Indigenous peoples constitute one of the largest excluded and marginalized peoples of the world. Their population around the world is estimated to be around 370 million, more than the total US population of 311 million and more that the population of the 18 founding nations of the European Union which is 331 million. Tribal development is a major concern of North East India. It is not rocket science, provided we are ready to open our minds and empathize with to the alternative development paradigm of the indigenous peoples of this area.
One of the distinguishing features of the Indigenous peoples is their deep connection to their traditional lands and landscapes. Mother Nature or as we scientifically call, ecosystem is their source of survival. It is their source of survival because they get 4 categories of services:
i. It supports the dispersal of seeds and soil nutrients that are required for primary production.
ii. It makes provision for the production of food, wild foods, medicine, energy, raw materials for housing and organic fertilizer.
iii. It regulates our environment and therefore our well being by handling waste decomposition, purification of air and water and control of pest and disease.
iv. It provides cultural services which includes recreation (outdoor sports, ecotourism) and aesthetic and spiritual experiences.
For indigenous peoples, development is essentially about their ability to sustain a functioning ecosystem. Indigenous communities have therefore become watchful guardians of the land and territories around them. They have consequently become historical custodians of most of our biological and cultural diversity and that they have over centuries been expanding humanity’s pool of options through adaptive and resilient approaches. (the Irish famine of 1845 and the Peruvian potato that saved the potato crop of Europe, the Alder tree of Khonama, Nagaland, the drip irrigation and living bridges of the Khasis). It is therefore not surprising to find the remarkable overlap between indigenous territories and the world’s areas of high biological and cultural diversity.
Indigenous communities also have a strong belief in the sacredness of the natural world and this belief is grounded in a collective and community paradigm and not on an individualistic pursuit of maximum economic production or excessive exploitation of the natural world through huge infrastructure investment programs for dams, hydro electricity and roads which without their free, prior and informed consent will not lead to their wellbeing and development. They are afraid that these infrastructural programmes may compromise the autonomy of the indigenous communities over their lands which are being increasingly threatened by the economic growth interests of powerful and emerging countries as Nation States vie for more sources of energy, minerals and water. In short their holistic development paradigm is simply very different from our modern approach of extraction, limitless growth and homogenization of thoughts, dresses and lifestyles.
Indigenous peoples have been calling on state actors to take their development paradigm more seriously particularly in view of the compounding crises of climate change and irreversible loss of biodiversity. They have been affirming they too have knowledge, wisdom and practical experience for helping the world to adopt a more sustainable and caring world. Fortunately, there is a growing group of thinkers, activists and policy makers who believes that the knowledge systems of indigenous peoples would add value to our global search for a more sustainable approach.
On 18 September of 2013, UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) came up with their “Wake UP Before It Is Too Late” report which called for a development approach that will start shifting from the existing monoculture agriculture towards greater varieties of crops, reduced use of fertilizers and other inputs, greater support for small-scale farmers, and more locally focused production and consumption of food.
The report cited a number of trends that collectively suggest a mounting crisis:
• Food prices from 2011 to mid-2013 were almost 80 per cent higher than for the period 2003–2008;
• Global fertilizer use has increased by eight times over the past 40 years, although global cereal production has only doubled during that period;
• Foreign land acquisition in developing countries (often termed “land grabbing”) in recent years has amounted, in value, to between five and ten times the level of official development assistance.
Indigenous communities are also being gradually heard at the global level and the credit for this development goes to indigenous peoples themselves. It was their determination and perseverance that bended the United Nations to adopt the UN General Assembly Resolution and Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in September 2007, after 25 years of hard negotiations. This was perhaps their biggest triumph to date on the global stage.
The success of indigenous peoples in getting these principles adopted in the 2007 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples gives us hope for more informed policies on the development of indigenous peoples. Amongst the principles stipulated by UNDRIP, I would like to highlight 3 principles that are crucial for indigenous development in North East India. They are:
• development with identity is promoted proactively
• collective rights are respected
• all development initiatives in indigenous lands must be with their
free, prior and informed consent
With the adoption of this UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples by all Nation States we too have a responsibility to play our constructive role. I believe that we must start promoting our political process of participatory democracy that will encourage
i. A wider ‘ownership’ of decisions, processes and projects and
ii. Pay greater attention to accountability so institutions, professionals and policymakers are made responsible for acts of commission and omission.
We must also be vigilant of any evolving architecture of the political system that is developed for indigenous communities so that the constitutional guarantees of the rights of indigenous communities to their lands, territories and cultural heritage especially of smaller tribes are never compromised. We must ensure that the concept of winning a majority in a party based election does not break the social relationships and trust that traditionally exist in an indigenous community. We must be watchful of elected rulers who try to erode the constitutional constraints on their power as this is the first sign of a governance system that is heading for the rocks.
We must speak out against corruption as it eventually promotes a valueless society filled with violence, extortion and the rise of micro powers who will often reduce the effectiveness of the rule of law, a golden principle and best practice of democracy that has motivated people to stand up against abusive and autocratic authorities.
The political system that we inherit and nurture will finally decide on the sort of tribal development we would follow. We must therefore seek to confirm or revise or update our autonomous political system to address
i. the emerging challenges to traditional indigenous issues and
ii. to be able to take advantage of opportunities that global and
national best practices systems uniquely offer to us.
By collaborating with all like-minded partners and by drawing on their respective passion and wisdom, we can significantly contribute to a new national and global policy environment that will pursue prosperity in a more sustainable and local direction
i. where communities will re-establish their cultural, linguistic
and agricultural distinctiveness; and
ii. where regions will produce more of their own food, generate more
of their own energy and even exchange economically more of their
own production, cultural expression and entertainment.
And central to this thinking is the promotion of a local food movement which will shorten the distance between farmers and consumers bringing many benefits such fresher and more tasty food and more income to small farmers. It will promote biodiversity so crucial for our wellbeing and above all reduce the increasing pollution we will see in the years ahead.
It will above all, it will help local communities to reclaim the food supply from big companies who are supplying health destroying commercial food industrial chips and other fast food, We need a different type of KFC – Khasi Fine Cuisine!
However, this new indigenous development approach can be become a reality provided there is leadership, diplomacy is promoted, and there are functioning institutions that can administer the rule of law.
(This is the transcript of the speech given by Mr. Phrang Roy, Retired Assistant Vice President, IFAD, Rome, and Chairperson of NESFAS at the National Symposium on Tribal Development in NE India organized by the Department of Sociology, NEHU, Shillong, 0n the 14th March 2014.)