Kenya, Samburu warriors (moran)

Kenya, Samburu Warriors(moran), By Dietmar Temps (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Indigenous Peoples in Comparative Perspective - Problems and Policies, UNDP. (Stavenhagen R., 2004)


Indigenous People are Diverse and Defy Accepted Definition.


Bangladesh, portrait of an old man

Bangladesh, By Dietmar Temps (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

new guinea man 01

new guinea man, By Carl Parkes (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

World's Indigenous Peoples Participate in Launching of International Year

World's Indigenous Peoples Participate in Launching of International Year, By United Nations Photo (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Stavenhagen provides a background to the plight of, and a context to ongoing discussion concerning indigenous peoples. A starting point to any examination of a situation is to develop a framework of definitions on which to build a logical methodology, to approach associated problems and issues hopefully leading to a direction of reconciliation, resolution and fulfillment. However, from the outset Stavenhagen notes that the very subjects at issue defy an accepted international definition, which is further blurred by the term “indigenous” being used interchangeably with other terms such as “aboriginal” and “native”. Moreover, any attempt at commonality is flawed by the differing nature of each culture under consideration, and the historical interaction with the peoples and dominating societies that impacted them.

Confusion also occurs where scholars disagree on the categorization of various tribal groupings, and in a number of cases (particularly Africa) political motivations cloud interpretations due to a fear of resurgent tribalism, combined with the fact that most Africans affirm their own belief that they are indigenous to Africa.

Despite insuring difficulties, the UN working Group on indigenous Populations has postulated four guiding principles for the classification of a people as being indigenous :

  • That it is clear that they have existed at the area and location, before others who now exist in the same space.
  • They maintain, adopt and advocate their specific cultural characteristics and identity, such as language, religion, custom law and social organization.
    That they identify themselves as being a collection of people that are distinct and separate. There is also a need for other groups (whether state authorities or otherwise) to also recognize this.
  • To have been subjected at some time in their history (regardless of the situation at the present time), to aspects of discrimination, dispossession, exclusion or marginalization.

Aspects of Indigenous People’s Traditional Land.


Colorful fishing boats on Lake Victoria, Kenya

Colorful fishing boats on Lake Victoria, Kenya, By Dietmar Temps (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

burma sunset fishermen

burma sunset fishermen, Kenya, By Carl Parkes (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Forest near Village of Ngon

Forest near Village of Ngon, Kenya, By CIFOR (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

International Year of the World's Indigenous People, 1993

International Year of the World's Indigenous People, 1993, By United Nationa Photo (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

A critical element in respect of the future of most indigenous peoples, surrounds their relationship to the land. Most indigenous people have a close connection to the land as a part of their way of life, and a considerable part of issues regarding their very existence surrounds access, ownership, development and use of lands, which have been associated with from a time prior to interaction with newer groups of mankind. Most indigenous societies derive their livelihood from the land, and the issue of land rights is central to many conflicts and is deeply political. Important aspects include :

  • The actual ownership of land and territory.
  • The impact of outside technology (especially agricultural modernization), on traditional land use and the consequent impact on their sustainability. The trend of globalization, and large scale agricultural land management has significantly eliminated the existence of cultural practices.
  • Historically, land is often owned collectively within indigenous cultures. The introduction of legal frameworks (which are aligned more to private rather than collective ownership) displaces many from their traditional land, resulting in separation and consequent displacement.
  • Indigenous populations are generally location and territory specific, and their existence is steeped in the concept of possessing a homeland. Significant difficulties arise in present day realities (of established communities), to provide for or even recognize indigenous homeland areas. Suppression of rights to homeland territories permeates at various levels, right through to governmental legislation.
  • Associated with the loss of homeland territory is the associated aspect of the destruction of homeland forests to logging, and irrecoverable damage due to mineral exploitation. Even when ancestral rights are recognized, these may not include possession of water resources, or resources which exist below ground level. Where a guarantee of access is included as a part of legislation, it is difficult for communities to have any input to aspects of land use.

The Effect of Development on Indigenous Populations.


