The knowledge and wisdom inherited from our indigenous ancestors can be our saving grace.
The world was recently gripped by the drama of four children rescued after 40 days in the Colombian rainforest following a plane crash. They were indigenous Huitoto with survival skills learnt through traditional upbringing. It was also the tracking skills of indigenous people that found them.
This feel-good story came at a time of enormous global gloom, shining welcome light on the skills and courage of a neglected segment of humanity. They are the world’s 476 million indigenous people. Constituting just 6 per cent of the world population, they live as neglected minorities across 90 countries.
But who are the “indigenous”? They are generally taken to be descendants of the original inhabitants of an area before foreign invasions displaced and replaced their ancestors. That is hardly a precise definition when world history over millennia is one of successive invasion and conquest, population movement and mixing.
Arguably, depending on how far back we trace our roots, we were all indigenous somewhere even if we are located elsewhere. This plays into the human preoccupation with self-identity, seeking comfort and security from a sense of belonging to some place. Even if that is a distant spot or present only in the myths and traditions passed down generations.
While identity is important for rounded personal and social development, preoccupation with it is a double-edged sword. We know from genome research that our basic building blocks are the same. And yet humans have, over the ages, politicised identity to create divide-and-rule ethnic splits, and even committed violent atrocities on other identity groups. Such unpalatable aspects of human history include the precipitous decline of indigenous American and Australian populations following European conquests.
Meanwhile, European indigenous communities such as the Saamis in Scandinavia, Inuits in Greenland, and Nenets in Siberia have also had their sorrows and struggles. As also the Adivasis in India, Dayaks in Indonesia, Twa in southern Africa, Berbers in northern Africa, and Assyrians and Bedouins in the Middle East.
They are part of an estimated 5,000 groups defined by their distinct social structure and cultural practices, usually associated with specific ancestral ties to particular geographies.
Amazingly, there are still more than a hundred uncontacted indigenous tribes – mostly living in the Amazonian rainforest but also in New Guinea, with the 30,000-year-old Sentinelese in India’s Nicobar Islands being the most ferocious. Killing any outsiders who got near, they are also most vulnerable because they have no immunity to the outside world’s myriad infections. Hence, contact with them is strictly prohibited as similar contacts with other isolated groups have often destroyed them through smallpox, tuberculosis, or other novel conditions.
What is the utility of the “indigenous” classification? It comes from the incalculable benefits of extraordinary diversity as these groups speak 4,000 of the world’s 7,000 languages. That treasure trove of knowledge accumulated over aeons is the extensive and complex foundation of all human progress. It continues to provide inspiration and insight for today’s challenges.
However, the modern assimilationist approach and a relentless homogenisation that accompanies globalisation threatens to make extinct more than 90 per cent of indigenous languages. For example, 52 native American languages have already disappeared and worldwide, tens of millions of people have lost their mother tongues over past centuries. That is an irrecoverable loss for inventive human endeavour even in our age of science and technology including artificial intelligence.
Hence the importance of the current International Decade of Indigenous Languages, because our written and spoken words are the most significant dimension of our collective memory, values, and represent the hallmark of humanity itself.
Meanwhile, the welfare of indigenous peoples is an increasingly existentialist matter for the world. That is because they occupy or utilise a quarter of the world’s surface area and help to conserve 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity. Directly relevant to the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise is the matter of curbing the loss of our forests.
Whether that happens depends significantly on indigenous communities because they are the stewards of the planet’s most important forestlands. They have already demonstrated what can be achieved when supportive government policies protect traditional land rights.
Brazil has announced a two-thirds reduction in Amazon de-forestation this year, thanks to the Guarani Mbya and other traditional forest guardians. Indigenous Papuans are at the centre of similar efforts in Indonesia, while the indigenous Dhanwar community have transformed forest conservation and agro-ecological food systems in India’s Chhattisgarh region.
Indigenous health knowledge has saved lives since time immemorial, thanks to ancient Chinese, Indian, Arab and Greek healers. More than two-thirds of anti-cancer and anti-infectious medicines are traced to natural products discovered originally by indigenous communities. As new conditions emerge or traditional diseases re-emerge, most notably with the rise of anti-microbial resistance, novel drugs discovery is urgent. This raises important moral questions: should not the holders of traditional intellectual property be better rewarded?
Or the world’s “first nations” should, at least, benefit equitably from contributing to the rest of us. Unfortunately, that is not the case when indigenous peoples account for a fifth of the world’s extreme poor and suffer life expectancy 20 years lower than the average. Their physical and social marginalisation is often accompanied by stigmatisation because of their perceived differences from the mainstream.
The result is that traditional development approaches leave behind indigenous communities with inferior access to health care, education, formal employment, justice and political participation. Worse, they are often the first victims of so-called progress, losing their lands and livelihoods to advancing infrastructure such as dams and roads.
The cumulative impact makes indigenous peoples more vulnerable to diseases such as Covid-19, disasters from natural hazards, forced migration from conflicts, and now climate change. Horrendous historic abuse has also been identified, for example, with missing and murdered Secwepemc women and children in Canada or the genocide against Namibia’s Ovaherero and Nama peoples.
We cannot undo history’s numerous wrongs in so many different places. And just ignoring them adds insult to injury and makes repetition more likely. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted in 2007 to inspire national legislation and policies, and trigger actions that respect the autonomy and rights, dignity and well-being of indigenous communities.
Some progress has been made but much more must be done. The benefits from doing so extend beyond indigenous communities themselves. History has already taught us that treating them fairly provides dividends for all humanity.