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Indigenous Cultures – Some Uncomfortable Questions April 25, 2010

Posted by Chetan Chitre in Development, Economics.
Tags: , ,

A friend of mine recently introduced me to this web-site www.democracynow.org. A wonderful website giving news and views on various current issues but from the social activists’ perspective. Over the last week the site has been covering an event in Bolivia – The People’s Earth Summit – An event that has attracted very little or rather no coverage in mainstream media.

The idea is quite interesting. After the failure of the Copenhagen talks, which were essentially talks between States, this was an Earth Summit called by the people. Well, largely by the people, considering the fact that the Summit had patronage of the Bolivian President Evo Morales and some 10 odd countries had officially sent their delegations.

The event seemed to be a congregation of indigenous people and environmental activists on the issue of climate change. The meet also was attended by the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who has for long been active in building an anti-US coalition in the Latin America.

The Meeting ended with 4 concrete proposals –

# Passage of Universal Declaration on the Rights of the Mother Earth in the UN – on the line of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

# Setting-up an International Tribunal to prosecute polluters and also those who do not implement or violate the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol

# Protection for Climate change migrants

# Full recognition of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous people.

The concept of the Universal Declaration of Earth’s Rights is interesting. The fact that the earth, the animals, plants, water, mountains and generally the entire ecosystem is or are living organisms and therefore should enjoy certain inalienable rights.

It is interesting to note that this is a common idea running across most indigenous cultures across the world – this idea of personifying the earth, mountains, rivers, water, land and such other natural objects. Speaking of them as if they have a life and free will of their own.

This engagement of and with indigenous people and their ideas, however, will have to be handled with care.

The indigenous people undoubtedly have considerable knowledge about certain basic issues of life. However, one cannot deny the fact that quite a few of them are largely ignorant of the ways of the modern / western world. It is quite obvious that some of them are “tutored” by people from the western world and paraded before the media. One wonders whether the indigenous people who end up inadvertently acting as brand ambassadors realize what role they are playing – or have been made to play – in the larger scheme of things.

A tribal from Jharkhand or Bolivia starts bashing capitalism and the US and starts taking aggressive positions – which even a University graduate with similar sensibilities but with a slightly greater exposure will hesitate to take. One wonders then whether the tribal really understands what the US is all about or what capitalism is all about. This is not to deny his intelligence. But we are asking him to comment on issues from an entirely different world. Is it not like asking an economist to comment on the particle accelerator? The question is – how credible these comments would be?

And if one has the enthusiasm and audacity (if I may use the word) to give such a comment – one wonders as to what would be the motive force behind such an actions – will it be ignorance or will it be some external tutoring or something else.

This is of course not to deny the fact that quite a good number of such indigenous peoples’ movements have a deeply intellectual and perceptive leadership. However, when one talks some of the representatives of these movements at say the second-in-command level or with the cadres, the understanding levels fade quite rapidly.

One fully appreciates their sustainable methods of living in the far-off hills of Andean or the Aravalis. However, the question is, whether this lifestyle is out of choice or is it because of lack of it. It would be an interesting experiment to bring some of these “earthy” indigenous people to one of the big cities like New York or London or Paris – give them good clothes with pockets stuffed with cash. And watch their response to the choice that they would then have. While the Hollywood movies may want us to believe something else, my feeling is that most – if not all – would then exercise a choice far different from the eco-friendly lifestyles that they had been living in the hills.

It is not uncommon to see these indigenous people attend conferences like the Earth Summit or the World Social Forum in big cities – and spend evenings shopping around town as much as their means can afford.

Another issue pertains to the credibility of the indigenous belief systems. For example – one has come to accept the fact that in some of the modern sciences such as medicine, not all is based on complete understanding of the cause effect relationship. A lot of this may be a part of popular beliefs among the practitioners, a lot else may be a myth spread by the pharmaceutical companies. So what do we do when we have an ailment? Do we say that modern medicine is as much a hoax as a tribal quack – so then let us go to a quack for treating the ailment? And if a thousand such quacks come together – will their collective opinion carry more weight than that of a medical practitioner trained in modern medicine.

