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Indigenous sustainable directions

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One reality of international development is that there are not enough resources on the planet for everyone to live the lifestyle that the Western world and particularly the United States enjoy. The American Dream, which has become the dream of the whole industrial world, can often turn into somebody else's nightmare. A second important reality is that humanity's increasing population and the impact of its mega-technologies appear to be damaging the global systems of the Earth. While humankind could once afford some level of destructiveness and waste to sustain itself from nature, the Earth's resources are mostly finite and her major weather and life-support systems can no longer easily bear our weight.

For a long time, both economists and environmentalists have known that something has to give. For a much longer time, Native elders and people of knowledge have known that a positive and disciplined approach to harvesting the Earth is crucial. They knew that reciprocity with nature is a great notion, that it encourages and calls forth her extreme generosity. They knew and know that thanking the Earth for all her gifts is a practical spiritual ideal. To disregard the limits of nature, to disrespect its internal logic, is to cause disaster for humanity. They knew, too, that within the human society, a good level of sharing and mutual help enhances health, unity and harmony among the people. A lot has changed, of course, and such principles are mostly ignored, but they stand the test of time as fundamental guides for human activity on the Earth.

Warnings on the many ways that humanity is suffering the consequences of over-consumption and of old, destructive harvesting approaches are being sounded at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. Coming ten years after the impressive United Nations Conference on Environment and Development of 1992 (UNCED), this largest ever UN gathering is coalescing the best scientific and economic thinking on the state of the Earth, its peoples and all biological species. Some 50,000 people, including nearly 13,000 delegates, are attending.

The reality presented is not good. Take water and food, for example. Forty percent of the world is suffering horribly from water scarcity and very poor quality. Over one billion people have no access to pure drinking water. In 25 years, this may be the reality for two thirds of the world. One third of the world goes hungry daily, always in danger of starving, while 800 million are chronically malnourished. Two and a half billion people have yet to experience electricity in their local areas.

As UN Secretary General Kofi Annan recently observed in Time Magazine, fish stocks continue to shrink, tropical rain forests (and associated species) continue to recede, and agricultural productivity declines while the number of mouths to feed grows.

Much of this is seriously worsened by the reality of a general rise in severe weather and mega-natural disasters. Serious drought, fires and floods are ravaging all continents. In the past few weeks, the world has witnessed severe floods in Central and Eastern Europe, where industrial farming, loss of meadowlands and deforestation make for soils that don't take up water. In the same week, super tornadoes and flash floods in Russia were noted for their fury. While global warming trends are increasingly obvious to the vast majority of scientists, and most countries are pressing for international action, the U.S. continues to oppose the Kyoto Treaty, which has been proposed to mitigate its consequences.

Native peoples' delegations are a significant presence at Johannesburg. Native elders were also present at the first such international meeting, the Stockholm Summit in 1972, which inspired the industrialized nations to begin cleaning up their air and water. And they were significant contributors to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, which produced treaties on global warming and biodiversity that, while not a great force yet in the world, have propelled the discussion of these problems to a more important level. Indigenous peoples are mentioned with some prominence in the resolutions adopted at the 1992 Rio Summit. Chapter 26 of Agenda 21 supports Indigenous-led development, links it to the preservation of the environment and urges its "capacity-building" support. Similarly, Article 8 of the United Nations Biodiversity Convention calls for "respect for the innovations and practices of Indigenous and local communities ... and ... the sustainable use of biological diversity."

The concern of Native peoples over these issues within their own movements has been constant. Huge numbers of gatherings, congresses and many surfacing organizations have addressed these issues, always seeking to present the principles endorsed by the elders of the cultures and to seek practical solutions for the many problems. The call for "well-planned, well-executed sustainable development," recently issued by Time Magazine, has been a core of Indigenous thinking not only for decades but also for centuries.

Preserving and projecting developmental goals based on respect for the natural world has been a central goal in the emergence of the indigenous voice in international circles. From the time of the first major indigenous international conference held in Geneva in 1977, Indigenous delegations called attention to the destruction of their environments by mega-development. Important consultation processes, sometimes lasting several years, have gathered vast amounts of information on principles and practical approaches of indigenous peoples. In North America, an impressive number of tribes are investing in solar and wind alternative technologies. Even the development of tribal business enterprises, including the growth in gaming revenue potentials, is designed as a way to upgrade tribal economic and social bases. In the developing world, Native peoples have been particularly keen on preserving and recovering land bases and have been at the forefront of calling for less destructive approaches to forests and waterways. It is time to listen carefully to the articulations of indigenous thinking on progress and development. Definitions of sustainability can now take into account the experience of millenary indigenous community inhabitation.

With their central notion of the community as base and as constituency, and neither simply the single family nor the mega-scale nation-state, indigenous models defy the usual social models. While seeking markets for existing products and assisting the building of enterprise, the indigenous model stresses tribal and community-wide approaches. It offers the goal to help stabilize and strengthen communities and thus to move toward prosperity. The driving tenets of an Indigenous-led development necessarily emerge from deeply held cultural principles about humankind's spiritual and practical relationships in and with the natural world. Patient and forthright building upon community skills and resources and access to solution-oriented methodologies can lead to opportunities for prosperous community economics.

It is not a good sign, especially at this time in history, that over one hundred world leaders are in Johannesburg to discuss these problems while U.S. President George W. Bush is conspicuously absent. Just when the U.S. is seeking the sympathy of the world for its campaign against terrorism, to stay away from such an important meeting tells something about an attitude that calls for reexamination.

At its greatest historical moments, the U.S. engaged world problems directly and to great effect. As the world's remaining super-power and its greatest economic engine, the U.S. is in a primary position to provide more positive and highly desired leadership. We urge the President Bush to reconsider the current hands-off approach to these world problems. A leadership that engages the world's most fundamental crisis is greatly needed.