” said Ms. Cunningham, an indigenous Miskita former member of the National Assembly in Nicaragua, where she also served as Minister for Health and Governor of the North Atlantic Coast.  She is trained as a surgeon and teacher.

Accompanying her was Grand Chief Edward John, an indigenous leader from Canada, who recalled remarks by United Nations Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon at the Forum’s opening, stating that one indigenous language dies every two weeks.

“That is staggering,” said Chief John, noting that Government and United Nations officials frequently paid much attention to endangered plants or species.  “But who says anything about an endangered language.  I don’t know whether to cry in my heart or be mad about it. …when a language dies, a civilization dies.”

The Canadian Government allocated $6 million a year for languages, yet there were more than 600 indigenous communities speaking more than 50 languages, he said.  They needed the governmental support that other important languages enjoyed, Chief John said, noting that the recommendations arrived at during each session of the Forum were only as good as the support behind them.  “We need United Nations agencies to support us,” he added.

Chief John helped develop the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the General Assembly in September 2007.  He is Hereditary Chief of the Tl’azt’en Nation, located on the banks of Stuart Lake in northern British Colombia.

In response to a question about Canada’s indigenous languages, he said language experts expected only three of them to survive in the coming years.

Ms. Cunningham added that there were more than 80 indigenous languages in Colombia, where an active campaign to communicate the importance of maintaining those languages was under way.

Ms. Cunningham said that with two side events on the green economy on the agenda for this year’s session, the Forum was working towards the development of a position paper for “Rio+20”, detailing how indigenous peoples could participate in the green economy.  Both speakers agreed that free, prior and informed consent was an important concept because it gave indigenous peoples an opportunity to participate in the development of their land and resources by requiring their consent regarding its use.

Asked whether the numerous recommendations had sparked actual change and eased the Forum’s work, Ms. Cunningham said there had been concrete advances over the last decade in several United Nations agencies and at the country level, as in Nicaragua, for example.  But the Forum still had to work “very hard” to make its recommendations heard, and it was not easy at the country level, she said.  “The role of the Permanent Forum is to educate the United Nations system on how to work with indigenous people.”

Noting that indigenous peoples had worked for more than 25 years at the United Nations to have the world community accept its reality, Chief John said he recognized the progress achieved over the last decade.  The Permanent Forum was a body of the Organization and there were now mechanisms for experts, such as the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  Additionally, indigenous peoples were now given access to States, as well as other United Nations bodies.

Yet there were still concerns, including those arising from efforts by some States to eliminate free, prior and informed consent in the area of intellectual property in respect of genetic resources.  “Not so long ago the United Nations shut the door to us,” he recalled.  “Now we can use the General Assembly Hall.”

* *** *

For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.