Missing Links

An Indigenous World

How native peoples can turn globalization to their advantage.

At a recent gathering attended by various Latin American heads of state, new Brazilian President Luiz Inácio "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 Menchú, 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 non-governmental 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.

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