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Alternative State of Nature: at the crossroads of economic growth and indigenous-sensitive development

5 December 2012

In response to the publication of MRG’s State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, which in 2012 focused on natural resources and land rights, Elvira Nurieva, a recent intern with MRG’s Europe Office, reflects on how business is affecting vulnerable communities around the world.

In the ‘state of nature’, without a ‘common power’ or government, people are doomed to a life ‘solitary, poore, nasty, brutish and short’, according to Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679). In the absence of laws designed to restrain individual behavior, human beings are likely to regress to the ‘natural condition of mankind’ and attack each other.

With the creation of local, regional and international human rights institutions, has humankind significantly progressed from the ‘state of nature’? Indeed, is it possible to clearly identify a line between the ‘state of nature’ and societies with the ‘rule of law’?

One might point to some incremental progress: less arms, and more communication in conflict resolution, perhaps. Anything else? The development of international and domestic standards, recognizing the rights of marginalized and vulnerable communities? Surely! But experts point out that their proper implementation is still lacking.

Perhaps someone could simply dismiss this question by focusing on its philosophical dimension. However, the hard evidence of compelling case studies easily brings it back to reality. The examples given in this post, and also captured in a recent MRG report, State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2012, reflect how short-term thinking and profit-obsession are taking over the longer-term benefits of empowerment through development.

A young girl in Papua New Guinea
A young girl in Papua New Guinea. Credit: Stephan Bachenheimer/World Ban SB-PNG02

Despite international treaties and UN declarations, indigenous and tribal peoples continue to not fully exercise their right to internal self-determination, nor participate in decision-making in the natural resource development that affects their livelihoods, culture and identity. With a few exceptions (for instance, in Canada, the Environmental Stewardship Unit of the Assembly of First Nation and in Russia the Sakhalin Energy company agreement), indigenous communities are often not consulted at all on development projects and their impacts.

Due to aggressive natural resource exploitation on traditional and ancestral lands, all too often justified in the name of ‘national interest’, indigenous and tribal peoples are subject to evictions and involuntary migrations that damage their spiritual, cultural and physical wellbeing (see Survival International’s report, Progress Can Kill).

In the article Natural Resource Development and the Rights of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples, Dr. Corinne Lennox reiterates that such policies constitute grave violations of the human rights of minorities and indigenous peoples. To illustrate the ugly side of the current reality, let me present two geographically different, but similarly harrowing case studies from Kenya and India.

In Kenya, the Endorois, a semi-nomadic pastoralist community who have inhabited the shores of Lake Bogoria and the Monchongoi forest for centuries, were evicted from their land in 1973 to make way for a Game Reserve. And it is only with the case of the 2010 Centre for Minority Rights Development (Kenya) and Minority Rights Group International (on behalf of the Endorois Welfare Council) v. Kenya, that the violations of Kenya’s government were condemned and the property rights of the Endorois to their land were upheld.

Importantly, Kenya’s key argument at the hearing of the African Commission on Human People’s Rights (ACHPR) was formulated on the principles of a so-called participatory democracy, which gives supremacy to the benefit of the national interest rather than the demands of a single community. The Endorois community and their advocates won the case by contending that the right to development involves the community on an equal footing, which leads to the empowerment of its members by increasing their choices and improves their welfare. However, the Endorois people are still waiting for the implementation of the ACHPR decision.

Likewise in India, there have been numerous cases where tribal peoples, numerically and politically weak (constituting 8 per cent of the Indian population) were displaced from their lands due to dam construction, despite their persistent non-violent protests and meetings with local authorities.

A documentary film, A Narmada Diary, captures the years of such a struggle to prevent the drowning of 37,000 hectares of fertile land and forced eviction of over 200,000 Adivasis, the area’s indigenous peoples. The film shows the pain of each member of the community during days of hunger strikes, and the proactive attitude of steadfast female representatives of the community at the official meetings. Though sad, the documentary underlines the enduring spirit of this community, standing tall like their sacred tree on the flooded traditional land.

Lessons for international development

The lesson that government officials, policy makers and private sector representatives all over the world perhaps may learn from these stories is underscored in Richard Cronin’s and Amit Pandya’s assessment for Washington security think-tank, The Stimson Centre. ‘Fishermen are relocated to areas without fisheries, forest people must leave entirely or take insecure jobs as plantation workers, and farmers often have to learn to grow new crops on less fertile land.’

Facing such irreversible damage, it is hard to see how natural resource exploitation can claim its main objective to be generating more funds for anti-poverty programs. When such programmes subject rural inhabitants and politically marginalized groups to death – cultural or physical – then the toolkit for stable economic development should be reconsidered and disproved approaches to natural resource exploitation recast.

In today’s industrialized world, life can indeed mirror Hobbes’ ‘state of nature’ and show us as ‘poore’ (with finite resources), nasty (with myopic policy makers) and brutish (with an aggressive development agenda). The international laws and rights instruments designed to protect the most vulnerable lack the ‘common power’ to enforce the protection they might give. Hobbes lived in a time when very little was known in European societies about the ways of life practiced by indigenous communities; incredibly, the assumed superiority of national ‘development’ over the rights of minorities continues today, with indigenous and fringe groups facing violence and eviction over land and resources.

The good news is that there is a silver lining. With the recognition of alternative, indigenous-sensitive development policies, and development of proper environmental impact assessment, humankind can make a breakthrough from the bondage of the single development paradigm and short-term thinking.

This article reflects the sole opinion of its author and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.