Harnessing the Power of Indigenous Cultures for Better Cities

By on 08/08/2016
International Day Indigenous Peoples

Young Resident of Santa Rita, a rural indigenous community in Bolivia. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Nairobi, 9 August 2016 – As we celebrate International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples in our final stretch towards Habitat III in Quito, Ecuador, and the New Urban Agenda to be adopted this October, we must take time to reflect and take action to address the many challenges and opportunities that urbanization represents for indigenous communities.

Over the past years, the number of indigenous persons living in urban areas has been on the rise. The reasons for this vary: while many migrate to cities in search of education and employment opportunities, some are forced to relocate as their rights on their ancestral lands are trampled, while others are displaced by the impacts of climate change. In addition to this accelerating rural-urban migration, indigenous settlements are often engulfed in urban development as city limits expand past them.

The reality cannot be ignored: to date, many countries – such as Mexico – have one third of their indigenous people living in urban areas. In many other countries – such as Canada and Chile – the number surpasses one in two.

Mitigating the challenges, harnessing the opportunities

The transition into urban living is rarely easy. Despite some immediate benefits, such as the proximity to services, many indigenous persons face systemic discrimination with regards to housing, employment, education, and other basic needs and rights.

Yet, cities that fail to integrate and safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples run the risk of missing out on the opportunities brought on by cultural diversity. Traditional cultures are crucial for the development of inclusive and participatory communities where families can live in security, peace and dignity – three major conditions to sustainable urbanization. Additionally, indigenous communities have a lot to contribute in terms of green building practices and construction technologies.

When it comes to developing policies and programmes, national and local decision-makers must therefore ensure that indigenous communities’ rights are taken into account, and it starts with non-discriminatory access to urban services, including culturally-adequate housing solutions.

A seat at the table

Over the past decade, UN-Habitat has been a strong advocate for the rights and the inclusion of indigenous peoples in urban processes and decision-making, particularly on the housing front: a policy guide to Housing for Indigenous Peoples in Cities was developed, along with a handbook on Security of Tenure and Access to Land and a report on Urban Indigenous Peoples and Migration.

During the latest World Urban Forum, in Medellin, Colombia, representatives of indigenous groups contributed their perspectives early on in drafting the New Urban Agenda. The dialogue has continued since towards Habitat III through the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to ensure that equal access to cities and the right to adequate housing are provided to all, including indigenous peoples.

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