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by Richard Sidaway
'We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children’ (Native American proverb)
In December 2005, Evo Morales became the new President of Bolivia. He was only 46 years old and openly supported the production and use of the coca plant. He also wanted the state to take control of the profitable natural gas industry. But what was really significant was where he came from. He was born into a farming family in the Andes and spent much his life campaigning for the interests of the original inhabitants of the country. He was one of the first leaders of an indigenous people to make it to the top.
There are perhaps 370 million indigenous peoples in 70 countries around the world. They live on 20% of the world’s land, and they contribute 80% of the world’s biological and cultural diversity. For the last few hundred years, however, European colonialism has marginalised them. Europeans gave them diseases against which they had no defences, suppressed their culture and language, and tried to assimilate them into western societies.
Sometimes they almost disappeared from history. Few people today have heard of the Herero of Namibia. Eighty per cent of their population died from starvation a century ago at the hands of German colonisers. In 1803, there were 10,000 people living in Tasmania, but after the British declared war on them twenty years later, only 300 survived. The last Tasman died in 1905.
The main reason for the decimation of indigenous peoples has been to get their land and natural resources. In Colombia, a hundred years of oil extraction has resulted in the pollution of rivers, soil and drinking water. The story is repeated in Ecuador and Peru. In Brazil, the government plan to build five large dams on the Xingu River. These will flood thousands of square kilometres of tribal reserves and destroy much agricultural land.
Often governments have used forced relocation to get the local inhabitants out of the way. In Botswana today it is happening because of diamond mining and tourism. In the islands of Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean, the entire population were banished forever in order to build an airbase.
Land has a spiritual significance for indigenous people. In 1985 the Australian government finally recognised this and returned ownership of Uluru (Ayers Rock) to the Pitjantjatjara Aborigines. In the USA, however, the government is planning to store radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, although it is a sacred site for the Shoshone nation.
Businesses often try to take possession of indigenous cultures. Multinational companies wanted to become the owners of traditional knowledge in areas such as food, farming and health. They have tried to create patents on plants and medicines that indigenous people have used for centuries.
Native languages are also disappearing. They were banned in schools for decades. Parents stopped using them to communicate in the home, and so they were no longer passed from one generation to another.
Sometimes families have been affected in more dramatic ways. In Australia, it was government policy from 1900-1972 to forcibly remove aboriginal children from their parents and bring them up in institutions.
Health problems such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes are another feature of indigenous life. The writer Paul Theroux, travelling in the Pacific, noted that most islanders’ diets nowadays consisted of junk food and canned fish imported from Japan thousands of miles away - despite the fact that they were surrounded by water, and fishing had been a way of life for millennia.
So is the election of Mr Morales, in one of the world’s poorest countries, a sign that things are finally getting better? Various peoples around the world now have their own representation. There is a Sámi parliament in Sweden and an Assembly of First Nations in Canada.
Formal Apologies were passed in several Australian State Parliaments in 1998 for the past mistreatment of the Aboriginal population. In Aotearoa/New Zealand, the Treaty of Waitangi Act has made it possible for Maoris to claim back land, fisheries and forest in special courts where they have equal representation with non-indigenous people. The Miskito Indians in Nicaragua have had similar success.
Some Native American Tribes have recently become extremely wealthy because of a change in the law. They can now start casinos on their own land. Some people worry about the morality of this, but some of the profit has been used for improvements in education and health.
The meeting between western and indigenous cultures has not often been a happy one, but perhaps there is hope yet for the continued diversity of humankind.