Ărramăt - Indigenous perspectives on sustainable development
November 28, 2023
This article is written in the context of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022–2023. It explains the ties between the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Indigenous languages based on the examples from SDG3 on good health and well-being for all and SDG4 on quality education. It also looks at the central role played by Indigenous women in the transmission of traditional Indigenous knowledge through language and in the achievement of the SDGs.
The article presents Indigenous approaches to sustainable development and examines how Indigenous Peoples and their approaches have been considered—or not considered—in the development and implementation of the SDGs.
The author concludes by inviting the reader to adopt new approaches for exploring more inclusive and transformative ways of ensuring everyone’s health and well-being, showcasing the Ărramăt research project as a promising example.
The Sustainable Development Goals are a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere. The 17 goals were adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which set out a 15-year plan to achieve the goals.1
International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-2032
Nearly 15 years after the United Nations Declarations on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was adopted, there are great discrepancies in the implementation of the recommendations between regions, countries and the types of rights.2 Indigenous delegates and their allies continue to actively demand that implementation frameworks be put into place locally, nationally and internationally. Their work has greatly contributed to bringing attention to the rights of Indigenous Peoples, especially their language and cultural rights.3 In 2022, their work led to the launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022–2023 (IDIL), as proclaimed by a resolution of the United Nations 2020 General Assembly.
The Decade's main goal is “to draw attention to the critical loss of Indigenous languages and [...] to preserve, revitalize, and promote Indigenous languages." 4
The international community adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, agreeing that the roadmap guiding sustainable development for the 2030 Agenda must not leave anyone behind, especially not Indigenous Peoples and their priorities.
2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
To realize sustainable development, the international community adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
The main questions:
- Does the 2030 Agenda include Indigenous perspectives?
- How do Indigenous languages contribute to the SDGs?
- What role do Indigenous women play in the preservation of their languages and in achieving the SDGs?
We will examine these questions and conclude with a research project called Ărramăt, which highlights traditional Indigenous knowledges and emphasizes how the holistic approach is indispensable in addressing emerging sustainability challenges that we face today.
The global context for development
The idea of development has evolved considerably, at the international level, over the last two decades. The Millennium Development Goals were anthropocentric—placing humans at the centre of the universe and banking on growth at all costs. This is expressed in its principle, which states that human beings worldwide must be at the heart of all development programs to help all people to live better.5 In contrast, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (2030 ASD), adopted in 2015, aims to be “a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity." 6
This new implementation framework for the right to development rests on 17 goals and 165 targets, all of which are relevant to Indigenous Peoples.7 These goals and targets present an opportunity for Indigenous people to accelerate the implementation of their rights outlined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.8
This more inclusive view of development, “an action plan for humanity, the planet and prosperity,” is more aligned with Indigenous perspectives.
Indigenous Peoples and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development
Indigenous Peoples welcomed the efforts to include them in consultations and preparatory work in establishing the SDGs and their targets.9 This resulted in the inclusion of several references to Indigenous Peoples in the resolution entitled, “Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,” as well as in the targets and follow-ups to the SDGs.10
- Are Indigenous Peoples vulnerable?
It is unfortunate that Indigenous people are considered vulnerable populations.11 Indigenous communities have been forced into extremely vulnerable positions, due to colonialism and systemic discrimination, making access to basic services, like education and healthcare difficult. That said, it’s important to note that these communities have incredible potential and continue to show resilience, strength and ingenuity, in spite of colonial challenges.
- Growth at any cost?
Another target12 is also problematic regarding equitable access to land, knowledge and financial means, including for Indigenous Peoples. It is problematic because it involves growth at any cost, contradicting Indigenous views around sustainable development.
- Leaving no one behind—taking Indigenous priorities regarding sustainable development into account
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development aims to leave no one behind. The accuracy of data is important as it is used to assess progress towards targets. With that, it is crucial that Indigenous development priorities be considered and that programs be measured according to those priorities, based on relevant data. “What you measure affects what you do. Where important aspects are not measured, appropriate action may not be taken. Yet skewed measurements can be even worse." 13
To meaningfully implement the sustainable development priorities of Indigenous Peoples, their perspectives must be embraced and room must be made for their traditional knowledges, cultures and languages.
