A commitment to pluralism
There are thousands of distinct groups, measured by their local language, and hundreds of millions people belonging to them. Different interpretations of the term "indigenous" exist and there is even resistance among such groups to being so called. However, we shall abide here by the definition given in Article I of ILO Convention number 169 concerning indigenous and tribal peoples in independent countries.
In China and India they make up seven per cent of the population (80 and 65 million respectively). In Latin America, the largest numbers are found in Peru (8.6 million) and Mexico (8 million). In Africa they number over 25 million, in North America 2.5 million, and over 160,000 members of the Inuit and Saami groups populate the Arctic and northern Europe. In several parts of the world the very survival of such peoples is threatened, sometimes by natural conditions (nearly 125,000 Tuareg nomads in the Sahara starved to death during the droughts of the 1970s), sometimes by health conditions which continue to be the most appalling in the world, and sometimes by the pressure of surrounding populations and government institutions. Hence a basic principle concerning them was affirmed by Agenda 21 adopted by the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in the following terms: "national and international efforts to implement environmentally sound and sustainable development should recognize, accommodate, promote and strengthen the role of indigenous people and their communities."
In some cases, extreme climatic conditions (in Australia, Greenland or the Sahara) have led to the development of highly specialized ways of life which are incompatible with those of the consumer society surrounding these people. More generally, however, indigenous peoples have been, and continue to be, forced off their lands, formerly by conquest, now by the processes of planned development (hydroelectric and irrigation projects, mining, military installations, roads and railways, sanctuaries, parks and urban growth), or denied adequate political representation in matters which concern them directly.
The cultures of the indigenous and tribal peoples have been historically marginalized and continue to face an unequal conflict with powerful external political and economic forces. In an overwhelming number of cases, there is a loss of cultural symbols in which lives are enmeshed. To compound this loss, the newer cultural symbols to which they are exposed television, advertising, consumerism, and so forth give rise to a structure of meanings and values that further undermines social and cultural security.
Quite frequently, however, their disappearance as identifiable communities is not simply a regrettable by-product of development but results from a stated or implicit policy. This process has been called cultural genocide or ethnocide. It has economic as well as cultural aspects. Economic ethnocide flows from the belief that premodern forms of economic organization must give way for either private or multinational capitalism or stateplanned socialism or mixes of these. Cultural ethnocide is the process whereby a culturally distinct people loses its identity as its land and resource base is eroded, and as the use of its language and social and political institutions, as well as its traditions, art forms, religious practices and cultural values is restricted. This may be the result of systematic government policy: but even when due to the impersonal forces of economic development it is still ethnocidal in its effects.
Things appear to be changing, however, and the recent proliferation of grassroot movements has taken the ruling élites by surprise. Many of these movements contest not only the material distribution of benefits or the lack of social welfare services, or entrenched systems, or discrimination and oppression, but the very symbolic aspects of the current patterns and hegemonic values of economic development. They are also putting increasing emphasis on another key point, which is that indigenous peoples are directly dependent on their lands. This means that we should talk about respecting not only their cultural expression but also the fundamental material basis for the existence of these societies. Agenda 21 thus asks for "recognition that the lands of indigenous peoples and their communities should be protected from activities that are environmentally unsound or that the indigenous people consider to be socially and culturally inappropriate."
These movements, some of them using new communications technology, may ultimately constitute an effective democratic power base working in favour of pluralism and the injection of broader ethical values into the developmental discourse. Such initiatives depend on an alert civil society. Others depend on the state.
In the post-Communist world, the pains of the transition to capitalism may well undermine the appeal of the democratic ethic. In that setting, there may be a greater proclivity to take refuge in more organic and more tightly binding beliefs such as ethnicity, religion or xenophobia, perhaps fuelled by disappointment with and contempt for the "corrupt and selfish West."
The challenge today, for nations committed to cultural pluralism and political democracy, is to develop a setting that ensures that development is integrative and that there are best practice institutions built on genuine commitment to being inclusive. This means respect for value systems, for the traditional knowledge that indigenous people have of their society and environment, and for their institutions in which culture is grounded. It means securing the rights of these peoples to their subsistence base and its produce, enforced by the state and by international law. It implies the adoption of educational systems that embody such respect, including the right to use their own language at different levels of schooling. It also means giving them full access to modern instruments of information, communication, technology and advice, and the right of these communities to decide their own priorities in peaceful co-operation with others.
The Commission strongly supports the process started in the Human Rights Commission of drafting a UN declaration on indigenous peoples that aims at developing a stronger international protection of indigenous peoples and of creating a permanent forum that will be the voice of these peoples at the international level.