Indigenous peoples currently number some 350 million individuals in more than 70 countries in the world and represent more than 5000 languages and cultures. Despite their important contribution to the world cultural diversity and to the sustainable development of our planet, many of them live on the fringes of society and are deprived of basic human rights. Through its partnership with indigenous peoples, UNESCO seeks to support them in addressing the multiple challenges they face, while acknowledging their significant role in the world’s cultural landscape.
UNESCO’s activities with indigenous peoples are framed by its missions to protect and promote cultural diversity, encourage intercultural dialogue and enhance linkages between culture and development. The organization is thus actively involved in implementing the Second International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People (2005-2014) which is intended to strengthen international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous peoples in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health, building on efforts initiated during the First Decade (1995-2004).
The adoption of the Second Decade reflects increasing awareness of the precarious condition of indigenous peoples and strengthened collaboration between indigenous organizations, governments, NGOs and UN agencies. This international mobilization has entailed significant advances such as the adoption in September 2007 of the UN Declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples by the UN General Assembly, which the UNESCO Director General welcomed as a "milestone for indigenous peoples and all those who are committed to the protection and promotion of cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue".
Despite these advances, indigenous peoples remain particularly vulnerable to the impacts of globalisation and climate change. Often victims of displacements, dispossession of their lands, or lack of access to basic social services, it has become increasingly difficult for them to transmit their distinctive knowledge, values and ways of life from one generation to the next.
Through their spiritual relationship to the land and their holistic worldviews, indigenous peoples offer a valuable pathway in the search for global visions of sustainable development. UNESCO’s Medium-Term Strategy (2008-13), while mentioning indigenous peoples amongst the most vulnerable segments of society whose needs are to be prioritized, is also committed to enhance awareness about the important cultural contribution of indigenous peoples to sustainable development.
UNESCO’s partnership with indigenous peoples builds on several areas of focus, including: