The ‘Gänseliesel’ (Goose Girlis), a historical fountain erected in 1901, represents the most well-known landmark of the city of Goettingen.

Re-thinking the Role of Indigenous Peoples in International Law: New Developments in International Environmental Law and Development Cooperation

Maria Victoria Cabrera Ormaza



Indigenous Peoples have classically been defined in terms of their situation of vulnerability and discrimination traceable back to colonialism. The first international legal instruments addressing indigenous peoples are based on such an understanding, and emphasize special protection for indigenous peoples in order to preserve their cultural identity. This article describes this approach a human rights-based one, even though, at the national level, the label "indigenous" is sometimes also interpreted as a synonym of political power. Meanwhile, international environmental law has introduced what this author calls a "functional approach" recognizing the participatory role of indigenous communities in supporting environmental conservation and use of biodiversity. From a functional perspective, it is a logical consequence to include other local communities, albeit not "indigenous" in the classical sense. Thirdly, in the sector of development cooperation, international financial institutions (IFIs) have designed policies with the aim of assuring indigenous peoples the opportunity to be consulted when IFI-funded projects could entail a negative impact on indigenous communities. At first glance, it could be said that those policies were inspired by a human rights-based approach. However, from a holistic perspective, the role of indigenous peoples becomes a more functional one. This paper contributes a critical analysis of the role of indigenous peoples from these two approaches: the human rights-based approach and the functional approach. The author argues that a definition of indigenous peoples based on a human-rights approach should be understood as encompassing also other groups living in similarly vulnerable situations. Even though a functional approach to indigenous peoples responds better to the principle of equality, this approach should be more respectful to the cultural and social values of indigenous or local communities, from whom a particular behavior is expected in order to achieve certain goals.


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