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The concept of collective rights emerged because individual human rights do not guarantee adequate protection for indigenous peoples and other minorities exhibiting collective characteristics. These groups face various threats to their livelihoods, to their environments, to their health and to their security, and their very survival may depend upon the recognition and protection of their collective rights.

Collective rights guarantee the development and preservation of ethnic minorities’ cultural identities and forms of organizations. A few existing legal instruments recognize these rights, including Article 169 of the International Labour Organization and the political constitutions of several nations including Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. In Colombia for example, collective rights have been invoked in the struggles of the Nukak Makuk, Uwa and Embera people.

Collective rights are intergenerational. Land rights must be understood from this perspective, as present generations have inherited the territory of previous ones, and are obliged to pass it on to future generations. For that reason, indigenous territory should not be classified as property but rather as inheritance or patrimony. In the cosmic vision of many indigenous peoples, territory is not only a physical space but also where productive systems like fishing, hunting, agriculture, extractive activities and so forth are carried out in a self-reliant manner.

Collective rights over biodiversity are the result of the preservation and maintenance of knowledge, innovations and other practices based in nature. The conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity is incorporated into the traditional lifestyles of collectivities including indigenous and black communities, famers and local people, and this invaluable contribution to global sustainability must be recognized.

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Further reading

This page is an extract from the Friends of the Earth International publication ‘our environment, our rights’.

The Cartagena Declaration on human and environmental rights.