Ethiopian Tribes, Suri

Ethiopian Tribes, Suri, By Dietmar Temps (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

india tamil nadu girls

india tamil nadu girls, By Carl Parkes (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Tres Islas native community

Tres Islas native community, By CIFOR (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Forestry for Sustainable Future

Forestry for Sustainable Future, By CIFOR (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Indigenous populations in general, live in rural locations, and where they have been able to preserve their culture and normal way of living, it is largely due to their remoteness. However, with time, development is increasingly being directed towards these relatively unexplored regions to extract opportunities. Multi-national companies, governmental developments, infrastructural constructions, and general population pressures are impinging on traditional indigenous lands. Projects are increasing in their size and scale, and inevitably affect local populations. Stavenhagen notes that :

“Sometimes the impact will be beneficial, very often it is devastating, but it is never negligible.”

Despite this, few governments take the rights and interests of indigenous people into account when planning or approving such developmental progress. The indigenous populations are marginalized in any consultation, but bear an unbalanced proportion of the costs (both economic and social) in regard to resource intensive and extractive activities, such as mining, oil and gas development, large dams and other infrastructural projects. At the same time they often do not share in the benefits afforded by the same projects.

Where developments are not balanced, and impacts are not catered for, there are serious hazards imposed on indigenous populations, including at best environmental degradation and destruction of ecosystems, and at worst, the cumulative pollution and poisoning from the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides. Often not considered are the human diseases, such as smallpox and aids, that migrate through indigenous populations when greater contact with outside communities occur.

Naturally, when development occurs without consultation, approval and consultation, conflict results often ending with further violations of human rights. Forced evictions off traditional lands is often a breach of civil and political rights (UN Committee on economic, Social and Cultural Rights).

A particularly difficult situation occurs when the enforcement of environmental conservation law prevents indigenous farmers, hunters, fishermen or gathers from using their “custom” land or resources in traditional ways. This effectively turns them and their way of life into something that is deemed to be illegal, and punishable in the courts.

Established Precedents in regards to Establishing Rights.


Malawi, old Chewa man

Malawi, old Chewa man, By Dietmar Temps (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Forestry for Sustainable Future

Forestry for Sustainable Future, By CIFOR (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

indonesia bali man gamelan

indonesia bali man gamelan, By Carl Parkes (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Internally Displaced Indigenous in Colombia

Internally Displaced Indigenous in Colombia, By United Nations Photo (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

As the plight of such minorities are being more widely publicized, interest has increased, and frameworks have developed to better take into account their rights and needs. The “Tribal Peoples Convention 169” advanced by the International Labour Organization (ILO), is held as a foundation document in moving forward and a number of critical standpoints are included in recognition of rights of Indigenous populations to :

  • Determine their own priorities in regard to development as it affects them (in all facets of their lives).
  • Participate in the formulation, implementation and evaluation of plans, and programs for national and regional development.
  • Impact assessments of projects are carried out jointly with the communities that are affected. The results of the impact studies being paramount in the implementation of any schemes.
  • Governments are to ensure that the environments of affected peoples are protected and preserved.
  • Governments shall consult the peoples concerned whenever consideration is being given to legislative or administrative measures which may directly affect them.
  • Governments shall establish means by which affected peoples can freely participate, at least to the same extent as other sectors of the population at all levels of decision making in elective institutions, and administrative bodies.

Stavenhagen notes that implementation of legislation in favour of indigenous populations has found to be difficult in practice, and there is sometimes a lack of will to adopt applicable laws. This is further complicated when subsequent legislation (consciously or otherwise) affects other critical aspects, undermining the core premises of the original.

Critically, indigenous people often now raise land rights issues prior to any consent to land use being given, to ensure that they have participation in any decision making process and further, to share in any potential benefits. This has now extended to much greater claims of rights, where at the twentieth session of the Working Group on Indigenous Populations an overwhelming majority of indigenous participant stated that :

“ …… their right to self-determination is a pre-condition for the realization of all other human rights, and must be considered as the bedrock that ensures their self-governance, whereby they can participate in decision-making processes in policies that directly affect them. ….. “

The Concept of “Homeland”


Joshua Tree National Park

Joshua Tree National Park, By Dietmar Temps (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

morocco03

morocco03, By Dietmar Temps (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

The concept of homeland has a number of dimensions for indigenous peoples:

  • Provides land for productive pursuit of agriculture, forestry and other mechanisms of income generation.
  • Has a historical and spiritual link to them and their community, and which as a consequence provides a social space in which they are able to thrive.

There is divided opinion in regard to the recognition of indigenous territorial rights, with a body of opinion believing that the full protection of the human rights of indigenous peoples cannot be achieved without it. Others are concerned that the unity and integrity of existing states may be threatened. Experience to date has not indicated this to be the case.

