Include Indigenous communities in MDGs or watch them die a slow death, experts warn

May 25, 2006

We are dangerously close to killing off the world's Indigenous populations, and losing forever the invaluable knowledge these communities have about medicines and the ecosystem.

This stark warning is being made today by a team of health experts based at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and coincides both with the launch of a major, month-long series on Indigenous Peoples' health in the Lancet, which begins today, and the fifth session of the UN's Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which took place this week.

The experts caution that major international policies such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were set up to target the world's poorest people could, as they currently stand, actually lead to entire populations of Indigenous peoples being wiped out forever.

They explain that minority groups such as Indigenous peoples could be ignored because of the way the MDGs work - by focusing on big numbers and encouraging targets to maximise health benefits for the majority. This means that the health experiences of minority Indigenous populations will be swallowed up, unnoticed, in the country statistics for the MDGs, and that these communities could become the hidden victims of the global effort to tackle poverty.

The Lancet series has been written in the first year of the Second Decade of the World's Indigenous Peoples, initiated after a First Decade which - even according to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, achieved little. The High Commissioner noted in an evaluation of the Decade that its main objective, the adoption of a declaration of rights for Indigenous peoples, had not been achieved and that more needed to be done by the Member States and the international community to improve the rights of Indigenous peoples.

The LSHTM team, which is contributing a number of research papers and coordinated the series, is echoing the calls made by the Permanent Forum for more research and action to get Indigenous peoples' health included into the MDGs, and for the issue to be placed high on the agenda at the UN's MDG forthcoming conference in September.

'Even though we know they experience worse health conditions than even their poor non-indigenous counterparts living in the same countries, Indigenous children rarely get a mention in global health initiatives', comments Dr. Carolyn Stephens, who is leading the LSHTM team.

'Small numbers of deaths in minority populations will not affect the MDGs at all. This may mean that they can be achieved even as indigenous people gradually disappear from our world. At the moment, their very focus on headline-capturing big numbers has an impact on Indigenous peoples - both in terms of their international visibility, and in fund allocation'.

The authors describe the importance and value of Indigenous wisdom for the future of international health and medicine, and point out that some of the most significant pharmaceutical breakthroughs in Western medicine have originated from, and continue to be found in Indigenous plants.

Dr Stephens adds: 'Indigenous people will continue to be exploited by governments, and to suffer great health disadvantage, unless their rights are recognised internationally. We want the second International Decade to have a far stronger and more radical emphasis on indigenous rights, and new policies for indigenous health. We want the issue to be top of the agenda when the UN meets in September to discuss progress in achieving the MDGs. And we want this decade to be remembered as the one in which the United Nations finally ratified the Draft Treaty on Indigenous People's Rights'.

Today, Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, made an urgent appeal to action, concluding "Perhaps the most urgent call of all is to remove the cloak of invisibility from the shoulders of indigenous peoples--not only to reveal their diversity and heritage, but also to reflect on their cultural fragility and to protect and strengthen their essential, foundational place in human society".

Disappearing, displaced and undervalued - a call to action for Indigenous Health worldwide by Carolyn Stephens, John Porter, Clive Nettleton and Ruth Willis, will be published later this month as part of the Lancet series on Indigenous health which begins today.
If you would like to interview Dr. Carolyn Stephens or any of the other authors, please contact the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine Press Office on 020 7927 2073.

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

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