International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples – 9 August

Jul 31, 2018

A snapshot of Indigenous People in our World

The United Nations states there are about 370 million indigenous people in the world. To give you a comparative base, the population of the United States is around 320,000 million. While they account for only 5 percent of the global population, indigenous people make up 15 % of the poorest people in the world. Indigenous people live across 90 countries in the world, speak an estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures.

“Indigenous peoples are inheritors and practitioners of unique cultures and ways of relating to people and the environment. They have retained social, cultural, economic and political characteristics that are distinct from those of the dominant societies in which they live. Despite their cultural differences, indigenous peoples from around the world share common problems related to the protection of their rights as distinct peoples.”

Indigenous people are amongst the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups in the world

On 13 September 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

After more than 10 years since its implementation, there is still a global challenge to protect Indigenous people and their cultures. They are no less vulnerable than they were when the Declaration was made and are still receiving less than adequate access to education. In areas prone to natural disasters, access to essential health services, clean water and sanitation is lacking.

Fact: Australia was one of four countries that voted against the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (along with the United States, Canada and New Zealand). However, the Australian Government endorsed the Declaration in April 2009 (following a change of government in November 2007).

Indigenous people and migration

Indigenous people are pushed to migrate from their traditional areas to urban areas because of a range of reasons – some move voluntarily and some involuntarily. Some are even forced to move across borders for work, to access education or health services.

It is not unusual for Indigenous people to be displaced by land grabbing by their Government or by multinational corporations who remove Indigenous people from their land for industries such as mining, fracking, logging, intensive agriculture production or to build large infrastructure projects like dams or railroads.

The degradation of land by climate change, pollution, contamination or natural disaster also impact on the food sovereignty of Indigenous people who are unable to support the growth of their food.

Forced or unforced migration is more than just losing “land”. There are particular pressures in being unable to remain on customary land such as the breaking up of traditional family groups, financial distress and emotional or psychological effects on those left behind or losing connection to country. There is significant financial and social stress on those who leave because they feel the pressure of having to make enough money to live in their new home as well as sending home remittances to maintain the family. It is not unusual for labour migrants to be exploited as they are desperate for work and often don’t have knowledge or networks to support and guide them and, regardless of their education, they often end up working in tough informal sectors.

Supporting Indigenous Peoples in their Struggles

For more than 30 years, Union Aid Abroad – APHEDA has supported and continues to support a number of Indigenous Peoples through our partner organisations. Here are a few examples:

New Caledonia/Kanaky:

In the 1990s the indigenous people of New Caledonia, the Kanaks, were struggling for independence from France, and HIV was looming as a big threat. Union Aid Abroad-APHEDA supported the grassroots indigenous health movement, Developpement d’une Sante Pour le Peuple en Kanaky, (ADSPPK) to work on HIV prevention and primary health in villages across Kanaky, using Australian indigenous health promotion workers and issuing ten HIV leaflets in local indigenous languages, the first time these languages were written, other than for the Bible. This support to a grassroots movement was a strategic contribution to the overall struggle for independence, alongside support for the indigenous union movement, USTKE. APHEDA played a key role in Australia and with unions in solidarity with the struggle against colonialism in the Pacific.

The Karen and Shan (Myanmar):

APHEDA has supported organisations on the Thai-Myanmar border since the 1990s and continues to do so with funding from the Australian aid program as part of the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (KWO and SSSNY).

  • Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO): Over the years, APHEDA has supported a number of projects with KWO. KWO was formed in 1949 as a member based organisation of Karen women working in development and relief in the refugee camps on the Thai-Myanmar border, and with internally displaced people (IDP’s) inside Karen State, Myanmar. One current project that is funded by APHEDA, is the ‘Capacity Building Project’. This project provides women in communities and refugee camps with the opportunities to gain skills that enable them to fully participate in community leadership roles.
  • School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (SSSNY): SSSNY has been operating for over 17 years based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. SSSNY trains young people from all over Shan State to become advocates for social and political change through the Social Justice Education Program (SJEP) and community leadership training. Since its formation, SSSNY has directly trained and empowered almost 600 dedicated youth at its school in Chiang Mai and a further 600 during courses run inside Shan State, Myanmar.
  • Shan State Development Fund (SSDF): through funds from the SkillsLink program, APHEDA supports SSDF to provide health services at the Loi Kaw Wan Clinic which offers access to free curative and preventative medical services to IDPs living in Loi Kaw Wan IDP Camp.
Western Sahara:

APHEDA, in consultation with the Australian Western Sahara Association, has supported Sahrawi refugees in the camps in Algeria with the help of the Sahrawi Red Crescent. In 2016, funds were directed towards infrastructure reconstruction projects for refugees after disastrous floods.


australian-aid-blue-and-redThe School for Shan State Nationalities Youth (SSSNY) Social Justice Education Program (SJEP) and Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO) Capacity Building for Karen Women (Thai-Burma border) projects are supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP).



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