Originally published in the Financial Times, on October 9, 2003
At a recent gathering of Latin American heads of state, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the Brazilian president, commented that his supporters, the workers of Brazil, had waited for decades to influence Brazilian politics. "That's nothing," said Alejandro Toledo, the first Peruvian president of indigenous descent. "My people have been waiting for 500 years!" The wait is now over, and not just in Peru. The political empowerment of indigenous populations has become a global trend.
The Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador is now a strong political force in its home country. So is Bolivia's Movement toward Socialism, which supports the Bolivian ethnic groups that depend on coca leaf production. Last August, the Canadian government gave the Tlicho Indians a diamond-rich area in the Northwest Territories, equivalent in size to Switzerland, and another 29,000 square miles to the Labrador Inuits. Indigenous groups have also gained political influence in Brazil, Colombia and throughout Central America.
In Mexico, the rebellion in Chiapas brought indigenous groups to the forefront of national politics. Australia's Aborigines and New Zealand's Maoris are regaining more control of their ancestral lands.
This newly acquired political clout does not mean that the abject poverty, exclusion and exploitation common to the world's indigenous populations are over. But their political influence has increased in the past three decades. Why?
The short answer is globalisation. Environmentalists, human rights activists, anti-poverty campaigners and other civil groups are now able to recruit and raise funds faster and further afield than ever before. Meanwhile, the global spread of democracy has helped highlight the plight of indigenous populations and increased their political might. Decentralisation and devolution of political power to state and local governments have enabled indigenous representatives to win elections. Global and local activism has eroded tolerance for human rights violations, ecological abuses and discrimination of any kind, and set new standards for the behaviour of governments and corporations. During the 1980s, for example, the United Nations launched an initiative to establish a universal declaration of indigenous rights. A working group representing governments and indigenous organisations has met annually in Geneva and, although the declaration remains bogged down, the process has helped create an active and relatively well funded global network of indigenous groups and other interested organisations.
Paradoxically, the increase in the activities of multinational corporations around the globe has also improved the political fortunes of indigenous groups. The operations of companies involved in agriculture, logging, mining, oil and other natural resources increasingly encroach on indigenous lands. As a result, environmentalists and indigenous populations have discovered they are natural political allies. Environmentalists bring resources, experience in organising political campaigns and the ability to mobilise the support of governments and the media in rich countries. Indigenous groups bring their claims to lands on which they and their ancestors have always lived. When idle land suddenly becomes a prized corporate asset, the political and financial appeal of the struggle increases significantly.
Globalisation has not brought only benefits for the estimated 350m indigenous people spread over more than 70 countries. Many have been ravaged by new diseases, changes in their habitat, forced displacement from their land, civil wars and the need to adapt to drastically different lifestyles.
But globalisation has also brought indigenous peoples powerful allies, a louder voice internationally and political influence at home. The positive impact of globalisation on indigenous peoples is also a welcome rejoinder to the accusation that it merely homogenises cultures. When members of the Igorot tribe from the northern Philippines and the Brunca tribe from Costa Rica gather in Geneva, their collaboration helps to extend the survival of their respective ways of life - even if they choose to compare notes over a quarter-pounder at McDonald's. Globalisation is so complex that its effects are less predictable and less obvious than is usually assumed. As the Maoris, the Mayagnas and the Tlicho know, it can also empower the poor, the different and the local.
The writer is editor of Foreign Policy magazine