En;FP,An Indigenous World,Nov 01
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An Indigenous World
How native peoples can turn globalization to their advantage
By Moise's Nai'm
(Foreign Policy, November/December 2003)
At a recent gathering attended by various Latin American heads of state, new
Brazilian President Luiz Ina'cio "Lula" da Silva commented that his
supporters, the workers of Brazil, had waited for decades to influence
Brazilian politics. The following speaker, Alejandro Toledo, the first
Peruvian president of indigenous descent, trumped Lula by noting
triumphantly that his own people had "waited for 500 [years]!" The wait for
indigenous people now seems to be over, not just in Peru but all over the
world. Their political empowerment has become a global trend.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador is now a
fundamental political force in its home country. So is Bolivia's Movement
Toward Socialism, which supports the Bolivian ethnic groups that depend on
coca leaf production for their livelihoods. Last August the Canadian
government gave the Tlicho Indians ownership of a diamond-rich area in the
Northwest Territories, equivalent in size to Switzerland, and another 29,000
square miles to the Labrador Inuits. Indigenous groups have also gained
political influence in Brazil, Colombia, and throughout Central America.
Constitutional changes in all these countries and regions have given
indigenous peoples far more political advantages than ever before. In
Mexico, the rebellion in Chiapas brought indigenous groups to the forefront
of national politics; recently they declared their autonomy in 30
municipalities. Guatemala's Rigoberta Menchu', a Nobel Peace Prize winner,
has become an international icon symbolizing the fight for indigenous
groups' rights. Australia's Aborigines and New Zealand's Maori are regaining
more and more control of their ancestral lands. The Maori, who now field a
growing number of elected government officials, are claiming rights to an
area that holds an important part of New Zealand's oil reserves.
This newly acquired political clout does not mean that the abject poverty,
exclusion, and exploitation common among the world's indigenous populations
are things of the past. Moreover, indigenous political influence is still
quite recent and is often misused by politicians to advance their own
interests; sadly, these abusive politicians are often indigenous themselves.
But setting aside these caveats, the growth in political influence of
indigenous groups over the last three decades has been enormous. Why?
The short answer is globalization. Environmentalists, human rights
activists, anti-poverty campaigners, and countless other nongovernmental
organizations (NGOs) are now able to recruit, raise funds, and operate
internationally faster and farther than ever before. While technology has
facilitated travel and communication among these latter-day Good Samaritans,
the global spread of democracy has also produced other trends that highlight
the plight of indigenous populations, thus boosting their political weight.
Decentralization and devolution of political power to state and local
governments have enabled the election of indigenous representatives in areas
where such populations are most numerous-for example, in Peru, Bolivia, and
New Zealand. Global and local activism have transformed intolerance for
human rights violations, for ecological abuses, and for discrimination of
any kind into increasingly universal standards among governments,
multilateral bodies, NGOs, and the international media. During the 1980s,
for example, the United Nations spurred the internationalization of the
indigenous-rights movement by launching an initiative to establish a
universal declaration of indigenous rights. A working group representing
governments and indigenous organizations has met annually in Geneva and,
although the declaration remains bogged down, the process has helped create
an active and relatively well-funded global network of indigenous groups and
other organizations interested in the subject.
The increased reach and influence of the environmental movement and the
equally intense increase in the activities of multinational corporations
around the globe have converged to boost the political fortunes of
indigenous groups. As the geographical scope of corporations involved in
agriculture, logging, mining, hydroelectric power generation, oil, and other
natural resources has expanded, their operations have increasingly
encroached on indigenous lands. Environmentalists and indigenous populations
are thus obvious political allies. Environmentalists bring resources, the
experience to organize political campaigns, and the ability to mobilize the
support of governments and the media in rich countries. Indigenous groups
bring their claims to lands on which they and their ancestors have always
lived. And when idle land suddenly becomes a prized corporate asset, the
political and financial appeal of the struggle increases significantly.
Globalization has not, of course, been purely beneficial for the estimated
350 million indigenous people spread over more than 70 countries. Many
populations have been ravaged by new diseases, by changes in their habitat,
by forced displacement from their land, by civil wars, and by the need to
adapt to drastically different habits and lifestyles. Even the increased
attention of NGOs to the plight of indigenous peoples can backfire, when the
agendas of large, powerful international organizations clash and often
overwhelm smaller and weaker local groups.
But the fact remains that globalization has also brought indigenous peoples
powerful allies, a louder voice that can be heard internationally, and
increased political influence at home. More fundamentally, globalization's
positive impact on indigenous peoples is also a surprising and welcome
rejoinder to its role as a homogenizer of cultures and habits. When members
of the Igorot indigenous tribe in northern Philippines and the Brunca tribe
from Costa Rica gather in Geneva, their collaboration helps to extend the
survival of their respective ways of life-even if they choose to compare
notes over a Quarter Pounder in one of that city's many McDonalds. In short,
globalization's complexity is such that its results are less preordained and
obvious than what is usually assumed. As the Maori, the Mayagnas, and the
Tlicho know, it can also be a force that empowers the poor, the different,
and the local.
Moise's Nai'm is editor of FOREIGN POLICY.
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