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Proceedings of the
UN Policy Meeting on Indigenous Peoples
Santiago,Chile, May 1992
As a planet biologist I have studied the entire evolution of Earth as a single living system, with special attention to the relationship of our relatively new human species to the rest of this system throughout our known history. From this extremely broad perspective, the present world crisis and potential solutions came into clearer focus. The emerging picture led me to become a co-founder of the Worldwide Indigenous Science Network, convinced that the knowledge indigenous people have about living in balance with other living systems is critical to our own species' survival. In these two capacities, I have come to the following conclusions:
- Humans are not the first species to threaten its own and others' extinction by way of resource depletion and pollution.
- Ancient species survived similar crises by reorganizing their living systems from aggressively competitive to peacefully cooperative.
- Presently evolved species can exist only because the Earth spent billions of years burying atmospheric carbon in forests and underground, much of it as fossil fuels; to burn these forests and fuels reverses the planet's system for keeping atmospheric conditions and climate conducive to species health.
- The Earth's living systems can clean up considerable pollution, but only if they remain healthy; destruction of forests, seashores, water tables, ozone layer, etc. makes it impossible for the Earth to perform the cleanup.
- Industrial hi-tech monoculture agriculture is so destructive in terms of fossil fuel use, pollution and desertification that the human species can no longer be sustained by it; only indigenous, traditional agriculture, demonstrably more productive and sustainable, can meet human food needs in the very near future.
- Small community societies of indigenous and traditional peoples survived in health for many thousands of years without overpopulating because they were composed of living systems in balance with their environments; industrial society, by contrast, threatens its own extinction within a few hundred years of existence because it has created overpopulation and has violated most principles of living systems.
- Biodiversity is essential in all living systems, including human. Monoculture is as destructive and dangerous in human social systems as in human agriculture; the failure to respect and protect indigenous and traditional cultures in the attempt to industrialize all humanity according to one model actually hastens human extinction.
- Technological production is natural to the human species, but must be reevaluated and revised in a goal-setting context of healthy survival.
- The most promising survival path for humans is to merge appropriate technology with the knowledge, wisdom and ecologically sound practice of indigenous and traditional peoples.
Within the ancient Hopi Indian Prophecy is told the history of the Red and White Brothers, sons of the Earth Mother and the Great Spirit who gave them different missions. The Red Brother was to stay at home and keep the land in sacred trust while the White Brother went abroad to record things and make inventions. One day the White Brother was to return and share his inventions in a spirit of respect for the wisdom his Red Brother had gained. It was told that his inventions would include cobwebs through which people could speak to each other from house to house across mountains, even with all doors and windows closed; there would be carriages crossing the sky on invisible roads, and eventually a gourd of ashes that when dropped would scorch the earth and even the fishes in the sea. If the White Brother's ego grew so large in making these inventions that he would not listen to the wisdom of the Red Brother, he would bring this world to an end in the Great Purification of nature. Only a few would survive to bring forth the next world in which there would again be abundance and harmony.
The Colombian Kogi, descendants of the ancient Tairona, have a similar historical scenario in their creation story. Aluna, the Great Mother, the primeval waters, is the source of all creation. Even before creating worlds, she lived through all possibilities for all worlds and all times through great mental anguish. For this she is known as Memory and Possibility. The eight worlds previous to this one were not peopled, but in this ninth world she put humans, including Elder and Younger Brothers. From the beginning, Younger Brother caused so much trouble that eventually he was given knowledge of technology and sent far, far away across the waters. Five hundred years ago, the Kogi say, he found his way back across the waters and he has been causing trouble ever since. If he does not listen to the Kogi, to Elder Brother, who is telling him to stop destroying the Mother, to stop digging out her heart in his mining and cutting up her liver in his deforestation, he will bring this world to an end.
The Conquest of Nature:
At present human existence is dominated by a technological society founded on the mechanical worldview of western science with its materialistic values-- a worldview, value system and way of life that for all its benefits has brought us to the brink of disaster. It stands in sharp contrast to the worldviews, value systems and lifestyles of indigenous and traditional peoples, which are only now beginning to be recognized as valid in their own right and possibly critical for our very survival as a species. For this reason the formulation and implementation of knowledgeable, sound, participatory policy on indigenous peoples is a vital task for the United Nations.
Western/Northern science and industry from their outset shared the conviction that man is master of all nature and would bring about a Golden Age for all humanity by conquering, subduing and transforming material nature to his own ends. Nature, according to John Locke, the principal philosopher architect of this tradition, has no value in itself, gaining value only when transformed by industrial man. This view of nature still prevails today, notably in genetic engineering and patent discussions for the GATT.
