Communication, Culture and Identity of Indigenous Peoples

Communication is a key element for the protection and promotion of indigenous peoples' culture and identity.

by Vanessa Vertiz

For centuries Indigenous Peoples (IPs) has suffered a situation of injustice and marginalization, as well as limited access to fundamental rights such as health, education and participation in political and public life, including mass media, which has restricted their involvement in decision-making processes at the national and international level. To make matters worse, some States still consider IPs' rights as opposed to national economic development; as an example some States do not fully recognize IPsright to free prior informed consent, not taking properly into account IPs' statements regarding their territories, natural resources and others issues affecting them.

In spite of this discouraging scenario, IPs have recognized communication as a way out to promote their rights and build more democratic and equal societies. As a result, IPs all over the world have been using different types of communication medias, tools and spaces to make their voices heard and place their proposals on the local, national and international political agendas; one of their main demands has been the establishment of IPs' communication policies that reflect their vision and enhance their participation in the definition of communication messages and contents within public spaces.

Besides, the 17th article of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples mentions the IPs' right to establish their own medias and the use of their own languages, in addition to access without discrimination to other non-indigenous and state medias, ensuring that they reflect the cultural diversity of society. Consequently, in the last years, both indigenous organizations and development agencies, as the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues itself, have valued the role of communication in the promotion of IPs' self determined development and have implemented Communication for Development (ComDev)(1) activities to empower vulnerable and marginalized populations, promote their access to information and knowledge, support secure livelihoods and sustainable development initiatives and consolidating spaces of dialogue and discussion that could influence the political agenda.

The IPs' right to communication also includes the conservation of their own traditional medias, without disregarding at the same time the use of new ones. In fact, IPs have been using the radio, internet and ICTs to strengthen their identity, using their languages and transferring their traditional knowledge among indigenous communities and within the national society. In addition, indigenous communicators have asked for education and training so that they can continue develop their communications skills, formulate and disseminate messages, build alliances and networks, influence public policies and defend IPs' right to communication and information.

On the whole, these are some of the aspects that consolidate communication as an important element for allowing those who were previously considered only message consumers to start producing them, enhancing the practice of their citizenship and the pursuit of their own development model.

In my opinion the 9th session of the UNFPII's special theme Indigenous peoples: development with culture and identity is a good opportunity for UN agencies, civil society, IPs organizations and various stakeholders to put the issue of IPs' communication on the international agenda, discuss its relevance, share experiences and give concrete recommendations to use it for the protection and promotion of IPs' identity and culture. It is our responsibility as activists, professionals, academics and individuals committed to IPs' issues, to support their initiatives, proposals and struggles towards the consolidation of a fairer society and the full recognition of their rights.

Related articles: (1) Culture, identity and territory. A view from Colombia's indigenous peoples; (2) Mapuches poeple fighting against plunder and marginalization. Interview with Gustavo Quilaqueo

Vanessa Vertiz is a Communication Development Specialist, currently working as a consultant for FAO.



(1) According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), ComDev is a social process based on the systematic and participatory use of communication approaches, including the use of resources and tools from radio to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).


Photo: Keith Bacongco/flickr