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Opinion: Indigenous peoples fight for rights

United Nations report shows native peoples struggle for better health, education and environmental protection.

Bolivian indigenous people play their "Jula Jula" (a native instrument) after the swearing-in ceremony of President Evo Morales in the center of La Paz, Jan. 22, 2010. (David Mercado/Reuters)

NEW YORK — A grandmother of seven, Colleen Swan, along with 400 members of her Eskimo community are preparing to leave their homes on the 8-mile barrier reef off the coast of the Chukchi Sea in Alaska.

The sea ice that once protected the Kivalina village melts quickly because of rising temperatures which also cause storms, flooding and changes in the migratory patterns of the animals needed for subsistence hunting.

“We’re angry, we shouldn't have to live like this,” said Swan, when reached by phone in Alaska. “Our impact on the environment is minimal but we live with the reality of climate change.”

The first U.N. report on indigenous peoples described the Arctic as the “barometer” for climate change, and the indigenous peoples who live there as the “mercury in that barometer.”

But climate change isn't the only hazard described in the report entitled "State of the Worlds Indigenous Peoples," out this year. Its researchers find indigenous peoples trapped between the bottom rungs of all the main human development indexes like poverty, heath and education across 90 countries.

The indigenous leaders view this as a historic document as it is solely the work of prominent doctors, academics, scientists and lawyers from their communities.

“This is the first time people are not writing about us. We are writing about the current situation that we are living in different parts of the world,” said Myrna Cunningham, an activist and surgeon from the Miskitu Indian tribe of Nicaragua who contributed the chapter on health.

The startling revelation of the study is that while indigenous peoples make up around 370 million (5 percent) of the world’s population, they constitute around one-third of the world’s 900 million extremely poor rural people.

“This is really a very damning statistic because we live in the richest parts,” said Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, of the Igorot peoples in the Philippines and head of the U.N. forum on indigenous peoples.

“We are not poor. We are impoverished because our access to our lands and our territories and resources have been curtailed very drastically by states and corporations,” she continued.

The report is riddled with alarming statistics including: in Australia and Nepal, an indigenous child can expect to die 20 years earlier than a non-native, and 90 percent of the 4,000 languages spoken by indigenous peoples will be extinct or close to extinction by the end of the century.