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Indigenous Peoples are distinct social and cultural groups that share collective ancestral ties to the lands and natural resources where they live, occupy or from which they have been displaced. The land and natural resources on which they depend are inextricably linked to their identities, cultures, livelihoods, as well as their physical and spiritual well-being. They often subscribe to their customary leaders and organizations for representation that are distinct or separate from those of the mainstream society or culture. Many Indigenous Peoples still maintain a language distinct from the official language or languages of the country or region in which they reside.

There are between 370 and 500 million Indigenous Peoples worldwide, in over 90 countries. Although they make up just 5 percent of the global population, they account for about 15 percent of the extreme poor. Indigenous Peoples’ life expectancy is up to 20 years lower than the life expectancy of non-indigenous people worldwide.

Indigenous Peoples often lack formal recognition over their lands, territories and natural resources, are often last to receive public investments in  basic services and infrastructure, and face multiple barriers to participate fully in the formal economy, enjoy access to justice, and participate in political processes and decision making. This legacy of inequality and exclusion has made indigenous communities more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and natural hazards, including to disease outbreaks such as COVID-19.  Vulnerabilities to the pandemic are exacerbated with the lack of access to national health, water and sanitation systems, the shutting down of markets, and mobility restrictions that have greatly impacted their livelihoods, food insecurity, and well-being.

While Indigenous Peoples own, occupy, or use a quarter of the world’s surface area, they safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity. They hold vital ancestral knowledge and expertise on how to adapt, mitigate, and reduce climate and disaster risks. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is an opportunity to work through the traditional authorities and healers of Indigenous Peoples to provide accurate information on disease prevention, distribute protective gear and hygiene supplies, and support traditional medicine, livelihoods and recovery in ways that are appropriate to Indigenous People’s priorities and cultures.  

Much of the land occupied by Indigenous Peoples is under customary ownership, and yet many governments recognize only a fraction of this land as formally or legally belonging to Indigenous Peoples. Even when indigenous territories and lands are recognized, protection of boundaries or external parties use of natural resources are often weak. Insecure land tenure is a driver of conflict, environmental degradation, and weak economic and social development. This threatens cultural survival and vital knowledge systems – both of which contribute to ecological integrity, biodiversity and environmental health upon which we all depend.

Improving security of land tenure, strengthening governance, promoting public investments in quality and culturally appropriate service provision, and supporting indigenous systems for resilience and livelihoods are critical to reducing the multidimensional aspects of poverty while contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The World Bank works with Indigenous Peoples and governments to ensure that broader development programs reflect the voices and aspirations of Indigenous Peoples.

Over the last 20 years, Indigenous Peoples’ rights have been increasingly recognized through the adoption of international instruments and mechanisms, such as the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, the American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2016, 23 ratifications of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention from 1991, the establishment of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII), the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (EMRIP), and the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNSR).

Last Updated: Mar 19, 2021

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