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FEATURE STORYAugust 9, 2023

Indigenous Youth on Cultural Identity and a Livable Planet

aerial view of river in the Amazon, Brazil

Amazon Rainforest, Brazil

Adobe Stock

This year, the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples recognizes the efforts of Indigenous Youth to support sustainable development, along with their pursuit of justice and preservation of their culture and traditions. The World Bank interviewed Indigenous Youth leaders from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to hear their stories and deepen our understanding of their strategies.  While each have experienced unique circumstances, they face similar challenges that put at risk their capacity to sustain their peoples’ significant contributions to conserving the world’s rich cultural and biological diversity.

What kind of adversity do Indigenous Youth face to their cultural identities and unique ways of life?

Youth leader
 Dokera Domicó of the Embera Katío People in Colombia's Caribbean region said she was stripped of her name. “Dokera is the traditional name given to me at birth by my mother and my community. However, the Colombian registry office changed my name to Dayana, as they did not allow traditional names.”  In Dokera’s language, her name means the essence and birth of the river.

Like other Indigenous Peoples in Colombia, Dokera’s community has faced the assassination of their leaders, threats to burn down their homes, and forced displacement from their ancestral lands.

Dokera traveled long distances to school, faced discrimination while she was there, and struggled to learn in a language that was not her own, yet persisted in her education. She was chosen by her community to serve as a bridge for external help and at 18 she became the first Indigenous woman from her peoples and region to study at university.

Youth leader Judy
 Halfway around the world, Judy Kipkenda, an Ogiek youth leader from Kenya, faced a similar experience. When she was two months old, her parents and community were displaced from their customary forest lands by agroforestry concessions and forced to integrate into a suburban community.

Judy said she suffered from acute sickness as a child as her parents did not trust conventional medicine nor had access to the traditional medicinal products of the forest. She was given a new name and recalls her teacher telling the classroom that the Ogiek people had tails, lived in the forest, and were now extinct. “In fear of what others would say, I lied and said I was Kalenjin, a different group. When the students found out I was Ogiek, I was constantly teased and bullied from that day until I completed my primary education.

Abigail Kitma is a young leader of the Ibaloi people in the northern Philippines. She has found it challenging to connect to her language and culture amid the urban setting of her people’s ancestral lands and the effects of American colonization. “I’m still learning my traditional language because we weren’t taught it. I think many people thought that it was better to learn English rather than to teach our language as it will allow to find more lucrative work elsewhere.”  

Social media has been a lifeline for us, enabling us to share our stories and raise awareness about our issues.
Judy Kipkenda
Ogiek youth leader from Kenya

What strategies are Indigenous Youth using to support their communities and the planet’s well-being?

The young leaders all spoke of reclaiming and securing their lands and languages, documenting and disseminating the knowledge of their elders, and leveraging technologies. They are organizing and exchanging knowledge through the Global Indigenous Youth Caucus (GIYC) and their efforts are gaining traction in local, national and international spaces.

Having faced the front-line trauma of Colombia’s violent conflict, Dokera was nominated in 2022 to serve with 80 other representatives on the National Committee for Participation in Colombia’s peace negotiation with the National Liberation Army.

Judy leads an Ogiek organization that is fighting for the right to return to the Ogiek’s ancestral lands and is promoting practices for sustainable forest livelihoods. In 2022, the African Court on Human and People’s Rights ruled for the Ogiek people to receive reparations and restoration of their ancestral lands. “Our people, if given a chance, can restore our forest back to its original glory.

Youth leader Yves
 Yves Minani, a young Batwa leader from Burundi, explained that “The younger generation is losing touch with their traditional knowledge. Our elders are eager to pass on their wisdom, but it's challenging to reach all the youth.… we encourage youth to love and seek school”. 

From the Amazon, Eglenis Valerio of the Ticuna people and Danixa Moreno of the Nonuya people highlighted the importance of strengthening and revitalizing their connection with the environment as key to their identity.

Youth leader Eglenis
Eglenis remarked: “Now there is more food in my community because we [the young women] have reforested many fruit and wood trees that we are now replanting. It is no longer necessary to go to the forest far away to look for them because we already have them close to our community.” 

youth leader Danixa
Danixa Moreno, of the Nonuya people
 Eglenis and Danixa are among the young Indigenous leaders supported by the project Corazón de la Amazonía (Heart of the Amazon) in Colombia. The project is supervised and assisted by the World Bank and forms part of the Amazon Sustainable Landscapes (ASL) Programa regional initiative led by the World Bank and funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF). Eglenis and the young leaders of her community are involving children in the reforestation process and teaching them the names of key resources in both Ticuna and Spanish to revitalize their Indigenous language and its connection with their biodiversity.  Improving integrated landscape management and ecosystem conservation in the Amazon will only be possible with the collaboration, traditional knowledge, and active participation of Indigenous Peoples, especially youth, as key partners.

Dokera, Judy, and Abigail spoke of using technologies to capture and teach the stories and traditional knowledge of their elders and for the conservation of their territories.  Dokera captures healing rituals on video with community consent and participation. “I have made videos in the communities to show what a healing ritual process looks like, only after consulting with the people on whether and how it can be done. It's crucial that indigenous people themselves are the ones getting trained, sitting with the elders, and doing things as a community.” 

For Judy, social media has become essential: “Social media has been a lifeline for us, enabling us to share our stories and raise awareness about our issues.

Abi Kitma, youth leader
Abi Kitma, young Indigenous leader of the Ibaloi People, northern Philippines.
 Abigail added her perspective on the use of technology for territorial mapping and heritage protection, explaining that Indigenous Peoples working in conservation fields are increasingly using technology to preserve and document their cultural heritage, alongside traditional knowledge. They apply Western scientific methods for biodiversity-focused studies, such as drones for carbon mapping and territory delineation. Engaging with technology enables them to safeguard cultural heritage and potentially contribute to sustainable development and conservation. At the same time, cultural revitalization is important, and it is vital to ensure spaces and platforms for intergenerational knowledge transfers.

These stories shed light on the critical role that Indigenous Youth play as a lynchpin between their peoples’ historical contributions to a livable planet and their capacity to do so in the future.  To do so, they need greater recognition and support to empower their efforts. The World Bank is committed to deepening partnerships with Indigenous Peoples to advance their rights, voice, and inclusion. The success of Indigenous youth is fundamental to creating a more inclusive and livable planet for all.


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