The Mi’kmaq concept of Netukulimk
Netukulimk is how the Mi’kmaq view development. Netukulimk refers to “achieving adequate standards of community well-being without jeopardizing the integrity, diversity or productivity of our environment."14 The Mi’kmaq worldview affirms that we must consider the well-being of the community as well as that of other living beings and the environment. This view also suggests that while realizing sustainable development, human beings are responsible for becoming [translation] “the eye, the ear and the voice, for the ones that cannot defend themselves, in human form."15
The Kel Tamasheq (Tuareg) concept of Ărramăt
Similarly, the Kel Tamasheq (Tuareg) believe in Ărramăt, which is a state of well-being in human beings (dăg adăm), animals (irezedjen) and the environment (ihenzuzagh):16 In an interview with “people must live with the means they have (tèrché, éharé, arizédj, akal) all the while considering future generations (takassitt naharé, megh ichakrach).”17 According to this view, one must reach well-being without upsetting the equilibrium that exists between the various species in a given ecosystem. This also accounts for the other abiotic aspects of the environment, such as soil, water and climate, all the while ensuring that this harmony continues for future generations.
These two worldviews explain development as a concept where all elements must reach well-being—the living, the non-living, the environment. Humans are responsible for ensuring the well-being of other species for future generations.
Indigenous languages, health and well-being
SDG 3: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”
We need to place a strong focus on Indigenous languages and recognize how they contribute to the SDGs related to health and well-being and education.18
The right to good health is one of the fundamental rights set out in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). It is defined as “the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health.”19 Realizing this right relies on not discriminating against language, accessibility—including access to information—and culture.20
In addition, UNDRIP states that, “Indigenous individuals have an equal right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health” and that “[Member States] shall take effective measures to ensure that this right is protected and also to ensure that Indigenous Peoples can understand and be understood in political, legal and administrative proceedings, where necessary through the provision of interpretation or by other appropriate means.”21
In Canada, the Indigenous Languages Act is a response to calls to action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the implementation of UNDRIP and the International Year of Indigenous Languages 2019. The Act proposes that the Minister of Canadian Heritage and relevant parties collaborate to offer programs and services including providing healthcare in Indigenous languages.22
These three frameworks—ICESCR, UNDRIP and the Act—reaffirm the determining role language plays in Indigenous people’s health.
For Indigenous Peoples, language not only fosters communication and information, but also helps achieve and maintain well-being in the holistic sense, as expressed in Netukulimk and Ărramăt.
A Cree Elder from Whapmagoostui once said, “If the Earth isn’t healthy, how can we be?”23 For Indigenous Peoples, health and well-being are not limited to a single species. Health and well-being must be assessed from a spiritual perspective, which accounts for other species, the ecosystem and abiotic elements (soil, water, climate).
The traditional knowledges of Indigenous peoples are contained in their languages and passed down from generation to generation, mainly by oral tradition. For the Sámi, a reindeer herding people, pasturelands are selected based on the state of the snow, which they have more than 300 words for in their language.24 When parts of language are not passed down, knowledge is lost, which is vital to ecosystem stewardship and the maintenance of good health and well-being for everyone.
Indigenous languages and education
SDG 4: “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”
Reaching this SDG is closely tied to Indigenous languages and cultural rights.
According to UNDRIP, “Indigenous peoples have the right to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own languages, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning.”25
Beyond language rights set out in UNDRIP, a substantial amount of research work has concluded that access to education in one’s mother tongue increases attendance and academic success. Such is the case in a study carried out in Peru, which revealed that Indigenous learners with access to education in their mother tongue had “improved overall academic performance.” This type of education also contributes to “reduced gender and urban/rural disparities in learning outcomes” and helps to build “increased student self-esteem and more active participation in class.”26
What’s more, educating an Indigenous learner in a culture and language that are new to them without accounting for their own culture and language is not only assimilation but could also be an obstacle to success. Indigenous learners who must communicate in French or English (as is the case in Canada) must first process their thoughts through their mother tongue (whether they speak it or not), adding a level of difficulty to the schoolwork.27
When I was in elementary school, in Tamanrasset, my (non-Indigenous) teachers always used examples from towns in the northern part of the country, with large buildings and beaches, etc. These things were unknown to me and difficult to imagine. I asked my father to take me to these places. After I came back, I was a top student. My other friends in the class weren’t so lucky.28
- Massaoud Guemama
What emerges from this is that Indigenous languages, along with culture and traditional knowledges, are a fundamental lever for reaching various targets of the SDG on education for Indigenous learners.
At local, national and international levels, this would mean developing educational policies that are more inclusive of Indigenous knowledges, pedagogies and approaches, in addition to times and places of transmission of knowledge.
