International Day of World Indigenous Peoples: How We Can Solve Our Biggest Global Crises

I was as surprised as you are when I learned that Thursday, August 9 is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. It is a day that passes with no fanfare, without as much of a peep on most news services. The Day is not even close to the status of more famous, peace-loving holidays like Earth Day or World AIDS Day. But, does it deserve to be? I suspect that it was established as a plot to get people to write about indigenous peoples. But, since I live with an indigenous group as a Peace Corps volunteer, I have had a lot of time to ponder over what is missing from the conversation about indigenous peoples.

Regardless of my intentions or the UN’s intentions when it established August 9 in honor of indigenous peoples across the world, this issue deserves attention. Overall, indigenous peoples make up 5% of the global population but account for 15% of the world’s poor. Even in developed countries, indigenous are worse off. On the Navajo Indian Reservation, the largest in the United States, the poverty rate is 41.5%, according to the 2010 Census. The extreme poverty rate is 14.5%, on par with Panama. Both places struggle to find culturally appropriate policies that would help struggling communities to become healthier and self-sufficient.

The problem is that no one is sure how to balance the clash between the desire to preserve tradition and maintain land rights and the temptation to modernize. On the one hand, we want to help indigenous people to have income, food security, and health-care. On the other hand, we really love that they live in bamboo huts in the jungle, hut for wild boar with poison arrows, and speak curious dialects that have a dozen words for "leafy green" and no word for "school."

It seems that indigenous peoples only make the news when they are fighting governments to assert their land rights. For example, a recent article in the Economist questioned the legitimacy of assigning special rights to indigenous groups to fish in areas that are off-limits to non-native fisherman. It summarizes that, “From South Africa to India, many countries have ‘affirmative action’ policies, with the aim of correcting past wrongs by allocating a disproportionate share of jobs or educational places to groups that apparently need a leg up.” In a separate article on indigenous rights in Ecuador, the paper warned that exploiting resources on indigenous lands is becoming more difficult, after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Ecuador’s government had ignored the rights of indigenous residents when it granted permission for an energy project in 2003.

With coverage like this, it is tempting to conclude that many indigenous would prefer to simply be left alone. However, this assessment is flawed and unsophisticated because it undermines their right to self-determination.  Ultimately, governments, NGO's, and the UN want indigenous people to have the same opportunities for economic and social development as everyone else, and they secretly wish that they could do it without the messy process of starting to look, speak, and dress like the rest of the world.

Many people who work with the indigenous will tell you that the choice is not up to us and that policy priorities should emphasize indigenous choice when it comes to development. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples agrees, affirming in Article 3 that, “Indigenous peoples have the right to self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” As a paradigm, this works. It may result in the loss of more languages and cultures than we would like to see, but it is ultimately not appropriate for the developed west to think that we deserve any say in the matter.

This double-edge sword is not likely to have one all-encompassing solution (nothing ever does). In the mean time, people working on poverty alleviation and development policy should continue to tread lightly. Having separate policies that are oriented to the indigenous is a good place to start. This could include those defamed "affirmative action" polices to promote educational opportunities. But, it should also embrace development of economic opportunities geared toward indigenous regions that don’t adversely affect the environment. Because of the cultural and linguistic value and traditional knowledge possessed by these groups, NGOs and governments should make a concerted effort to preserve language, to document medicinal knowledge, and to incorporate multicultural education into schools.

In our own culture we struggle with the price of modernity. We appear happy to ditch old technologies and old traditions in favor of something new and advanced. But, just as something disappears – a traditional family recipe, an old family song, or even the knowledge of where our family comes from- we turn to the indigenous to admire how in touch they are with their roots. While we may not want them end up like us, we must accept their right to decide.