The fact that the cultures of indigenous peoples are in danger of dying out cannot fail to be a matter of concern to UNESCO. These populations number some 350 million individuals in more than 70 countries in the world and represent more than 5000 languages and cultures. Today many of them live on the fringes of society and are deprived of basic human rights, particularly cultural rights.
"It is essential to know and understand the deeply spiritual special relationship between indigenous peoples and their land as basic to their existence as such and to all their beliefs, customs, traditions and culture. […] Their land is not a commodity which can be acquired, but a material element to be enjoyed freely." Study of the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations, J. M. Cobo, United Nations Special Rapporteur (1987).
- The International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People was officially launched on 10 December 1994 by the United Nations General Assembly. It is in this framework that International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples is celebrated every year on 9 August, being the anniversary of the opening of the first session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1982.
- In partnership with the United Nations and its agencies, UNESCO plays a key role in the Decade which is intended to "strengthen international cooperation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous people in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education and health". In this respect the programme of activities of the International Decade of the World’s Indigenous People recognizes the value and diversity of the cultures of indigenous communities and of their specific forms of social organization, and attaches value to the contributions that they can make to humanity.
- UNESCO is willing to take account of proposals made by indigenous peoples in order to draw up specific programmes of action that conciliate promotion of their cultural identity and accession to full and complete citizenship in the Member States. In this respect the project to constitute within the United Nations system a permanent authority on behalf of indigenous peoples is a vital step forward that will ensure them a better hearing, besides promoting their interests.
- The indigenous peoples hold a significant place in the planetary cultural landscape and are representative of cultural diversity. They personify a global vision of the world and of humankind that continues to be intimately linked to nature and the earth to which we all belong.
- When taking office as Director-General, Mr Koïchiro Matsuura pointed out that, in the view of UNESCO, cultural diversity and exchange are in fact related and inseparable ideas. Each of us has something to learn, just as each of us has something to give to others. We are duty-bound at present to hearken to these populations with their original view of civilization that lies between tradition and modernity.