Luis Alvarado, indigenous UN Volunteer of the Kichwa community, serves with UNFPA Venezuela.

Indigenous people transforming the world for a better future

"We, the indigenous UN Volunteers, do have an important impact in the system and the communities where we work, but also in the decision-making process where our posts help us achieve better results," says Tamia Quilumbaquí, a UN Volunteer Specialist in Indigenous People Rights and Interculturality serving for the UN Resident Coordinator's Office (UNRCO) in Ecuador.

On the occasion of International Indigenous People's month, UNV calls to democratize spaces, empower historically excluded groups and collectivize the intercultural knowledge towards a new social contract and the construction of a sustainable post-pandemic future. 

According to 2014 figures, indigenous communities represent eight per cent of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean, with 45 million people. There are 826 indigenous communities in the region and among them, 570 are located in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Mexico. In countries such as Bolivia or Guatemala, they represent 62 per cent and 41 per cent of the population, respectively.

However, indigenous people constitute 14 per cent of the people living in poverty and 17 per cent of those living in extreme poverty in the region [1]; their life expectancy is 20 years lower than non-indigenous people [2].; they have lower rates of formal education and often are more vulnerable to climate change impacts [3]. The exclusion from political participation is more significant among women, who face the 'triple discrimination' of being women, indigenous and poor. 

In Zulia, on the border between Venezuela and Colombia, people of Venezuelan indigenous communities are exposed to confrontations with irregular groups. These irregular groups threaten indigenous adolescents with sexual abuse and sometimes human trafficking." --Maria Andreina Matera, UN Volunteer, UNFPA Venezuela

Access to essential services is another challenge for indigenous people when response structures are not inclusive.

"As doctors in health centres, we try to be pertinent in serving them when they arrive in the middle of an emergency or searching for reproductive and sexual health services, by learning communities' indigenous languages. Indeed, inclusion and intercultural work has enabled us not to leave anyone behind," explains María Andreina Matera, a UN Volunteer Sexual and Reproductive Health Coordinator (mestiza-alijuna according to the Wayú ethnic group) serving with UNFPA Venezuela. 

In order to overcome the challenges faced by the region, we need to streamline the approach within the UN, and encouraging UN agencies to integrate indigenous people would be a great solution. 

Accordingly, UNV promotes more UN agencies, funds and programmes to integrate indigenous people into their working teams, guaranteeing diversity and inclusiveness. By doing so, UNV could reinforce the capacity to understand the 2030 Agenda challenges from an intercultural perspective. 

Tamia Quilumbaquí, a UN Volunteer and indigenous woman of the Kichwa community, considers that her most significant contribution to the RCO in Ecuador is having invited her colleagues to a self-reflection: to rethink the solutions we propose from an intercultural view, where we respect the rights of indigenous people and include them in the decision-making processes. 

"As a UN Volunteer, I have been able to respond to the demands and concerns of indigenous communities in the planning processes, as well as in every other space where I could participate," Tamia says.

The value of UN Volunteers is evident not only within the UN agencies, but also in the communities they serve. 

"Having the chance to approach the UN generated trust within the community. Also, my presence as an indigenous woman volunteer has a bigger impact, since women have other kinds of needs," --Tamia Quilumbaquí, UN Volunteer and indigenous woman of the Kichwa community

On the other hand, being an indigenous UN Volunteer means knowing the challenges from their own experience in local communities. They know the place, speak the same language and are familiar with the local leaders and resources that are available. 

"I speak Kichwa, so it is easy for me to communicate with most of the indigenous communities I approach," comments Luis Alvarado, UN Community Volunteer of the Kichwa community, serving as a promoter in teen pregnancy prevention and sexual and reproductive rights for UNFPA Ecuador in Sucumbíos. 

As an indigenous UN Volunteer, Luis evoked interest in the United Nations among his fellows. "They asked me what I do in violence prevention and what they have to do to be part of it," Luis says.  

Now is the time to rethink how we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by the year 2030 and what kind of future we want to live in. Indeed, the collaborative, participative and intercultural work of the indigenous UN Volunteers and UN partner agencies will help to achieve the goal of no one being left behind.  

[1] Indigenous Latin America in the XXI century: the first decade, World Bank (2018) 

[2] The Indigenous World, World Bank (2020)

[3] Political participation and inclusion, UNDP (2020)