The role Indigenous women play in implementing the SDGs on health, well-being and education
The success of any program intended for a given community depends on the support of its members. The implementation of the right to self-determination and the principle of the free, prior and informed consent of Indigenous Peoples requires that members of any Indigenous community be meaningfully involved at all stages of any project concerning them. This is especially true when the project concerns Indigenous languages. The basis of any Indigenous-language revitalization program is the language speakers, as they are the ones for whom the program is intended.
Elders play a crucial role in programs like this. Annick Chiron argues that Elders and community educators who know a language must be involved, as they are the ones who can influence cultural curriculum.29 The 2006 Canada census revealed that knowledge of an Indigenous language is more common among older generations of First Nations people.30
In addition to elders, women are key figures in the preservation and transmission of Indigenous languages. Case in point, one’s mother tongue refers to the fact that this is the first language spoken by a child, passed down from its mother from the gestational phase.”31
Whether Indigenous women belong to nomadic communities (herders, hunters, gatherers, etc.) or sedentary ones (farmers), they are the ones who often spend the most time with their children. As a result, the words children learn come from the conversations between women in their community (mothers, sisters, cousins, grandmothers). The privileged place of Indigenous women in many matrilineal Indigenous communities—where maternal descent is important—makes them pillars of their families and communities.
Women play major roles as guardians of language and culture, custodians of traditional knowledges, advisors, chiefs and so on. For example, among the Kel Tamasheq, tifinagh (Tamasheq script) is often taught to children by their mothers in the sand. Similarly, it is usually the women who tell the children stories, which are vital teaching tools.
When it comes to health and well-being, women are often the ones to look after the sick. This has enabled them to accumulate knowledge not only about caring for community members, but also for the environment, from which they draw many ingredients used in traditional medicines. This is an illustration of how communities maintain symbiotic relationships.
Indigenous women are children’s first contact with language and traditional knowledge. Due to this privileged position, they contribute enormously to the SDGs on health and well-being and education. This contribution must be recognized, valued and strengthened.
The roads to transformation
The ambition to achieve the Sustainable Development Agenda and leave no one behind is an opportunity to implement the rights of Indigenous Peoples set out in the UNDRIP. However, to do so, important changes must be made in order to include and incorporate Indigenous worldviews and holistic approaches towards development that ensures the well-being of the relationships between all species in an ecosystem and Mother Earth.
It then requires policymakers to draw on research data that is inclusive of different types of knowledges, including traditional Indigenous knowledges developed over millennia.
The effectiveness of traditional Indigenous knowledge is proven, given that Indigenous people have preserved 80% of the global biodiversity even though they only live on 22% of the land.32
The Ărramăt research project is an example of how partnerships can highlight Indigenous knowledges and the centrality of Mother Earth in sustaining health and well-being. The Ărramăt research project is both innovative and transformative.33 It enables Indigenous Peoples’ organizations and their allies to document their traditional knowledges, synthesize the data resulting from that work and build and make available toolkits that are relevant to various themes. These toolkits, called “pathways of transformation,” are all linked to one other and to the central concept of Ărramăt. Committing to and funding such a project is not only a significant step towards reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people, but also an opportunity to fulfil our responsibility to care for Mother Earth in a sustainable way.
Take care of Mother Earth sustainably.
This article was written on the unceded ancestral territory of the Algonquin people.
1976: International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR)
2000: Millennium Development Goals (MDGs)
2007: United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)
2015: 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
2019: International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL)
2022: International Decade of Indigenous Languages (IDIL)
2007–2015: Truth and Reconciliation Commission
2019: Indigenous Languages Act
2021: United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act comes into effect
About the Author
Mariam Wallet Aboubakrine is a Tuareg woman from Timbuktu, Mali. She has a multidisciplinary education background: traditional Tuareg education, graduate of the Medical School (Université Mouloud Mammeri Tizi-Ouzou in Algeria), a Master degree in Humanitarian Action (University of Geneva), and a Bachelor in Education (University of Ottawa).
Mariam is a former President of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.
Currently, Mariam is representing the Africa region at the Indigenous Coordinated body on Indigenous Peoples’ enhanced participation at the United Nations, and as Co-Chair of the Global Task Force for making the International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-2032.
Also, she is Co-chair of the UNESCO Chair on the Collaboration for Indigenous-Led Biodiversity Conservation, Health and Well-being at the University of Alberta.
Mariam is Lead author at the IPBES Thematic assessment of the interlinkages among biodiversity, water, food and health. She is also a Co-Principal Investigator of a global research project named: Ărramăt: Indigenous Conservation and the Health of Indigenous Peoples.