Who are the indigenous and tribal peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean?

©FAO/ Mauricio Mireles
Indigenous woman leader from the Guna People, Púcuro Indigenous Territory, Darién Province, Panama.

According to the United Nations (UN), more than 5 000 different peoples, with a population of over 370 million people, divided between 70 countries on five continents, fall under the category of “indigenous peoples” (UNIPP, 2012). These peoples are quite diverse. Each has their own culture, language, history, worldview, and productive, food, and medicinal systems. Nevertheless, they share a series of common characteristics and problems, which are the basis for their struggles and for the international policies that concern them.

While there are various meanings of the term “indigenous” or “indigenous peoples”, the term has come to be used internationally in the context of global debates about the rights of ethnic minorities, tribal peoples, natives, aborigines, and indigenous populations. These are groups that have been, and continue to be, discriminated and marginalized, as the result of colonialism and postcolonial processes of building and developing modern nation states.

The International Labor Organization (ILO) was the main forum for international discussions about indigenous and tribal peoples between the 1920s and the approval of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, and was responsible for the only international legal instruments focused exclusively on the rights of these people. In June 1989, the ILO approved Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, which has been a key legal instrument references by organizations, agencies, and states that work on these issues ever since.

Article 1 of ILO Convention 169 establishes in broad terms the indigenous and tribal peoples to which the convention applies as follows:

  1. tribal peoples in independent countries whose social, cultural and economic conditions distinguish them from other sections of the national community, and whose status is regulated wholly or partially by their own customs or traditions or by special laws or regulations;
  2. peoples in independent countries who are regarded as indigenous on account of their descent from the populations which inhabited the country, or a geographical region to which the country belongs, at the time of conquest or colonization or the establishment of present state boundaries and who, irrespective of their legal status, retain some or all of their own social, economic, cultural and political institutions (ILO, 2014).”

The Convention’s first article also establishes self-identification as indigenous or tribal as a fundamental criterion for determining which groups the Convention’s provisions should apply to. Many other international instruments and many indigenous and tribal peoples have also adopted this criterion.

There are 826 different indigenous peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean, with an estimated population of 58 million people (ECLAC, 2014) (Table 1). These peoples share common concerns that form the basis of their global and regional agendas. These include various aspects of the right to self-determination:

  • Political: right to autonomy and self-government.
  • Territorial: territorial rights and natural resources.
  • Economical: right to own development model.
  • Cultural: right to own cultural identity.
  • Legal: right to own legal system.
  • Participatory: right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC), and right to consultation.

Table 1. Indigenous peoples in Latin America and the Caribbean, 2014.


These rights are fundamental for indigenous and tribal peoples’ dignity and quality of life.

As mentioned previously, this report focuses on the indigenous peoples that live in territories with forest cover. Probably only between three and seven million of Latin America’s 58 million indigenous inhabitants live in these territories (ECLAC and FILAC, 2020; Thiede and Gray, 2020). On average, the forest communities suffer from some of the highest levels of multidimensional poverty on the continent, even compared to other indigenous groups. At the turn of the 21st century, only about 43 percent of the indigenous population fifteen years of older in these areas had completed primary school, and only 56 percent had access to electricity (Thiede and Gray, 2020).

©️FAO/ Ana Reyes
Young people from Yurumanguí learn about community forest management in the forests that surround them in the Cauca Valley, Colombia.

As far that the tribal peoples are concerned, the Brazilian Quilombolos, Surinam’s Maroons, Garifuna Central American, and many Afro-Colombians and Afro-Ecuadorians, manage forest territories communally and relate to the forests in ways similar to indigenous peoples, and are concentrated in countries whose political constitutions recognize their collective territorial rights. Nevertheless, the area of forest these groups manage is less than 10 percent of what the indigenous peoples manage, and much less is known about these groups and their territories. There are no good statistics that show what portion of Latin America and the Caribbean’s 27 million rural afro-descendants should be considered “tribal” under international standards, but it is probably only a few million of them (Freire et al., 2018).