Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Remembering the Country of Their Birth: Indigenous Peoples and Territoriality

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Remembering the Country of Their Birth: Indigenous Peoples and Territoriality

Article excerpt

The successive forces of mercantilism and colonialism that first surged out of Europe in the 15th century unleashed, over the next 500 years, a seismic shake-up of the native societies of the New World, Asia, Africa, and the Pacific. In the cases of Asia and Africa, the colonizers, if not also their influence, were in the main repulsed through nationalist movements that burgeoned while Europe fought World War II, and that delivered formal political independence in the decades following the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Where, however, westerners came not only to extract resources but also to settle en masse, as in the Americas, Australia, and Aotearoa/New Zealand, native societies barely survived, let alone found the opportunity to reconstitute into something like their former selves. In any event, western governments made sure as the war wound down that that opportunity would never effectively materialize, for either set of disrupted societies. In July 1944, a month before formal discussions began in Dumbarton Oaks on the creation

of a new world organization to replace the defunct League of Nations, representatives of 45 states, most dominated at the time by either the United States or the United Kingdom, met in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, to lay out a postwar economic world order, manifest today as global capitalism, that would safeguard the extensive extra-territorial economic interests of the west against the formidable threat then posed to them by the looming convergence of two ascending ideologies: Soviet socialism and Third World nationalism. (2)

A stratagem that the trans-Atlantic states settled on to undercut these ideologies was the large-scale proffer, fraught with conditions and consequences, of American capital to a cash-strapped postwar world in dire need of reconstruction funds. The institutions that the alliance created to control the use of that capital included the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now the World Bank), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and, three years later, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade; now the World Trade Organization (WTO). (3) To date, the Bretton Woods scheme has served its authors exceedingly well. Global capitalism runs the world, generating excessive wealth for some, comfortable sufficiency for many, and unbearable poverty for the rest, all the while rearranging natural and cultural landscapes at will or, as needed, at the side of the American imperium. (4) In the process, what ties there remain in the postcolonial world that still bind human beings close to the lands of their birth--ties spun from cultural communities' intimate knowledge of, and profound dependence on, their natural environments--are mindlessly slashed, if not severed.

In this story the peoples--comprising over 350 million individuals and 5,000 ethnolinguistic groups--whom international fora today recognize as indigenous are, virtually by default, those last wrenched from, or harassed in, their native spaces. As a consequence, they assert more vigorously than others earlier displaced their attachments and rights to homelands still experienced, or remembered, in the main as sufficient, animate, and meaningful. Jose R. Martinez Cobo, the Special Rapporteur appointed in 1971 by the UN Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) to conduct its first-ever study of indigenous peoples, identified this land-rootedness as the primary marker of indigenous identity. He wrote, in his now classic description of indigenous peoples:

   Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having
   a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies
   that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct
   from other sectors of the societies now prevailing in those
   territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant
   sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and
   transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and
   their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as
   peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social
   institutions and legal systems. … 
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