In the spirit of Locke's "the negation of nature is the road to happiness," the European White/Younger Brother seized the lands of the Hopi, the Kogi and most other indigenous cultures around the world, on grounds dating back to a Papal Bull of 1493 stating that infidels had no land rights, while Christians did. Indigenous peoples were identified as part of the "brute nature" the Europeans were to conquer and subdue. Since that time, the Euro-American culture has perpetuated the dogma that indigenous people are backward, ignorant and impoverished without the white man's intervention.
We now look back on a tragic history of the White/Younger Brother's destruction of indigenous cultures to build his technological world. It is a world in which non-human species are rapidly extinguished as vast tracts of forest and mineral-rich earth are transformed into a network of great urban sprawl cities, a top-heavy world in which seven percent of the people own sixty percent of the land and use eighty percent of the available energy. It is a world in which nature has been seen only as a supply base and a dumping ground, a polluted world which testifies to the White Brother's failure to respect the Red Brother's sacred Earth wisdom. It is a world in which we finally recognize that humanity may well face extinction through its own folly.
Worldviews and Prediction:
The Hopi of North America and the Kogi of South America are among many indigenous cultures giving us prophecies from the past as well as present evaluations of our global crisis. These two in particular foretold not only nature's destruction at this time, but specifically identified, as we saw above, the inventive, technological branch of humanity as responsible because it fails to heed the sacred Earth knowledge and wisdom of indigenous peoples.
Neither the Hopi nor the Kogi accounts tells us that technology is bad in itself, that we should abandon it and "go back to nature." On the contrary, both of them validate technology as an important aspect of humanity, but warn that it must be brought into harmony with the sacred natural world through the deep Earth wisdom of indigenous peoples.
How did these indigenous peoples know what technology would bring, where it would lead humanity? Why is it that the science on which our technological world is based-- the science which so prides itself on its ability to predict-- failed to predict its own consequences while indigenous cultures saw clearly where it would lead?
The answer to this question lies in a fundamental difference between the worldviews of indigenous and industrial peoples. The failure of Euro-American scientists to predict the consequences of the technology they spawned is directly related to the fact that their mechanical worldview is diametrically opposed to the organic worldview of indigenous peoples.
The mechanical scientific worldview holds that the universe is fundamentally lifeless, that life happened by accident on the surface of this planet, that everything in nature including humans and their societies can be understood as machinery composed of mechanical parts. In this view, the role of science is to study nature objectively-- as though from outside-- by reducing this machinery to its parts; to understand it so that human society can gain control over it and exploit it for human purposes.
In the worldview shared by indigenous peoples everywhere, despite differences in its formulation, the universe, nature, is alive and sacred, all beings in it are related and interdependent: the stars, the rocks, the waters, the winds, the creatures, the people, the spirits and so on. The human role within nature is to hold it sacred and to live in a balanced way within it, to give back as much as is taken.
One worldview sees nature as fundamentally alive and sacred; the other sees nature as fundamentally mechanical and exploitable. By understanding the world as a single, interconnected and interdependent living system, indigenous peoples knew that the consequences of the White Brother's destructive ways would necessarily be disastrous.
There can no more be one true science than there can be one true religion. Native science (not to mention Arabic, Vedic, Taoist and other) has contributed enormously to modern knowledge. Mechanist science, in its reductionist search for the parts of natural "machinery," has failed to see holistically, systemically. Dr. Greg Cajete of the Santa Clara Pueblo, author of Look to the Mountain: an Ecology of Indigenous Education, Kivaki Press) points out that indigenous science is carried out and taught in "high context" settings, i.e. out in nature itself, rather than in the "low context" industrial society settings of laboratories and classrooms isolated from nature. He points out also that indigenous science is not something learned in limited years of formal training, but that it is a lifelong task. The whole enterprise of industrial society science is based on removing phenomena from their natural context to "control" them, while the whole concept of indigenous science is teaching natural phenomena in natural settings in order to integrate yourself with them. It is not a science that stands apart from nature to look at it objectively; it does not eliminate the sacred, but integrates it. It fosters dialog between humans and the rest of nature.
Native science, which by Euro-American scientific categorization includes biology, geology, astronomy, navigation, meteorology, botany, medicine/pharmacology, psychology, agricultural engineering, plant genetics, ecology, social and political sciences is based on thousands of years of observations and experiments in living nature. Jack Weatherford has documented the incredible impact of the fruits of Native American science alone on all the world's cultures (Indian Givers, Crown Publishers, New York 1988).
If we take the single example of agricultural engineering, the modern high-tech Green Revolution cannot hold a candle to the sustainable productivity of highly developed Inca agriculture, or even to that of the traditional "permaculture" farming practiced by the natives of India prior to colonization.
