As we celebrate the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, we cannot help but wonder how far modern societies have come in recognizing and realizing the needs and rights of indigenous peoples around the world, while learning from their unique knowledge, culture, and science. This question is especially pertinent in the greater Himalayas, where environments are steep, isolated, and hazard-prone, and access to government and development services is limited. In particular, the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples outlines the rights to self-determination, preservation of resources and land, and direct inputs into decision-making.
Ironically, it is their isolation and inaccessibility that has protected indigenous communities from the modernizing forces of globalization and, in the past, protected their culture, spiritual practices, and critical relationship with the environment. Over millennia, human societies discovered different ways to survive and thrive in mountain habitats characterized by breathtakingly steep ridges, deep valleys, and undulating landscapes. Each community adapted to the particular features of its landscape, developing knowledge on gathering food, building materials, fodder, and medicine from the rich ecosystems that support them. Many settled in a particular place, while others prospered through travel, trade, seasonal migration, or pastoralism. They learned to read the seasons, weather, flora, fauna, and the environment in order to survive.
Almost every indigenous community has developed a unique culture—indeed, a unique civilization—shaped by the landscape and shaping it in turn. Each expresses its unique and intimate relationship to the landscape through medical knowledge, stories, food, rituals, ceremonies, agriculture, gender relations, dance, language, and careful management of natural resources. While the term ‘indigenous’ sometimes evokes political oppression, we prefer to stress the rich connection to a specific place that each indigenous society enjoys. Those thousands of particular local adaptations, unique culture, and immense ecological knowledge may hold a key to surviving the present environmental and social crisis.
In contrast, the ‘modern’ world boasts the benefits of technical and scientific knowledge and industrialization. Clothing, housing, medicine, food, and information are all available to support the wellbeing of much of the world’s population, even if these goods are unevenly or inequitably distributed or produced environmentally destructive and culturally insensitive ways. Unlike indigenous cultures, modern civilization has cut itself off from a sense of place; it can be everywhere, and indeed, globalization is one of its proudest ‘achievements’. The development of fast and relatively cheap transport and the emergence of universal mass media have made even remote corners of the world accessible and created an increasingly homogenous culture which ostensibly builds connections among societies but frequently devalues those connections. From an indigenous perspective, to live without a sense of connection and identity is actually to be homeless.
Industrialization, overconsumption, and dependence on non-renewable carbon fuels have also put the whole planet in great peril. The world is heating up and weather patterns are becoming unpredictable. Cultural diversity, too, is at risk. Globalization requires that all participants use the same languages, think of the world as the same place, and rely on narrow technocratic understandings of the world. It is not surprising, then, that of the tens of thousands of languages humans spoke 500 years ago, only 6,000 are left. Nor is it surprising that development is frequently seen through a lens of narrow economic and technical approaches that ignore richness of culture, spirituality, and social relations. All of these processes are direct threats to the survival of indigenous peoples and their landscapes.
Among human populations today, indigenous peoples are small minorities. For indigenous societies that have survived into the 21st century, the encounter with modernizing forces is often destructive. Examples include foragers forced into fixed housing; shifting cultivators kept from engaging in ecologically sound indigenous practices perceived as ‘primitive’ and, ironically, ‘environmentally destructive’; and transhumant pastoralists restricted from access to their rangelands. The remaining displaced, disinherited communities are often further damaged by gender-based violence, drug and alcohol abuse, exposure to disease, capture into a unitary capitalist economy, economic hardship and poverty. In parts of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where land grabbing for food, biofuel production and carbon sinks is on the rise, much of it takes place on the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples.
Yet indigenous communities are not passive victims of exploitation. Globalization has enabled indigenous communities to recognize their common particularity and shared strengths. In North America, the native scholar Dale Turner has argued that indigenous peoples must train ‘legal warriors’ who can defend not just land and the right to self-determination, but their indigenous ways of dwelling and adapting—as has occurred in Canada and Australia. In several countries, including India, Nepal and Bolivia, the rights of indigenous peoples are at the centre of constitutional processes.
Indigenous leaders are part of the World Conservation Union and the UN; they are university professors, members of parliament, traditional healers, and modern physicians. Indigenous and alternative approaches to development, such as Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, offer a more holistic and trans-cultural paradigm that places cultural values and spirituality, environmental conservation, sustainable development, and good governance at the heart of development.
Mountain areas, such as the Himalayas, the Andes, highland New Guinea, and the Carpathians, precisely because of their rugged landscapes, gave rise to many of the world’s indigenous communities. In a changing world, these societies, with their deep respect for all life and the particularities of place, are at the frontline of adapting to change. Indigenous knowledge of the environment, weather, health practices, agriculture, and irrigation is as profound, rational, and sophisticated as any discipline found in universities.
‘Modern’ society is a threat to its own water supply, its own food supply, and most of all to other living beings that share the planet with humanity. Some moderns, arrogant beyond measure, have forgotten how to live holistically and sustainably. Each indigenous society finds ways to share and shape its landscapes, learning from the places they dwell and respecting the inherent connection between all forms of life. How far modern societies have come can be determined by how much they embrace indigenous peoples’ culture, knowledge, and unique ways of living to touch their lives. At this moment of crisis, indigenous peoples can remind unrooted, globalized consumers and their worried leaders how to love a landscape without commodifying it, how to sustainably and respectfully find what a community needs in the place where it is, and how to live gently, equitably, and sustainably with all other life on earth.
The authors are anthropologists associated with the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) in Kathmandu. The views are personal.