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Real Growth Requires More Than Just Getting Richer

On August 9, 2013, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement for International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. He said, "Indigenous peoples…make up more than five percent of the world’s population, some 370 million people." He called on member states of the U.N. to "take concrete steps to address the challenges facing indigenous peoples, especially their marginalization and exclusion…."

Whenever I hear a reference to the numbers of Indigenous Peoples, I am struck by the fact that they are more numerous than the population of the United States! As of the 2010 census, the U.S. was home to 4.5 percent of the world's population. Yet no one speaks about the "marginalization and exclusion" of the U.S.

Another statistic makes the point even more starkly: According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2010, the 4.5 percent of the world's people in the U.S. consumed nearly 19 percent of the world's total primary energy! This includes petroleum, dry natural gas, coal, and net nuclear, hydroelectric, and non-hydroelectric renewable electricity, as well as biomass, geothermal, and solar energy not used for electricity generation.

From the standpoint of energy consumption alone, the U.S. actually marginalizes and excludes the rest of the world. Since energy production and consumption are at the root of the major wars currently being waged by the U.S. and others, this marginalization and exclusion are not an accident, but are intentional components of government policies.

We sometimes hear that the marginalization of Indigenous Peoples is a result of their weakness in the free market system of global trade. Yet one might ask how that market system really works, since it is not "free," but is coerced by war and other interventions.

This is an old story: countries with large means of coercion exploit countries with numerous resources. Colonization is the prime example, but the mechanisms of global finance serve just as well. As Indigenous peoples awake to their plight, and especially as they take action to redress their marginalization, some global actors—including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank—respond with efforts to reduce this marginalization, if only to smooth the process of resource extraction.

International institutions and managers of global trade are increasingly concerned about the deleterious effects of marginalization and exclusion, not simply on those who are marginalized and excluded, but on the whole system of international trade and relations. Even organizations that benefit from marginalizing others are concerned; indeed, this group may be the most concerned, because their position atop the world's hierarchy is threatened by disruptions at lower levels.

The 12th Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in May 2013, hosted an "unprecedented meeting" with dozens of international banking officials to discuss the impacts of their projects on Indigenous Peoples. A newly appointed World Bank Senior Adviser for Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Minorities told the gathering the Bank promises to "listen with heart and soul" to the voices of Indigenous Peoples.

The International Indian Treaty Council called attention to the language used to describe the role of Indigenous Peoples in relation to globally-financed projects, pointing out that there is a difference between "free, prior and informed consent" and free, prior and informed "consultation." Others noted that there is a wide gap between high-level bank policies and implementation on the ground, where actual engagement with Indigenous Peoples is often minimal.

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The UN Global Compact is taking yet another approach to resolving tensions between business ventures and Indigenous Peoples: On International Human Rights Day in December 2012, the Compact released a draft of its Business Reference Guide on the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples . The Guide acknowledges at the outset that "indigenous peoples are often uniquely vulnerable to business activities," in part due to the history of colonization, and in part to their close ties to their lands.

The Guide also acknowledges that "indigenous peoples are traditional owners of significant lands, territories and resources" and that there is "a lack of properly articulated legal rights protecting indigenous peoples," especially at the level of state governments. The Guide proposes "to provide guidance to businesses on positive and respectful engagement with indigenous peoples," and notes that such engagement "can have benefits for all."

It is in this context that the Secretary-General highlighted "the importance of honouring treaties, agreements and other constructive arrangements between States, their citizens and indigenous peoples. Such consensual arrangements enable better understanding of their views and values and are essential for protecting and promoting rights and establishing the political vision and necessary frameworks for different cultures to coexist in harmony."

The First Peoples Human Rights Coalition provides an important source of information about conflicts between "development" and Indigenous societies. Founded as a non-profit organization in 2004, the Coalition promotes the human rights of Indigenous peoples—including within the boundaries of the United States. They produce a highly regarded news clipping service available by email. 

The Coalition focuses especially on how economic development projects present a two-edged sword to Indigenous Peoples. For example, a recent article about tar sands oil extraction in Alberta explored the ways it brings jobs and services, but also "despair." The article quotes Eriel Deranger, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, speaking about the tar sands economy: "On the one hand [it] is ensuring that … families are fed …and…allowing new and better health facilities…. However it’s also going hand in hand with the loss of land, the loss of culture, the loss of identity."

A representative of the United Nations Development Programme emphasized at the May 2013 meeting with bank officials that "Human development is more than just economic growth." This is a crucial point to remember in any discussion of what it means to be marginal. Marginalization is generally discussed in terms of economics: who gains, who loses, who decides, who feels the impact—positive and negative—of resource extraction, production, and consumption.

If human development is not only, or even primarily, an economic growth concept and phenomenon, what is it? If culture is more than what goods we have, what is it? If life is not only, or even primarily, about how much we own, what is it? These questions are at the heart of debates about marginalization, and they are more difficult to discuss than the strictly economic issues.

The world of finance capital and development builds on a material definition of being human, expressed in terms of "having." To the extent that every culture is defined in part by what it has, this definition has utility. But to the extent that life and culture are intangible—literally, "untouchable"—we are faced with a deep mystery: When are material things immaterial, and when do immaterial factors matter most?

Being Indian is more about a way of life than about blood, despite the frequent focus on blood-quantum as a measure of identity. As Phillip Deere said, the "Indian way of life" is really a "human being way of life." The question is, what does it mean to be human? Perhaps the most profound outcome of the Indigenous challenge to marginalization is a deeper understanding of humanity.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.