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Why indigenous people of the world are losing out

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Most of the clashes between indigenous peoples, governments and international financial institutions have arisen due to differing interpretations of the term “development”. For indigenous peoples, the key issues include not just the right to protect and preserve their ancestral lands, but also often their very survival as a community, notes Terence Gomez.

Last month, members of the Indigenous Peoples Network of Malaysia (JOAS) tried unsuccessfully to submit a memorandum to the king urging, among other things, that the government honour its commitment to abide by the United Nations Declaration for the Rights of Indigenous People (Undrip).

The incident, on the first anniversary of Undrip, raised an urgent question: why is it that, despite the burgeoning number of international charters and national laws across the world that assert and protect their rights, the majority of indigenous peoples find themselves increasingly subjected to discrimination, exploitation and dispossession?

And, as the Malaysian protest suggests, why is it likely that in spite of charters such as the Undrip, we will continue to see numerous conflicts of mismatched proportions between unempowered indigenous peoples and governments, multinational companies (MNCs) and international financial institutions (IFIs) worldwide?

Most of these clashes between indigenous peoples, governments and IFIs have arisen due to differing interpretations of the term “development”. For indigenous peoples, the key issues include not just the right to protect and preserve their ancestral lands, but also often their very survival as a community.

Governments, meanwhile, argue that they are trying to eradicate poverty and offer citizens, including indigenous peoples, a better standard of living.

IFIs contend that they are providing funds to support the goals of national governments, while MNCs publicise that they have been commissioned to implement projects to attain these objectives.

Yet the scale and scope of the problems confronting indigenous peoples as a result of developmental plans implemented by IFIs and governments is monumental, even baffling.

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The primary cause for the numerous discrepancies between the rhetoric and reality of these charters and legislation is the support of governments and IFIs for large-scale exploitation of natural resources, including oil and mineral deposits, extensive privatisation programmes and the construction of huge infrastructure projects, specifically dams.

The issue of the rights of indigenous peoples to their natural resources, particularly sub-soil resources, also continues to be controversial, as a majority of governments retain ownership and control over resources.

With little or no institutional support, the enforcement of indigenous peoples’ rights has often proven to be extremely weak.

One key factor for understanding this paradox is the way in which power is exercised within governments and international institutions, and between governments and indigenous groups.

Following the major ideological shifts introduced in the 1980s by the conservative but extremely influential Prime Minister of Britain, Margaret Thatcher, and the United States’ President, Ronald Reagan, institutions like the World Bank began adopting and espousing neoliberal ideas, which were reflected in their lending conditions.

The primary contention of neo-liberalism is that the way to achieve sustained economic growth is through the retreat of the government from the economy and the liberalisation of the private sector, an issue that became the basis for the approval of loans by IFIs.

Neoliberals further argue that economic growth in developing countries can only be achieved through a combination of market deregulation, fiscal discipline, reduction of public expenditure involving also privatisation to encourage competition, promotion of foreign direct investment and trade liberalisation.

Privatisation of government agencies, assets and services, as well as major new infrastructure projects, constituted a key component of the IFI loan conditionality framework.

That has resulted in numerous serious problems, including the creation of private monopolies in sectors previously under public control.

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Privatising public services tended to concentrate control over utilities, services and resources in developing countries in the hands of MNCs, at the same time that government oversight in these sectors was also reduced considerably.

Privatisation of public services such as water and energy supply was especially contentious as it involved major dam projects and further marginalised the poorer and more vulnerable sections of the population in the developing world.

While privatisation was supposed to have reduced the cost of water and electricity, in a number of countries, new tariffs were imposed to improve the viability of private firms in these sectors.

The increased cost of utilities now supplied by private firms brought into question the main justification for privatisation: government capacity to deliver utility services efficiently, cheaply and universally.

Governments, even in the developing world, have shown the capacity to provide water and electricity at low rates. By undermining the government’s capacity to deliver key public services, IFIs have facilitated the control by MNCs of these important resources.

Governments and MNCs have, however, been most publicly discredited for human rights violations and environmental degradation in the implementation of large-scale privatised dam-building projects which, instead of providing the promised benefits of increased economic activity and more widely available electricity, have displaced large numbers of indigenous communities.

The construction of dams in the Philippines (such as the San Roque Dam), Malaysia (the Bakun Dam) and India (the Sardar Sarovar Project along the Narmada River) illustrates this, leading to the relocation of settlements and significant degradation of the land.

Meanwhile, the active promotion of resource extraction, a common condition in IFI loan conditions, has resulted in increasingly unsustainable levels of extraction and environmental damage, often perpetuated by MNCs.

The outcome of large-scale resource extraction projects by MNCs in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, India, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea, ostensibly implemented to help finance development and reduce poverty, illustrates the far-reaching effects of such activities.

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As resource extraction increased, environmental and social crises became increasingly pronounced as a result of the displacement of peoples, deterioration in general health due to pollutants and severe environmental degradation.

In the Philippines, IFI-type recommendations were adopted following complaints by the United States, Australia and New Zealand — all three reluctant to endorse the Undrip — that local legislation prohibited foreign entities from owning mining companies.

In 1995, the Philippine government introduced the Mining Act, which allowed for 100 per cent foreign ownership of mining firms. The introduction of this legislation led to huge interest from leading foreign firms in this sector.

Antonio Tujan, Jr, a political analyst from the Philippines, would later argue that “the Mining Act is a clear example of how the neoliberal economic paradigm is translated into the wholesale opening up of Third World natural resources to corporate exploitation”.

Despite increasing international awareness of the situation of indigenous peoples, protective charters and legislation remain theoretically-orientated rather than practical.

Unless these vast asymmetries of power, presented by conflicting conceptions of development, are reformed, indigenous peoples will continue to be marginalised.

At the Undrip event last month, JOAS member Mark Bujang stressed that the Orang Asal are not anti-development. But, he said: “We want to be included in the decision-making process.”

The need now is urgent for international agencies and governments to devolve power to indigenous peoples. They must create inclusive consultative platforms that will provide them with an avenue to participate in decisions that could impinge on their way of life and to determine their own development path.

– View tables online on various projects that affected indigenous people at http://www.nst.com.my/ PDF/chart

The writer is associate professor of political economy at Universiti Malaya. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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