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I first met Victoria Tauli-Corpuz 11 years ago in Rome. An indigenous Filipina activist, Vicky was attending a meeting on indigenous peoples' rights at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations rural development agency where I work. In fact, it was the first time indigenous peoples' representatives had ever been invited to IFAD's offices on the outskirts of the Eternal City. Since then, IFAD and the UN system as a whole have made progress on bringing indigenous issues and priorities into the mainstream of our work – though we still have plenty more to do.
Flash forward to New York this spring, when I heard Vicky's name called by the chair of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in the General Assembly hall at UN headquarters. Through the forum, indigenous peoples' representatives advise the world body and its member states on indigenous peoples' rights and development. A few weeks before its annual session kicked off in early May, Vicky had been named Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
I felt a sense of pride and admiration, which I'm sure was widely shared in the crowded hall. Vicky is the first woman to be appointed to this critical and sometimes delicate role. As Special Rapporteur, she will be responsible for promoting indigenous peoples' rights through new laws, programmes and agreements between indigenous communities and national governments. She will also report on the overall human rights status of indigenous peoples in different countries.
But even more striking than Vicky's appointment to the post was her message to the members of the Permanent Forum.
“It is time to step out of the paradigm of victimhood," she said, "because we, indigenous peoples, can provide sustainable solutions to the world's crises. Indigenous peoples are not to be seen only as endangered victims to be protected … but also as carriers of knowledge and traditions that – far from being ancient and outdated – can offer concrete solutions to modern crises."
For example, Vicky pointed out that climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing developing and developed countries alike. Indigenous peoples can help the world address this challenge through sustainable practices that stem from their holistic view of life, she said, adding that indigenous communities have preserved the ecosystems in which they live for millennia.
Vicky went on to highlight another relevant challenge: preserving the biodiversity of food, which has declined as a result of industrial food production. Areas that are home to indigenous peoples also happen to host some of the planet's most biodiverse ecosystems, she noted. This is partly because biodiversity is central to indigenous land management strategies. At the same time, indigenous territories have not been subject to the intensive development and extraction of natural resources that has depleted biodiversity elsewhere.
For indigenous peoples, food is not a commodity. Instead, it is traditionally linked to social, cultural and spiritual values, and a worldview that centres on being nourished by mother earth and nourishing her in return.
Not surprisingly, indigenous women are often the bearers of precious knowledge on food and crop biodiversity that is passed down through the generations. This knowledge has so far been largely neglected outside of indigenous communities. Yet indigenous agricultural and environmental practices can be useful tools in building a global response to hunger and malnutrition.
"We need to stop seeing indigenous peoples only as victims, and we need to stop regarding their knowledge as ancient, outdated, belonging merely to the past," Vicky asserted at the Permanent Forum. Of course, she was right. In fact, indigenous knowledge is truly modern when it comes to sustainable development. It is a key to the future of food production, agricultural development and environmental preservation.
As Vicky has suggested, the world ignores the great contributions of indigenous peoples at its own peril. Protecting and respecting their rights is fundamental. Valuing their knowledge and building upon their untapped potential is equally important to us all. Thankfully, Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, and millions of other indigenous women and men, are determined to make their voices heard.
Antonella Cordone is technical adviser and coordinator for indigenous and tribal issues at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)