Message from Ms. Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the Occasion of the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples
9 August 2023
"He who depletes water prevents his offspring from flourishing."
The wisdom of this Tahitian proverb resonates strongly today, in the Anthropocene era, when there is increasing climate disruption, and biodiversity is under threat, largely due to human activity. At a time when we urgently need to rethink our relationship with nature and the living world, we have much to learn from the wealth of resources represented by the lifestyles, practices and worldviews of Indigenous Peoples, who have lived for millennia with knowledge of and respect for their natural surroundings.
That is why UNESCO is committed to the preservation of Indigenous cultures. Today, we celebrate the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, as we do every year, to symbolize our commitment to them, which lies at the heart of our mandate.
In particular, the Programme on Man and the Biosphere has led the way in recognizing the valuable contributions of Indigenous Peoples and communities in guiding us along the path to more sustainable development. The 2022 United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15) also played a part, highlighting the crucial role of Indigenous Peoples as "guardians of biodiversity".
This role is also reflected in the inclusion of elements of Indigenous cultures on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, for example, the ancestral knowledge system of the four indigenous peoples, Arhuaco, Kankuamo, Kogui and Wiwa of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia, listed in 2022, and the year before, Awajún pottery-making in Peru, a tradition, mainly passed down by women, that is emblematic of the harmonious relationship between the Awajún people and nature.
We know that Indigenous voices are essential for promoting cultural diversity, peace and gender equality. And yet these voices could be lost, as Indigenous languages – a vehicle for tending this relationship with the living world and each other – are in jeopardy.
These languages do not belong in the past, and UNESCO is therefore taking action to protect them by leading the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2022. We have launched initiatives all over the world, for example in West Africa where the goal is to create dictionaries of Indigenous African languages.
We are also stepping up our actions with and for young people, who are on the front line of today's challenges and whom we seek to engage alongside us. The Hooked on Peace (HOP) initiative in the Asia-Pacific region supports Indigenous youth in documenting stories of gender equality and peacebuilding in their Indigenous languages. It is also the meaning behind this year's theme, which celebrates the commitment and drive of young Indigenous Peoples to act as agents of change, both in their communities and in the wider world. It is a commitment that is embodied, for example, by the Indigenous Mexican actress Yalitza Aparicio, who was designated as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2019.
On this Day, UNESCO calls for a renewed commitment to preserve, promote and give a voice to these ancient heritages, cultures and languages. We must empower young people to take their rightful place in our institutions, so that together we can meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.