Indigenous unsustainability?

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.


3 responses to “Indigenous unsustainability?

  1. I *loved* this post – very stimulating! It raises all sorts of thorny issues about how far an individual is obliged to participate in political structures in the development of which they may have had no stake and which for most purposes is weighted against them. Indigenous peoples are, as you rightly say, not living in a Rousseau-esque fantasy world. From my perspective, some of those societies feel more comfortable to me than others. But to argue that everyone has an obligation to participate in the nation in which one happens to find oneself is, if I may say, a little harsh. I was born in the UK: our system is based on the concept that I can do anything I please provided the state has not prohibited it (murder, for instance). It is only relatively recently (less than twenty years) that a capitation tax was introduced (Council Tax) which forced me to participate in the money economy – until then I could, theoretically, have lived here without ever having to deal with the stuff. On much of mainland Europe there is a different legal tradition, that individuals live within a code drawn up by the state. Philosophically this is quite different.

    Now, turning to indigenous peoples, many of them exist in nations which happily practised genocide against other indigenous people, and where many of them still turn a blind eye to such practices. Botswana is currently engaged in a forcible resettlement programme that is apparently being carried out to help the tribespeople to live “better” lives, but which in fact may not be unrelated to getting them off their traditional land (which turns out to be rich in mineral resources). You say I have to learn to read and write to participate in the state as a citizen: I say fuck you (but in a nice way…) – it’s my decision whether or not I participate in the state, or how far I choose to engage with it.

    Your point about other people having to suffer through no fault of their own because the planet is at risk is a good one. Your solution is “tough, we’re all in this together”. I’m not sure I buy that. Those of us who bear more responsibility for causing the problem, and who get the benefits (like air travel), should, it seems to me, bear more of the responsibility for the solution. While everyone may have to make adjustments, it strikes me that the contribution of indigenous peoples to climate-changing greenhouse gas emissions is likely to be a fraction of the amount that you & I cause. Why would we think it reasonable to destroy their entire way of life to solve a problem that you and I and our ancestors have caused, and from which you and I disproportionately benefit? Isn’t there a Biblical story about addressing the beam in our own eye before tackling the mote in someone else’s?


    I go through similar philosophical contortions while trying to reconcile other issues: like, what, if anything, should be done about traditional practices which include female circumcision (or, indeed, male circumcision – as practiced by, for example, Jewish people in the UK, or the overwhelming majority of people of many persuasions in the US)? Or which condemn some people to death for social or lifestyle choices? How far do any of us have a right – let alone a duty – to interfere in these issues? Didn’t that Tony Blair address some of these in his famous Chicago speech? I found myself agreeing with much of what he said, while disagreeing with some of the ways in which he has put those principles into practice (such as Iraq).

    Blimey, your new site really is getting into the difficult stuff. I can’t wait to see what else is coming.

  2. Hey Paul, thank you for your input, it’s really valuable. And for the encouragement. Indeed, I want to start getting into the difficult stuff, and this blog is the first step towards a more open, innovative, even provocative thinking process.

    And indeed, there is a degree to which I like to provoke a reaction in my reader with some of my statements. While I agree with most of your points on indigenous societies not bearing the responsibilities that we bear, I think it’s no longer tenable to argue that they – or anyone else for that matter – should be able to carry on their business as usual. It’s not only about participating in the affairs of their nation to safeguard their own interests (I suspect there might be some piece of legislation in Botswana’s legal system which could be used against their “re-settlement”, if only they knew how to exploit the system, but this in turn requires education, etc. etc.), it’s also about recognising that we’ve entered a new, global dimension of world history, which has far-reaching implications for what you refer to as national political philosophies. This does no longer stand. Terrorism knows no boundaries. Climate change knows no boundaries. Financial flows know no boundaries. Viruses know no boundaries. The list can go on for ever, but the implications are clear: hiding behind national screens won’t do no good. You might argue that this has been the case for centuries, but what sets us apart, I think, is the speed at which these changes are taking place and the implications of the new technologies (especially information and data management technologies) at our disposal.

    I realise I am writing an entire new entry on the subject, so I’ll just leave it here. Good food for thought though. Just what I need…

  3. For me, that book highlighted the moronic patterns “we” get into when pursuing international development (which doesn’t mean that we should just forget it and not get involved). And while the photos in that book were sensational, we all know what it feels like going through development participatory strategies and strategic frameworks that seem to forget the more holistic analysis needed to increase the choices less developed communities have in this increasingly globalized world.

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