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  International Fund for Agricultural Development
Roundtable discussion on Indigenous peoples and sustainable development

About 300 million indigenous people live in 70 countries around the world. The majority are poor and account for almost one-third of the world’s 900 million rural people. Many indigenous people are among the most marginalized of the world’s rural poor, especially in Asia and Latin America. In Guatamala, 86.6% of indigenous peoples are poor. In Mexico, the figure is 80.6%. Supporting their efforts to overcome poverty can help to reduce poverty around the world and protect the global environment.

A roundtable discussion at IFAD’s annual meeting of its Governing Council, in Rome 19-20 February 2003, will explore the problems faced by indigenous peoples and ways to support them in their fight to overcome poverty, while retaining their cultures and safeguarding their environments.

IFAD has invested USD 736 million in projects to support indigenous peoples in Asia and the Pacific, and the Latin America and Caribbean regions, and is expanding these initiatives. These projects clearly demonstrate that efforts to eradicate poverty must address the special development needs of indigenous peoples. Of primary importance are:

  • Formal recognition of their rights to ancestral lands, water, forests, minerals and other natural resources
  • Recognition of fundamental human rights and access to food, health services and educaion
  • Preservation of indigenous cultures, languages and knowledge
  • Recognition of the environmental services they provide that help to mitigate global climate change, protect biodiversiy and prevent natural disasters

Indigenous people in general, and women in particular, have a wealth of traditional knowledge about their environments and the biodiversity they support, including medicinal and food plants that are of increasing commercial interest. Yet, indigenous people rarely share in the benefits of the commercial use of their knowledge. Legal instruments are required to protect indigenous knowledge and to address the over-extraction of timber, minerals and herbs.

The marginalization of indigenous communities has frequently led to political tension in many areas. This is one of the reasons that many of the conflicts in the world are located in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples. IFAD is involved in a number of initiatives to reduce conflict by helping indigenous peoples resolve land claims and secure rights over natural resources. In one innovative project in Nepal, indigenous men and women are being offered information, training and legal assistance to assert their rights.

Other approaches adopted by IFAD include strategies to revitalize traditional knowledge about soil and water conservation, crop and livestock management, handicrafts and traditional medicine. Sometimes traditional knowledge is supported with modern technologies. Tangible results include increased income and productivity. No less important spin-offs are enhanced self-esteem and ecological sustainability. Although still in its early stages, this strategy has already achieved success. Here are some examples:

  • In India, research on gum karaya – an adhesive obtained from tree sap – resulted in the development of four new products. Improved tapping practices have led to price increases of up to 250%. All the products are being patented to protect indigenous knowledge.
  • In Vietnam, a project is incorporating traditional medicinal knowledge in training manualsfor voluntary health workers.
  • In Mapajo, Bolivia, an ecotourism project has been adopted as a model for increasing income, improving living conditions and ensuring environmental protection in indigenous territories.
  • Proposals for bilingual and intercultural education developed by a project in Brazil have been incorporated in the national curriculum for primary schools.

Much more needs to be done to ensure that indigenous peoples can use their resources in a sustainable way and that they are rewarded for environmental stewardship. One ground-breaking project funded by IFAD in Asia involves working out mechanisms to compensate indigenous communities for the environmental services they provide to the global economy. Among these are carbon sequestration, watershed protection and biodiversity, areas that are hard to quantify, but which undeniably offer benefits to the rest of the world.

When: Thursday, 20 February 2003, 10:30 a.m. to 1:00 pm.

Where: Palazzo dei Congressi
Piazzale J. F. Kennedy
00144 Rome (EUR)

Who: Chairperson: Ms. Victoria Tauli Corpuz, Executive Director, Tebtebba Foundation, Indigenous People’s International Centre for Policy Research and Education, The Philippines


  • Mr. Marcos Matias Alonso, Director and Member of the Permanent Forum of the United Nations for Indigenous Peoples Issues
  • Mr. Rodolfo Turian Guiterrez, Under-Secetary for Development and Land Management
  • Mr Harolod Eric Quej Chen, First Secretary of the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala
  • Mr. B.N. Yugandhar, Former Chief Advisor and Secretary to the Prime Minister of India

IFAD Focal Point:

Mr. Ganesh Thapa