IFAD Governing Council: Day 2 highlights

Recognizing the role of Indigenous Peoples

By Claire Ferry

The first day of IFAD's 40th session of the Governing Council was marked by keynote speakers and the election of the Fund's next president, Gilbert F. Houngbo. The second day, however, brought the focus back to the heart of the organization—the people it serves.

The biennial gathering of the Global Meeting of the Indigenous Peoples' Forum was held earlier in the week at IFAD's headquarters and it called on representatives from across the world to discuss indigenous peoples' involvement in IFAD-supported projects. Those representatives carried their message into the second day of the Council, voicing their praises and concerns to IFAD Member States in a panel discussion.

Pope Francis speaks to indigenous peoples' representatives

Just before the Council reconvened for the panel, the indigenous peoples' representatives attended a closed meeting with Pope Francis. He stressed the delicate balance between forging ahead with development while also respecting and protecting the rights of indigenous peoples.

"The right to prior and informed consent should always prevail," Pope Francis said. "Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict."

Francis highlighted the importance of women and young people in indigenous communities, urging governments to recognize the rights of all those involved. To bring about this change, the Pope proposed IFAD's funding and expertise as a "road map" to navigate the development that has too often left indigenous peoples in its wake.

"I think the Pope's words are important," Mirna Cunningham, President of the Center for Indigenous Peoples’ Autonomy and Development, said. "We have to remember that technological and economic development is not progress in itself, and IFAD can play a very big role with technical and financial support to ensure that these measures are considered with indigenous peoples."

As a token of all the indigenous peoples represented, delegation members offered gifts to the pope: an alpaca coat from Bolivian Andes, a blanket from the Igorot people in the Philippine Cordillera, and a Miskitu-translated bible from Nicaragua. Each gift serves as a reminder of the human faces behind every project.

Governing Council's panel on indigenous peoples

Following the meeting with Pope Francis, Cunningham mediated the Panel of Indigenous Peoples with representatives from Asia, Africa and South America.

Joan Carling, a former member of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, praised IFAD for its clear actions in promoting indigenous peoples' right to free prior and informed consent.

She explained how better implementation of projects leads to real empowerment, allowing these communities to be at the centre of the decision-making processes. Specifically, Carling cited IFAD's ability to track the progress of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which she believes contributes to indigenous peoples' self-determined development.

One area she suggested bolstering, though, was IFAD's securing of women's land rights and initiatives. "We know that indigenous women are working on the lands, so the entitlement of women and the protection of lands is critical to the survival of indigenous peoples," Carling said.

Elifuraha Laltaika, a member of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, followed Carling's remarks with an update on the state of indigenous people in Africa, highlighting the lack of recognition of these communities by governments. Though the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights exists, Laltaika doubts how closely most governments have followed its guidelines. Despite this, he remains hopeful because of constitutional reforms in countries like Kenya and Tanzania. Constitutional inclusion of indigenous communities' rights, along with involvement by agencies like IFAD, opens the door to more extensive change in African countries.

Echoing Laltaika's emphasis on recognition, Maria Teresa Zapeta Mendoza, Programme Manager for the International Indigenous Women’s Forum, shifted the discussion to the marketing of indigenous peoples' products while maintaining respect for their culture. She again reinforced the importance of governments' acknowledgement of the peoples' rights, but furthered the conversation, saying, "IFAD and governments should see us as allies and should recognize that we are legally entitled people." Mendoza told of women in Ecuador trying enter the international fish market and people in Chile achieving sustainability through ecotourism. She called for support from both IFAD and governments, which would allow indigenous peoples to compete alongside everyone else in the marketplace.

Jorge Alberto Jiménez, General Director of the Bureau for Comprehensive Social Development of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, built on Mendoza's insistence that indigenous people could indeed occupy a competitive place in the market. He spoke proudly of El Salvador's indigenous population and its extensive knowledge of natural medicine, but acknowledged it needs the help of institutions like IFAD to jumpstart progress. Jiménez also recalled the genocide of nearly 30,000 indigenous people in 1932 and its role in El Salvador's history today: "We have to remember that our history is not in museums; it's in the hands of the people." With that, he called for constitutional reform and stronger implementation and monitoring of the policies in place.

To conclude the panel, Cunningham invited to the stage special guest Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Tauli-Corpuz acknowledged the tenth anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and praised IFAD for its outstanding implementation of the declaration. Though indigenous peoples still suffer from continued mistreatment, she urged IFAD and governments to listen to the aspirations of these communities and enter into multi-stakeholder partnerships.

Looking ahead: President-elect Gilbert F. Houngbo

The focus of the 40th Governing Council was appointing the next president of IFAD, but amidst such a monumental event, the president-elect himself did not lose sight of the rural people the Fund serves.

“I have come from the rural world," said Houngbo, a native of Togo. "I have first-hand knowledge of the harshness of this kind of life.”

The Indigenous Peoples' Forum and the Governing Council have concluded, but the work now truly begins as President Nwanze begins to hand over the reins to Houngbo. Throughout it all, though, it is the people who will undoubtedly remain the focus of IFAD's operations.