YESTERDAY marked the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. To mark the occasion, indigenous peoples, United Nations (UN) agencies, member states, civil society, and other stakeholders gathered at the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The occasion was a reminder of the continued need to acknowledge, document, and preserve the valuable heritage of our First Peoples locally.
TT’s indigenous peoples are part of a global community. That community is estimated to be 370 million strong, across 90 countries. Indigenous peoples are incredibly diverse. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world’s 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 different cultures. Yet they make up less than five per cent of the world’s population, and account for 15 per cent of the poorest, according to the UN.
Globally, there is a rise in xenophobia which sees populations pointing fingers at foreigners and immigrants. Yet from the perspective of the indigenous populations, many of us were, at one stage in history, the real interlopers.
Genocide and the process of imperialism wiped out the bulk of our First Peoples, yet some survived, carrying forward vestiges of their culture, food and way of life.
The First Peoples developed the canoe, the bow and arrow, and the ajoupa. Today, indigenous cuisine is still enjoyed by many Trinidadians: pone, cassava bread, and farine; warap, barbecued wild game, pastelles, coffee, cocoa, chadon beni. Parang music, which is popular at Christmas, is a hybrid of Spanish and Amerindian musical styles. Many place-names point to an erased past.
The world is beginning to recognise and atone for the injustices done to indigenous peoples. In the process, it is also beginning to recognise the vital role such communities can play in our shared destiny.
For instance, the UN believes indigenous peoples can help eliminate hunger and famine because their traditional agricultural practices are better adapted to a changing climate.
These peoples have also devised ways to conserve and restore forests and natural resources; their foods and traditions help expand and diversify diets; they grow crops resilient to climate change, and they help oversee biodiversity.
Indigenous peoples all over the world are incredibly diverse. The Caribs and Arawaks were part of a richer array of language and social groupings.
We must never forget the contribution made by our First Peoples. And furthermore, the State must work towards implementation of UN recommendations to protect indigenous peoples and their interests.
“Legislation and policies should be adopted to expressly support the protection of indigenous defenders and communities,” observes the UN’s special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples in her 2018 report.
The discovery of artefacts at the Red House, for instance, should act as an impetus for the State to enact regulations making it compulsory legally for all entities, public and private, to exercise care and diligence when relics are unearthed during construction. Such protections can help unerase our past.