I picked up from my friend Paul’s blog a link to an interesting cartoon on Survival International‘s website. It tells the tale of a happy indigenous community wrecked by the arrival of development practicioners determined to drag them at all costs into a developed globalised world. The experts, forcibly introducing participatory assessments and all sorts of other jargonic development practices, manage to destroy the delicate balance of social and environmental sustainability in which these people live, for ever condemning them to a life of miserable sub-urban gloom.
Although there is some truth in the idea that NGOs and IGOs have sometimes caused more harm than good to local communities, despite their good intentions, I am a little weary of such simplified perspectives. Plus, I find this Rousseauesque idea of indigenous communities living in harmony with nature and all happy-go-lucky until touched by the bad white man frankly ludicrous. Just read what Jared Diamond has to say on the topic in both Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, where he offers plenty of scientific evidence – excellent the example of Easter Island – that this is often not the case. When given the opportunity, human societies have a tendency to over-exploit the environment in which they live, particularly if they have little knowledge of what environmental sustainability actually means. This should not come as a surprise to us at all: most animals have a tendency to do the same when given the opportunity, and it’s only thanks to a sophisticated balance between resources, population size, preys and predators that this usually does not happen. Otherwise, humans – whether indigenous or not – are no better than rabbits in Australia, and the current state of the global environment is a clear proof of how true this is.
Since indigenous groups no longer live in air-tight pockets of isolation, like they did up to relatively recently, it is at best naive to expect them to carry on living their blissful lives as if nothing – global warming, natural resources management, etc. – concerned them. For a start, they usually live in some of the last outposts of wilderness, which beg to be protected from the advancing threat of corporate greed. Moreover, regardless of how isolated they might be, they are still citizens of a nation, with their rights and duties, and their participation in the democratic structures of their state should be encouraged. But in order to fully participate, indigenous peoples need to learn how to read and write, what their rights are, why a certain medical practice will save their lives, and – more to the point – how to preserve their ancestral traditions in the context of a changing world. In other words, like all of us, they need to adapt to a new global dimension.
Which begs the following question: in a progressively globalised world, can environmental conservation and traditional indigenous rights live side-by-side? In an interesting article, published a few months ago on Orion Magazine, Mark Dowie argues that the new enemies of indigenous peoples – alongside the traditional oil, logging and mining companies – are indeed conservation NGOs:
- It’s no secret that millions of native peoples around the world have been pushed off their land to make room for big oil, big metal, big timber, and big agriculture. But few people realize that the same thing has happened for a much nobler cause: land and wildlife conservation. Today the list of culture-wrecking institutions put forth by tribal leaders on almost every continent includes not only Shell, Texaco, Freeport, and Bechtel, but also more surprising names like Conservation International (CI), The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Even the more culturally sensitive World Conservation Union (IUCN) might get a mention.
What I find extremely patronizing is that we are very quick at condemning Japan’s whaling practices, less so when the hunters are – say – Inuit or Makah in Alaska. Allegedly, that is because the latter use whales purely for subsistence, rather than for commercial purposes like the Japanese. But I can’t help thinking that we are applying two different measures to the same problem: if whales are endangered, as we know they are, surely no one should be allowed to hunt them until their numbers are restored. The moment one human group gets special treatment, the risk is that all will demand special treatment. True, it’s not the Inuit’s fault that whales are endangered, but finger-pointing is not what will solve our global problems. Clearly, a lot more honest (alas, brutally so) thinking needs to go into what we consider an appropriate and sustainable relationship between us and our host planet, in relation to which we are all indigenous people.