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Candles burning at the forum's opening ceremony. ©IFAD
ROME, Italy – It probably goes without saying that most meetings at IFAD headquarters don’t begin with the ritual lighting of candles. Nor, for that matter, with thanks to the ancestors for trusting us to live in harmony with Mother Earth and protect her precious natural resources. Yet that’s exactly how the first global meeting of the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum at IFAD started this morning.

The opening ceremony featured representatives of various indigenous peoples from Africa, Asia and the Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, along with IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze and others from the Fund. But it wasn’t simply a colourful moment. Rather, it embodied the unique qualities that the world’s approximately 370 million indigenous people bring to any conversation on rural development: a deeply held belief in environmental sustainability, and the traditional knowledge required to put that belief into practice.

As Nwanze said in his opening statement to forum participants: “You have much to share about how to live, how to work and how to cultivate in a manner that provides for future generations.”

A global dialogue
The forum is the culmination of two years of planning by indigenous peoples and their organizations. The seeds for the event were planted at an IFAD meeting in 2011, when indigenous peoples’ representatives called for a global dialogue about IFAD-supported operations in their territories and the organization’s compliance with its own policy on engagement with indigenous peoples.

IFAD President Kanayo F. Nwanze (centre) joins forum
participants at opening session. ©IFAD
Since then, IFAD and its partners in indigenous communities have followed through with a series of further consultations, including regional workshops held last year in Kenya, Nicaragua and Thailand.

Reports on the regional consultations were a key part of today’s agenda. They painted mixed picture of progress in many areas of collaboration between IFAD and indigenous peoples, and problematic gaps in others. Overall, the workshops identified urgent priorities in at least two areas: first, ensuring full participation by indigenous peoples in the design and implementation of projects financed by IFAD; and second, building the capacity of indigenous peoples’ institutions to fulfil their potential and protect their basic rights.

Action plan and declaration 
The imperative for indigenous peoples’ communities to consolidate their rights – especially the right to own and control ancestral lands – was an overarching theme of the day. Because many of these communities are still marginalized and exploited, poverty is a persistent problem for them. It’s also a disproportionate one. While indigenous peoples comprise roughly 5 per cent of the world’s population, they represent about 15 per cent of the poor.

Myrna Cunningham (right) is among participants in the
opening ceremony at the forum. ©IFAD
In an effort to make further progress, forum participants will now synthesize their findings and discussions into an action plan and declaration, which they will present on Wednesday at the 2013 session of the Governing Council, IFAD’s primary decision-making body. They have already made it clear that they are prepared to move forward with IFAD as equal partners.

“We come here for a dialogue, putting our knowledge on the table,” said Myrna Cunningham, an activist from Nicaragua who is a member of both the Indigenous Peoples’ Forum Steering Committee and the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. “We don´t want to discuss our needs,” she added, “because people might think that we should be told what to do. We offer our knowledge so we can work together.”