There are over 300 million people around the world who belong to indigenous groups. And yet, it’s only recently that countries and organizations have started keeping data on this demographic. The United Nations published its first report on the state of indigenous people in 2010, finally illustrating in numbers the significant disparities between this demographic and others. Much of the data collected so far also suggests that conditions for indigenous people may be getting worse each year. Here are five alarming facts about indigenous populations that we need to know:
1. Indigenous people make up about 5% of the world’s population yet account for about one third of the world’s extremely poor rural population.
In North America, almost 20% of Native Americans and Alaska Natives live in poverty, while 60% of Aboriginal children in Canadian cities live in poverty. In the U.S., Native Americans also make less than half the average income that non-indigenous people make.
In Australia and New Zealand, there’s a similar trend. In Australia, the unemployment rate among indigenous people in 2006 was over three times higher than the non-indigenous rate. In New Zealand, the unemployment rate for the country’s indigenous Maori population was twice as high as the national average.
In Latin America, the poverty rates for indigenous groups are also consistently higher than the rest of the population. In Paraguay, the rate is 7.9 times higher. Panama: 5.9 times higher. Mexico: 3.3 times higher. Guatemala: 2.8 times higher.
2. The life expectancy for indigenous people on average is around twenty years lower than that of non-indigenous people.
In Guatemala, there is a 13 year difference in life expectancy between indigenous and non-indigenous populations. As children, indigenous people in Latin America also have a 70% higher rate of child mortality. Similar numbers exist in Asia and Africa.
“First world” countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand also have abysmal statistics regarding the health of their indigenous populations. In fact, it’s a U.S. indigenous group — the Pima tribe of Arizona — that is noted for having one of the highest rates of diabetes in the world: 50% of Pima adults between the ages of 30-64 suffer from the disease. In the United States, Native Americans and Alaska Natives also have an astounding 510% higher rate of alcoholism, a 600% higher rate of tuberculosis, and a 189% higher rate of diabetes than the general population. In Australia, the life expectancy gap between indigenous and non-indigenous people is twenty years, while in New Zealand it’s eleven years.
Lower life expectancy rates are also affected by higher rates of suicide among indigenous groups: in Canada, Inuit people have a suicide rate that is eleven times higher than the national average.
3. Some estimates show that more than one in three indigenous women are likely to be raped during their lifetime.
In the United States, Native American women are more than twice as likely to be raped or sexually violated than women in the United States in general. In communities across Asia, Africa, and Latin America, rates of sexual violence are also higher among indigenous women. Women from this population are also more likely to experience other forms of sexual disempowerment, such as child marriage and genital mutilation.
4. Experts predict that around 90% of all existing languages (many indigenous) could become extinct within the next 100 years.
97% of the world’s population speaks only 4% of the world’s language. Most of the other 3% who speak 96% of the languages that currently exist today come from indigenous backgrounds. Without making education in these languages a priority, experts say that countries can expect that many of these languages will soon become extinct. In some communities, this has already happened: the last native speaker of the indigenous Alaskan language Eyak died in 2000.
5. These disparities between indigenous populations and others cannot be attributed only to lack of education or resources. Discrimination is also an important factor.
According to a report by the World Bank, even when an indigenous person successfully achieves a certain level of education, their earnings still end up far lower than non-indigenous people with the same education.
This suggests that indigenous people may not be receiving the same opportunities as people of other groups, regardless of their effort. The report argued then that only half of the gap in poverty rates between indigenous and non-indigenous people could be attributed to things like lack of education, area of residence, or other obvious factors that affect income. The rest is a result of more subtle forms of discrimination that may not exist legally, but still significantly impact people from these populations. As Matthew Parris wrote in his piece for The Spectator, “No law stops you rising as a South American Indian: only the softly suffocating disregard that those with power will feel toward you.”
The United Nations has documented the history of racism that indigenous groups have received over the last few centuries. It’s clear that without acknowledging that discrimination first, little progress can be achieved.