Skip to main content

International development agency commits to indigenous workshops

WASHINGTON - Following a noon meeting Feb. 21 in Washington, an institutional structure is in place to monitor the impact of the U.S. Agency for International Development on indigenous peoples.

Armstrong Wiggins, director of the Indian Law Resource Center's Washington office, suggested the agency would benefit from a series of workshops designed to familiarize its employees with indigenous peoples and their issues.

''We would be more than willing even to come and have a workshop with you guys, here in your offices, to tell you what's going on in the indigenous world. A lot of us think that because we're educated, we don't need to know about indigenous peoples. And sometimes we make mistakes and develop discrimination because we don't know, we don't understand. It has to go both ways in visiting with each other. We would be more than willing to come and give you a workshop with your staff to understand what's going on at the U.N. level; what's going on at the OAS [Organization of American States] level; what's going on ... in every country; the legislation issues. ... And I would like to see that thinking of 'indigenous issues, a problem' - how can we overcome it together? That is not the problem. Just like issues of any society - what just that we don't understand, we look at it as a problem.''

Franklin Moore, USAID's interim coordinator for indigenous peoples issues, responded favorably to the basic idea. He said afterward that he must rely on Wiggins and other indigenous people and organizations represented at the meeting, among them Amazon Alliance, First Peoples Worldwide and Native Lands, for suggestions as to the subject matter, agenda and mechanics of such workshops. It's too early to anticipate a schedule for the workshops, he said.

''But it would be useful to us at USAID ... to look at indigenous peoples in the context of our work. ... We will go forward with this.''

USAID is a federal agency that serves U.S. foreign policy goals, primarily through economic development programs in impoverished nations. The projects are subject to the approval of foreign national governments. Many indigenous peoples have praised the efforts undertaken with USAID funding; many others, less heard in the host countries and all but voiceless within the United States, have long derided its impact on their cultures and communities.

But in recent years, funding for conservation projects has found non-indigenous, nongovernmental organizations (or NGOs, the international equivalent of American ''nonprofits'') jeopardizing indigenous land tenure with the encouragement of foreign governments. The procedure is well-established enough to have earned a term for itself - ''soft eviction'' - and the protests of indigenous peoples against it have begun to penetrate the halls of Congress.

First Peoples Worldwide founder Rebecca Adamson met with staff for Sen. Patrick Leahy to initiate a process that created a Coordinator for Indigenous Peoples Issues position within USAID. In 2005 Leahy, D-Vt., a member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, with the approval of then-chairman Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., moved the following language in a Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Appropriations bill for fiscal year 2006:

''The [Appropriations] Committee is concerned with the many problems facing indigenous peoples whose survival is increasingly threatened. Poverty, discrimination and displacement are common challenges for indigenous peoples whose unique cultural traditions enrich all humanity. The Committee believes that USAID should devote more attention to helping indigenous peoples protect their lands and their way of life. As a first step, the Committee recommends that USAID designate a Coordinator for Indigenous Peoples Issues to: consult with representatives of indigenous peoples organizations; ensure that the rights and needs of indigenous peoples are effectively addressed in USAID policies, programs and activities; monitor the design and implementation of such programs, programs and activities which directly or indirectly affect them; and coordinate with other Federal agencies on relevant issues relating to indigenous peoples.''

Adamson had her own view of why the appointment took a while.

''None of the 'Beltway bandits' wanted this office to come about and, once it came about, they didn't want it to do anything,'' she said, referring to the large Washington-area organizations that are annually awarded large contracts by federal government agencies, USAID among them. (The roughly circular system of highways around Washington, D.C., is known as the Beltway to anyone within a certain radius of Washington.)

But she added that USAID did the right thing in appointing Moore as interim director. Moore himself said the delayed appointment was due to the need for USAID staff to become more familiar with indigenous issues.

Indeed, the meeting demonstrated a certain wariness toward a permanent intra-agency indigenous presence on the part of USAID staff. Staff members made repeated precautionary references to the USAID ''mandate,'' creating a cumulative impression of doubt about the Senate ''approps'' language. Midway through the meeting, Peter Poole, a geographer whose career includes years of territorial mapping and court testimony in support of indigenous land claims, suggested that USAID develop guidelines against conservation-as-indigenous-dispossession, instead of waiting for organizations ''that may or may not be villains in these cases'' to raise the pirate flag of soft eviction policies and practices.

USAID staff member Connie Campbell responded by pronouncing herself ''actually shocked by some of the language that I'm hearing, everything from outside NGOs to villains, but at the same time encouraging us to encourage them to work in different ways. And so we also should all be cognizant of the rhetoric that we're always using when talking about this in the context of working together.''

Poole kept his own counsel for the rest of the meeting, but pressed for comment afterward he said, ''Oh, I forgot, there are no bad people. I forgot! It's a big American dream: there are no bad people, only mistakes.''

Mac Chapin of Native Lands exposed a ''mistake'' by Chemonics International Inc., a large Washington-based contractor of USAID. Among the lessons learned from a five-year, $9.5 million USAID contract for Chemonics International's expertise on deforestation among the Huaorani and Cofan territories of Ecuador was the following, according to the Chemonics Web site as of Feb. 20: ''Implementing a project with and for the benefit of indigenous peoples is analogous to parenting: there is no reliable 'how to' manual and every community, like every child, is unique.''

Though Chapin read aloud from a Web site printout, no one expressed shock at its language. Several faces at the table registered palpable distaste, however, and in one case, evident distress.

Within a week, the wording on the Web site had been changed and Chemonics project director Joao Queiroz had sent Chapin (addressed as Chapman) a defensive and accusatory e-mail. Chapin's response corrected his perspective and the spelling of his, Chapin's, name.