Relatively few civilizations are the original residents of the regions they inhabit — the result of colonization and struggles over land and resources. The world’s indigenous peoples are either extinct, struggling to survive, or facing the more gradual effects of assimilation, urbanization, modernization, and other forces. The deliberate killing of indigenous societies, which has occurred many times over, continues to threaten millions of people around the world.
According to the United Nations, there are an estimated 370 million indigenous people, comprising about 5% of the world’s population. This figure, which only includes native groups recognized by UN member states, is just an estimate. In a recent study, the U.S. nonprofit Center for World Indigenous Studies identified more than 5,000 indigenous nations and communities comprising more than 1 billion people worldwide.
The discrepancy could be partially due to the fact that Russia, China, and Burma have said they do not have any indigenous people — a dubious claim. The long histories of colonialism these groups have experienced make their identification and any measurement an even greater challenge.
In other words, just as it is impossible to know how many native societies have been wiped out, it is impossible to know the degree to which the thousands of indigenous societies are at risk of extinction. While all native populations remain at risk, several factors help identify the most threatened indigenous populations. For example, the presence of natural resources, or really anything of value, is often the tell-tale sign that a population is at risk of displacement. Whether it is crude oil in Iraq, natural gas in Peru, a pipeline project in the United States, or diamonds in Botswana, in the eyes of governments and corporations, the value of natural resources almost always outweighs land rights of indigenous communities.
24/7 Wall St. discussed the threats facing indigenous societies with experts, reviewed news reports, UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, national economic data, and national regulations to identify examples of the world’s most threatened native groups.
A common perception is that indigenous societies are disappearing because they are unable to adapt to a new world. Rudolph Ryser, executive director of the Center for World Indigenous Studies wrote in an email to 24/7 Wall St., “The perception of disappearing peoples is a product of state, educational and other corporate propaganda.”
The indigenous societies at risk of imminent extinction are not disappearing, they are being intentionally destroyed. The problem occurs most frequently when abundant natural resources are at stake in areas with few regulations. Regulations regarding land ownership, development, mining restrictions, and so on serve to protect — at least to some extent — the rights of those living in that land — indigenous or not.
In many cases, governments will choose to designate lands as uninhabited, paving the way for deforestation and development. In other cases, governments and private organizations will actively exploit, forcibly deport, and even murder these populations. In either case, this systemic eradication is a choice made by regional governments.
To identify 15 of the most threatened indigenous groups, 24/7 Wall St. discussed the threats facing indigenous societies with experts, reviewed news reports, examined data from UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, national economic data, and national regulations to identify 15 regions where the original inhabitants face among the most serious threats. This list is a set of examples demonstrating threats common to many more indigenous societies. Some groups on this list are one tribe, while others represent multiple indigenous communities.