Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Development Dilemma: Sustaining Resources, Improving Livelihoods

Magazine article UN Chronicle

The Development Dilemma: Sustaining Resources, Improving Livelihoods

Article excerpt

Often called the guardians or caretakers of the earth, indigenous people share a profound attachment to and stewardship of their environment, which encompasses many of the world's most valuable and vulnerable ecosystems, including the Arctic, tundra, mountains, boreal woodlands, riverine and coastal zones, semi-arid rangelands and tropical forests.

In order to survive for millennia on these fragile environments, native people have developed a holistic knowledge of their land and resources that many contemporary societies lack. Where most of humankind tends to seek dominion over the natural world, the approach of people is the very essence of sustainable development--development which meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to survive and flourish.

"It is only the new sensibilities the rest of us have developed over the grave ecological damage we are doing that allows us now to appreciate the way indigenous peoples instinctively relate to the environment wise conduct their lives", General Assembly President Stoyan Ganev stated in launching the International indigenous Year on 10 December 1992. "Instead of following indigenous peoples' example of how to love and how to live with their land, too often we have coveted it and tried to expropriate it."

Indeed, indigenous societies employ some of the most successful, sustainable and environmentally-friendly methods of resource management and land use, including nomadic pastoralization, shifting various forms of agro-forestry, terrace farming, hunting, herding and fishing. Such traditional agricultural methods promote land conservation and biological diversity.

Moreover, their religious practices often involve setting aside forests and other lands as sacred preserves for wildlife, spirits and deities. Indigenous people also possess extensive knowledge of herbal medicine, soils, plants, animals and climate.

The Kayapo people of Brazil, for example, practice sophisticated methods of cultivation, such as seed selection and crop rotation, to ensure regrowth and replenishment of the forest. A Kayapo leader has explained: "I am trying to save the knowledge that the forests and this planet are alive, to give it back to you who have lost the understanding."

Many indigenous groups attended the UN Conference on Environment and Development--known as the Earth Summit--in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in June 1992, and left their mark on two of the Summit's main achievements: the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, a broad statement of principles outlining the rights and responsibilities of States towards the environment; and Agenda 21, a far-reaching action plan for sustainable development.

Principle 22 of the Rio Declaration states: "Indigenous people and their communities . . . have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognize and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development."

Agenda 21 also views indigenous people as fundamental to environmental recovery and recommends using their experience and knowledge in sustainable development. Among other things, the document calls on Governments and international organizations to empower indigenous communities, provide more and better safeguards against environmentally unsound activities that could affect indigenous people or their lands, and take measures to improve the overall quality of life of indigenous people.

International lending agencies, such as the World Bank, have also pledged to be more sensitive to the concerns of indigenous people when making decisions about development projects.

One example: the international Fund for Agricultural Development recently launched a $2-million project to promote the role of some 120,000 indigenous inhabitants of Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela in the sustainable management of the Amazon forests. …

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