Poverty and Sustainable Development.


Madagascar, fisherman

Madagascar, fisherman, By Dietmar Temps (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Nomad people in Changtang, Ladakh

Nomad people in Changtang, Ladakh, By Dietmar Temps (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Indigenous peoples are often found to form the lowest stratums in society, and are often at or below recognized poverty lines. Specific indicators include :-

  • High infant mortality levels.
  • Lower than average nutritional levels.
  • Lack of public services.
  • Difficulty in accessing social welfare.
  • Inadequate housing and shelter.

Many countries recognize failings and have enacted polices and measure to alleviate such suffering, but still, in a substantial number of countries, the fate of indigenous people is neglected. Development of Latin America has been particularly uneven.

The downward spiral has not been helped by globalization, where tariffs have been eliminated in international conventions and agreements, while more developed countries continue to persist in providing subsidies to their own farmers. For many developing countries, this removes any platform of future progression as the scale and production methods utilized by major industry effectively precludes smaller less efficient farmers. As a consequence, there is much controversy surrounding the direction and policy of the World Trade Organization. Debate now surrounds the need for economic growth to be equitable across all stratums of society, and that projects should be assessed on a “human rights centered sustainable development basis”. Central to this concept is the measure of how much a project will be effective in making a difference to all the communities in the framework of its sphere of influence. This approach may have important implications for the betterment of the lives of indigenous peoples.

Education and Culture.


Ethiopian tribes, Arbore boy

Ethiopian tribes, Arbore boy, By Dietmar Temps (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

The elderly people in the village of Nalma, Lamjung, Nepal.

The elderly people in the village of Nalma, Lamjung, Nepal., By CIFOR (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

The natural inclination of Indigenous peoples is to perpetuate the cultural differentiation that makes them who they are. While there are many aspects to this distinctiveness, an important attribute is the use of their own language, which frames thought processes and ability to communicate. National policies in the past have specifically denied the use of minor languages in the belief that better assimilation into the mainstream population is achieved. Minor languages were not taught in schools, and even if there was no particular prohibition on its use publically, the social and institutional environment made their use futile. As a consequence, it is common to find communities where the older generation use and maintain their cultural language, but youth and children do not.

Today, the right of Indigenous peoples to use their native tongue collectively and publically is promulgated as a basic human right. As a consequence, a number of countries have adopted legislation concerning the protection of languages at various levels. Today, current thinking is that teaching indigenous children both their own language alongside that of the national mainstream language benefits them frame their communication in both worlds. There are however many difficulties to overcome, as many indigenous languages lack an alphabet, do not have a written form, and have no textbooks. Further, the preparation of textbooks generally lags far behind those of mainstream education, schools are not set up to teach such languages, nor have the financial resources to do so. Significantly, often the inclusion of the language in curriculum’s requires a revision of thought and associated traditional ideas held by the dominant society about national culture and identity.

Social Organization, Law and Representation.


World Conference on Indigenous Peoples

World Conference on Indigenous Peoples, By United Nations Photo (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Sixth Session of Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Opens

Sixth Session of Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues Opens, By United Nations Photo (flickr) CC BY-NC-SA2.0

Often, the progression of interaction occurs within communities through social and cultural organizations. In the past mainstream society has often taken the stance that indigenous social institutions are contrary to the national interest. There is debate whether membership of such institutions has lead to abuse of human rights.

Local community organization and respect for the rules surrounding ways of living is often maintained by adherence to customary law, which in many countries is not accorded any legal standing. At times, this brings conflict between the respected hierarchical system within a community and the nations legal system. This is dealt with on a country by country basis, and some countries recognize pluralist policies in this respect while in others, any expression of autonomy is suppressed aggressively.

This being said, Indigenous self-organization has progressed considerably in recent years, and it has been found that while there is much diversity globally, there is much in common. Representation in all forms of governance has slowly moved forward and involvement in local, regional and national levels in occurring in various countries at different degrees of breadth and magnitude.

Self-determination is a topic which has gained increased debate, and indigenous peoples have increasingly demanded the right to have self-determination. Many states equally oppose this, but at this stage there is little definition of what self-determination is, what it involves, and how a consensus may be achieved. It is clear that politically in almost all countries where indigenous peoples occur, that it is a difficult topic and the way forward unclear. Regions, where this is particularly difficult, is within Latin American and African countries where often the definition of “peoples” is commonly excluded.

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