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50 years defending indigenous peoples' rights

This year the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) celebrates 50 years of defending indigenous peoples' rights and we want to share with you some of the facts we are proud of and some of the issues that affect the world's 370 million indigenous peoples.

Who is IWGIA?

IWGIA has been cooperating with indigenous peoples' organisations and international institutions since 1968 to promote the recognition and implementation of indigenous peoples’ rights. IWGIA works to empower indigenous peoples through documentation, capacity development and advocacy at a local, regional and international level.

Five historical facts about us

  • IWGIA was founded as a working group in 1968 by a group of concerned scholars who were acting on reports of gross violations of human rights committed against indigenous peoples in Latin America
  • IWGIA initially focused on indigenous peoples in Latin America and Asia but, from the late 1980s on, we also began working with indigenous peoples in Russia and Africa
  • Every year since 1986, IWGIA has published The Indigenous World, a yearbook that provides unique insights into and updates on the development of indigenous peoples’ rights. The 2018 version includes an overview of indigenous peoples in 56 countries plus 13 international processes. You can download The Indigenous World for free here >>
  • In 1989, IWGIA obtained Observer NGO status at the United Nations and uses this to facilitate access on the part of indigenous peoples’ organisations that would not otherwise be able to participate
  • IWGIA is currently working with 42 strategic and project partners. We have 31 projects around the world

You can download the book: IWGIA: A history by Jens Dahl here >>

On the occasion of IWGIA's 50th anniversary, IWGIA's Executive Director, Julie Koch, looks at the past 50 years’ developments in indigenous peoples' rights and highlights the main issues and opportunities for indigenous peoples. Read it here >>

Over the last 50 years, recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights and their participation in related issues has increased substantially and, in many cases, indigenous peoples have been able to determine their own future. They are among the frontrunners in creating autonomous governance and protecting the environment.

Five major achievements for indigenous peoples’ rights

IWGIA has been pivotal in many positive developments and the following are five of the many achievements we have been involved in:

  • Instrumental in the development of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in 2002 where indigenous peoples can advance their issues. Read how indigenous peoples innovated the UN system in the process of creating UNPFII here >>
  • Supporting the development of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities in Africa in the 00’s and thus helped indigenous people to get their rights recognized in the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Read more here >>
  • Protecting and supporting the Aché people in Paraguay when they were hunted down and exposed to gross human rights violations during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Read more about the case here >>
  • Supporting indigenous peoples in Latin America to develop their land titling schemes from the 1990s so they can claim their ancestral land. 
  • Supporting the creation and adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 that has since been a point of reference for indigenous peoples defending their rights. 


Indigenous peoples on the front line

Despite remarkable progress in the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights at the global level over the past 30 years, these achievements are in many cases not transferred into local realities. In fact, indigenous rights defenders are experiencing increased criminalization and violations of their rights. The reasons for this are many and the increased global rush for land and growing exploitation of natural resources is rapidly dispossessing indigenous peoples of their primary means of survival. And yet indigenous peoples who peacefully defend their rights are often stigmatized and criminalized through arbitrary arrests, travel bans, threats, dispossession and killings.

This trend has worsened over the last year, both in volume and in regions affected. 2017 broke all previous records of recorded murders of environmental and human rights defenders, and nearly four indigenous activists are currently dying every week.

Five facts about the criminalization of indigenous peoples

  • According to the UN, indigenous peoples are facing greater violations of their rights than 10 years ago and, every year, thousands of indigenous peoples are criminalized and discriminated against
  • A record 400 environmental and human rights defenders were killed in 2017 and at least half of these were indigenous peoples who died defending their land and rights
  • Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines are the most dangerous countries for environmental and human rights defenders
  • According to Global Witness, most of the killings are related to land disputes and the mining and extractive industries. Front Line Defenders finds that 67% of activists murdered were engaged in land, environmental or indigenous rights-related to mega-projects and extractive industries
  • An estimated 3,500 human rights defenders have been killed since 1998 (when the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders was adopted)

Human rights defender and indigenous spokesperson Joan Carling woke up one morning in March 2018 to the news that she had been named on a terrorist list in the Philippines, despite no evidence having been presented. Read an interview with her here >>

IWGIA is hosting an international conference the 5th and 6th of September with focus on "Defending the Defenders - New Alliances Protecting Indigenous Peoples' Rights" and you can read the programme here >>


A list over killed Environmental and Human Rights Defenders in 2017

Five Core human rights conventions and declarations related to indigenous peoples

Several international declarations and agreements that acknowledge the rights of indigenous peoples have been adopted internationally. Here are some of the most important:

You can read more about the International Labor Organisation and its work with indigenous peoples' rights here >>

Read more about indigenous issues

We publish The Indigenous World every year. It is a one-of-a-kind documentation tool that offers a comprehensive yearly overview of the developments indigenous peoples are experiencing around the world. This year’s edition has been written by 83 authors and covers the latest developments in 56 countries and 13 international processes. It is free, and you can download it here >>

Are you interested in the latest developments facing indigenous peoples in one specific country? Then visit our database and choose your country to get the latest update here >>


Tags: Land rights, Global governance, Climate, Human rights, IWGIA



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting and defending Indigenous Peoples’ rights. Read more.

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Indigenous World

IWGIA's global report, the Indigenous World, provides an update of the current situation for Indigenous Peoples worldwide. Read The Indigenous World.

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Prinsessegade 29 B, 3rd floor
DK 1422 Copenhagen
Phone: (+45) 53 73 28 30
E-mail: iwgia@iwgia.org
CVR: 81294410

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