Indigenous People : A look at their world!

Posted on July 15, 2010

By Avani Bansal:

The term “indigenous peoples” describes racially distinct populations whose long-term histories connect them with identified areas of land situated within the borders of globally recognized nations. Within this construct, the “indigenous peoples” concept relies on temporal, cultural, racial, and territorial elements as identifiers of particular indigenous communities. Of central importance among these elements in defining a community of people as indigenous is that community’s various associations with a particular environment. Both a people’s historical connection with its environment and the nature of its relationship with the environment — whether static or nomadic, for example, or exclusive or shared — are core features of an indigenous people’s identity. No single agreed-upon definition of the term “indigenous peoples” exists. According to the Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues, four elements are included in the definition of indigenous peoples: (1) pre-existence; (2) non-dominance; (3) cultural difference; and (4) self-identification as indigenous. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Problem of Discrimination Against Indigenous Populations notes that the term indigenous applies to those people who are isolated socially or to marginal groups that have managed to preserve their traditions in spite of being incorporated into states dominated by other societies.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the nongovernmental organization Survival International use the term “tribal and indigenous peoples” (and in the past also used “semi-tribal peoples”).  The UN, the World Bank, and many indigenous groups prefer to use the term “indigenous peoples.” The World Bank’s Operational Directive on Indigenous Peoples stresses that no single definition is appropriate to cover the diversity of indigenous peoples. It then goes on to point out that these peoples can be identified by the following characteristics: (1) close attachment to ancestral territories and natural resources; (2) self-identification and identification by others as members of a distinct cultural group; (3) possession of an indigenous language, which is often distinct from a national language; (4) presence of customary social or political institutions; and (5) subsistence-oriented production systems.

It is important to note that some indigenous peoples do not fit these criteria. Substantial numbers of indigenous peoples have been dispossessed so that they no longer retain their ancestral territories. They also have been denied access to natural resources in many of the countries in which they live. In Africa, for example, wildlife rights generally are restricted by the state, and indigenous people can be arrested and jailed for illegal hunting. Most African, Asian, and Native American indigenous peoples have market-oriented production systems. There are also indigenous peoples who do not have what many anthropologists would define as tribal sociopolitical systems (such as some Bushmen groups in southern Africa, Hadza in Tanzania, Penan in Sarawak, and Agta in the Philippines). Rather, they have relatively egalitarian systems and tend to lack sodalities (non-kin-based social units such as age grades and gender-based systems) and clan-type social institutions.

Indigenous peoples generally possess ethnic, religious, or linguistic characteristics that are different from the dominant groups in the societies where they exist. They also tend to have a sense of cultural identity or social solidarity that many members attempt to maintain. In some cases, members of indigenous groups try to hide their identity so as not to suffer racial prejudice or poor treatment at the hands of others. In other cases, they proclaim their ethnic affiliation proudly and openly.

Deforestation is directly linked to the disappearance or extinction of indigenous cultures and livelihoods. As one author writes, “It is no accident . . . that indigenous peoples are disappearing at an even faster rate than the tropical forests upon which they depend. Their own survival is intricately linked with that of their forests.” When traditional forest – based livelihoods are disrupted, the people who depend on them are usually uprooted. In this situation, not only are traditional livelihoods of indigenous people lost, but also the culture and history that accompanies them.

A 1993 ILO report revealed that, as compared to national populations, the world’s indigenous people have higher rates of infant mortality, unemployment, alcoholism, diseases, ill health, and incarceration. Indigenous groups in the poorest developing countries confront more severe hardships than their counterparts in developed countries: The term “Fourth World” has been used to describe the social and economic conditions endured by indigenous peoples.  Yet even in the most developed countries — for example, the United States, Canada, and Australia — the indigenous standard of living, including economic, educational, and other basic human standards, often are inferior to those of the general population, and a pale shadow of the status and privileges of dominant groups in the society.

The central issue facing indigenous peoples in the 21st century is their right to ancestral lands and the security of their land ownership. Land ownership is intertwined with the ideal of self-determination of indigenous peoples, along with their ability to choose the extent of their participation in the lives of the nations that have grown up around them, their ability to preserve their unique cultural heritage without outside interference, and their ability to choose the lifestyles that they desire. Also of persistent concern is the degradation of the physical environment of the territories of indigenous peoples by outside economic development. In order to foster economic development, developing countries need access to the lands and natural resources that lie within their territories. However, where these resources and lands lie within the territories of indigenous peoples, conflicts arise and governments are confronted with choosing between protecting indigenous land policies and pursuing development.

Another major challenge is to reduce discrimination against the indigenous peoples on the part of non-indigenous politicians, civil servants, and “mainstream” civil society. Without this, the enjoyment of basic human rights will remain out of reach for most indigenous peoples and members thereof. In some respects, this is perhaps even more difficult than achieving formal self-government rights. Therefore, in some areas, it may be prudent to invest a greater quantity of time, effort, and energy for long term sensitization of the society through reforms in the education curricula and changes in the pattern of media coverage, in alliance with others, than to attempt to change the attitudes of a limited number of political leaders and government officials. Of course, both are necessary, but given limitations of fiscal and human resources, it is perhaps best to concentrate more on long term macro-level changes rather than short term micro-level changes.

When we ignore the struggle of others, we default on our own claims. There are developments in international law supportive of indigenous peoples. These developments are leading to the creation of useful mechanisms to ensure that native peoples are heard, and have primary control over the management and development of their resources. Some native peoples may neither need nor want to use these mechanisms, but their creation is of potentially great importance to others who need external support not only to maintain, but in some instances, regain control over their local resources and destinies.

We need to work even harder, for we are swimming against a powerful tide. The long-term prospects for most indigenous occupants is bleak. The extraordinary growth and development of civil societies public interest law groups, and indigenous peoples’ organizations in countries around the world, provide reasons to sustain the belief that our planet Earth can be a more just and healthy home to all human beings. So I conclude with a farewell that is popular in the Philippines: “May your tribe increase.” It is time we realize that indigenous people are not only part of the environment but also a part of us thereby turning our ears to their plights which seem to be immortalized in the following words of one of them –

“The fish seem half-drunk, you can catch them with your hands . . . the fish are contaminated. The hunting game is gone. The water polluted. We have to talk to environmentalists to make them understand we are part of nature with the forests and the animals.”

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