Not to deny that there are a number of indigenous systems such as the Indian Ayurveda that are as evolved as some of the modern sciences. But then that does not imply that all indigenous beliefs would enjoy the same level of credibility. And even systems such as the Ayurveda are outcomes of societies which had attained a far higher level of civilization. To put these systems and those of modern sciences on par with the belief systems of the aboriginal tribes would be to deny mankind more than 5000 years of civilization.

At the Bolivian event and at lot of other places activists have been talking against extractive industries. So what are we saying – that we should stop mining for metals and oil? So do we not need good roads and schools and cars? Constructing a road requires pouring hot molten tar on the back of mother earth. It must be so painful! And how can one have a road unless there are cars and truck to move men and material? Or are we saying that we need a larger share of what is mined?

So then what do we need? We most certainly should not dismiss the belief systems of indigenous people. Their voices do need to be heard. There is lot that modern / western civilization has to learn from them. The respect for mother earth for instance. Or the thought of personifying objects in nature and treating them with respect. One is not so much against these ideas and certainly not questioning the good intentions of the indigenous people and their beliefs. Rather what is objectionable is the way they have been portrayed by the activist groups in the media and even the so-called social activist media.

Firstly, I think we should stop over-idealizing the indigenous life systems. No doubt they have a lot to contribute to the development discourse. But those systems are not the final word on civilizational matters. They are just a point of view – and a point of view that has in some sense stagnated over centuries – not just in matters of materialistic progress but more importantly in matters relating to spiritual evolution and evolution of knowledge systems. And just because we have ended up at the wrong end on the climate change issue does not mean that we dismiss the entire modern civilization as a wasted exercise – and everything else that stands contrary to it as the ideal. I feel, over-idealizing would rather lead to the whole issue being discussed as frivolous and just another motivated propaganda. It is quite disturbing when social activists and academicians start using the same means and methods as that of a politician. The social rights movement is respected not just because it presents an alternative view-point but more so because it presents a more researched, rational and a just view-point.

Engagement with the ideas of indigenous people and incorporating them in modern economic and political systems is far complex an issue than is made out to be. Are we on the other hand trying to pitch this as modern v/s indigenous culture issue? May be that is the way the western world has always seen it. But does it mean that we also start using the same vocabulary. Are we in the process risking a new polarization of the world? In the process are we not giving hope to the indigenous communities that their culture will triumph at some point, when we all know that the eventual result of this debate is not going to be so simplistic. Will not the indigenous people feel cheated at that point in time?

Secondly, one has to appreciate the indivisibility of certain aspects of civilizations. For example, the medical advances of modern science cannot be denied, and further, those advances would have been impossible without information technology which in-turn depends on a whole host of extractive industries. If one gives it a thought, there would be lesser than six degrees of separation between an industry which we want and another that we don’t want.

This is not to belittle the contribution of the indigenous right activists. It is because of their high pitch movements that the belief systems of the indigenous people and their rights have now become a central part of the developmental discourse. But then we need to move further now and ask the next logical question. Which part of those belief systems do we now need to incorporate in the modern civilizational construct and why and how? And this debate, the choices that it will throw up before the societies and the costs that these choices would demand – is going to be a far more difficult proposition.



1. Sahajo - April 26, 2010

Modernity and industrialization function with the help of Modern legal system which ensures that contracts are obeyed. However, when modern civilization enters in the contract with indigenous societies , the contracts are unfairly designed. Regardless of which side is correct, ensuring the fairness in those contracts would definitely help indigineous people. and then they could acquire some space to participate in the modernity on their own terms. Currently we are first debasing them and then asking if they would lose within the modernist game. Modernity is not to be critiqued, its the unfairness of its implementation , which is a bother.

Chetan Chitre - April 27, 2010

Can we separate the questions of fairness and the issue of critique of a culture. Of course, there are instances of gross injustice (injustice where I violate rules (both legal and ethical) set by myself) and these must be corrected. I don’t think people will have much problems with that. I personally think these are mere bargaining positions – though I may be wrong. But more contentious are cases where there is a divergence in the idea of fairness itself. For example an industrialist acquiring the land seriously feels that an X amount of compensation is a fair compensation for taking over the land. But then somebody else may feel that taking away possession of land cannot be compensated in monetary terms at all. Some may say the very idea of “possession” of land is questionable. It is at such points where, i think, the dialogue will have to be handled carefully.

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