Indigenous Rights in the Global Spotlight

October 13, 2016

On September 22nd and 23rd, the United Nations held its first annual International Conference on Indigenous Villages. Indigenous representatives from around the world gathered in New York City to discuss indigenous rights in order to bring equality to a group of people that have been oppressed and discriminated against since colonization. The indigenous population of the world totals 370 million people, which constitutes 5% of the total world population and they represent about one third of people living in poverty.1

In Latin America there are 826 indigenous villages, and there are believed to be many more villages who are either uncontacted or self-isolated. Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, and Bolivia have the highest numbers of indigenous villages, Bolivia also contains the highest number of indigenous per capita with 62.2% of the population identifying as indigenous. Many of these tribes are at risk of disappearing, in Brazil alone there are 70 at risk tribes, followed by Colombia with 35, and Bolivia with 13 at risk tribes.3 A person born in Latin America in an indigenous region is two times as likely to live in poverty and three times more likely to be indigent than their non-indigenous counterparts.5 What many of these villages need is basic services such as clean water, medical services, sustainable agriculture, and education.

While indigenous people from around the world gathered in New York, representatives from Latin America had a particularly important role. One of the first speakers of the event was the Bolivian president, Evo Morales, who identifies himself as indigenous. He spoke about how power in the hands of banks and businesses leads to abuse and marginalization of indigenous people and how society should help instead of harm these people. Indigenous leaders rarely have political input in the country in which they live, yet they represent a vast amount of people, leaving many people marginalized and without a voice. Morales wants to move away from this trend. Recently, he has decreased the unemployment rate in Bolivia from 38% to 18% and helped Bolivia become the number one country for human development, according to the United Nations Program on Human Development.4 While Bolivia is moving towards equality, many villages in Latin America are still fighting against the government over control of their territory and the natural resources that are found there. Without proper representation in government, many villages do not have a say in whether or not their ancestral land will be exploited by the government and big businesses.

Even though social inclusion is extremely important in equality for the indigenous, they are still fighting to maintain their unique identities, many of which are at risk of disappearing. According to the UN, there are between 6,000 and 7,000 unique languages spoken today and about 97% of the world only speaks four percent of those languages. Whereas only three percent of the population speaks the remaining 96% of all other languages, and this three percent is represented by mostly indigenous populations. Unfortunately, about 90% of these languages are at risk of disappearing in the next 100 years.2 The UN, and the representatives who were at the conference, are advocating for political inclusion but within the framework of their own culture. For example, modern health care services should be offered to indigenous people but the services should also include their own ancient forms of medicine. Schools in indigenous regions should also cater to the cultures there and teach their traditional languages so that they do not die out, instead of pushing for more western curriculum.

With the help of the UN, political inclusion and cultural preservation for indigenous people is becoming a reality. As Guatemalan representative Rigoberta Manchú mentioned in her speech, more indigenous people want to see inclusive public policy in the countries they live in. Now that this is a possibility, she and other representatives are willing to be “spiritual guides” on the path to equality for all indigenous people, with the hope that governments will lessen power in banks and big businesses that tend to marginalize and oppress indigenous people.


1 Gomez-Rodulfo, Marta. "Indígenas En Manhattan." EL PAÍS. N.p., 22 Sept. 2014. Web. 29 Sept. 2014. Available at:

2 Reina, Elena. "La Propiedad De La Tierra, La Deuda De Latinoamérica Con Los Indígenas." EL PAÍS. N.p., 22 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Sept. 2014. Available at:

3 Gomez-Rodulfo, Marta. "La Voz Inspiradora De Evo Y Rigoberta." EL PAÍS. N.p., 23 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Sept. 2014. Available at:

4 Valls, Robert. "Nuestros Ancestros, Los Más Pobres Del Continente." EL PAÍS. N.p., 24 Sept. 2014. Web. 30 Sept. 2014. Available at:



About Author(s)

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Sophia Winston
Sophia Winston is a Spanish and Urban Studies major at the University of Pittsburgh, she is also pursuing a certificate in Latin American Studies and a minor in Portuguese. She has spent a semester abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and is currently a senior.