Green Revolution agriculture uses vast quantities of fossil fuel energy to produce machinery, fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation systems, all of which combine to irrevocably destroy soils and water tables, not to mention the destruction of the traditional communities of people who formerly owned and farmed the land. These people, who developed healthy, productive seed and varied crops over thousands of years on the same land, are now pressed into serfdom on huge mechanized farms that grow monoculture crops from sterile seed and will remain productive only for limited time before the ground is reduced to saline desert (see The Violence of the Green Revolution by Vandana Shiva, Dehra Dun, India 1989).
Green Revolution statistics show greater yield of, say, rice per hectare than traditional methods, but they ignore the fact that the same hectares were not only producing rice, but fish, pigs, vegetables, fruit, fertilizer and mulch on soil/water that remained healthy with no chemical input. A century ago, a British agricultural expert toured India to see how he could best advise Indian farmers to improve their agricultural practices. His conclusion was that the Indian farmers had more to give to the English in the way of advice, because they knew so much about soil composition and health, pest control, water management, crop breeding, and all other aspects of agriculture.
Yet in the present GATT (General Agreements on Trade and Tariffs) discussions, scientists continue to promote the idea that nature can and must be technologically transformed by scientific techniques. Seed that was developed over thousands of years by indigenous peoples or peasants is defined as "primitive cultivar" until brought into a laboratory, genetically altered and then patented for ownership (in direct violation of sacred contract living). If these GATT agreements go through, the indigenous peoples or peasants who developed seed will be fined for planting it unless they buy the seed from its new "owners!"
Pre-Inca and Inca agriculture developed hundreds of varieties of potatoes, high protein grain and beans, corn and many other carefully bred crops, feeding millions of people on the same lands without destroying them. Over half the food eaten in the world today traces its roots to the Andes. Their mountain agriculture included automatic irrigation systems and climate-control to prevent freezing. Only minimal work was required in their plow-free tabled fields. Freeze dried potatoes were among their inventions. Indigenous people without the urban social organization of the Inca were equally sophisticated in their agricultural practice (see Darrell Posey's position paper for this meeting: Indigenous Knowledge in the Conservation and Utilization of World Forests).
Native navigational science was especially highly developed in the Pacific and required no compass. In addition to astronomy (navigation by stars) there was sophisticated knowledge of currents, weather patterns and fish and bird migrations to guide the swift, elegant outrigger canoes over vast stretches of ocean. These navigators were also trained to detect magnetic fields in their bodies (giving them "compass" directions) and to sense psychically their proximity to land.
Because we are accustomed to equating science and technology with mechanical instruments, machinery and all the material products of our culture, it is difficult for us to grasp the enormous scientific and technological prowess of peoples who consciously kept their material goods to a minimum in order to live in ecologically sound ways. Yet science is the systematic accumulation of knowledge about our natural world and technology is quite literally human artifice. However invisible much indigenous technology was, it often worked better than the mechanical technology of the modern world.
Consider birth control. Native peoples' science of ecology made them sensitive to how many people their land could support. If populations grew greater or less than optimal, they adjusted social rules (for example, how long nursing mothers were off limits to men) and the use of herbal birth control accordingly. Overpopulation is a problem arising when communities in sound ecological balance with their surrounding world are destroyed and that balance is lost. Colonialism was devastating to indigenous communities wherever it was practiced. Mining and monoculture farming was instituted on indigenous lands wherever possible, destroying self-sufficient, independent and secure community. Later, this destruction was compounded by urbanization, which made people totally dependent on colonial jobs and institutions for their livelihood when their land was taken.
Populations were first decimated by diseases the colonizers brought and to which natives had no resistance; then, in Asia, Africa and parts of South America, they grew out of bounds. The fact that modern medicine saved lives may compensate for lives taken by diseases the white man brought, but it did not cause overpopulation as we have been told. Overpopulation is the reaction of insecure people whose former ecologically-sound community has been destroyed, their only remaining security lying in having enough children to hire out in wage slavery. Native North Americans, having resisted wage slavery, were outright murdered (there is still a bounty law for killing Indians in Massachusetts!) or pushed onto ever smaller reservations, deprived of their economic bases, forced to adopt foreign language, foreign forms of government, housing, education and religion in the concerted effort to destroy their cultures, then decimated by alcohol in their despair. As a result, most cultures were wiped out; those that survived never had a chance to "overpopulate."
Much indigenous science is extremely sophisticated in what we call "interdisciplinary sciences," such as geology/meteorology. The Hopi, for example discovered that in the Southwest underground copper deposits draw down lightning, bringing life-giving rains to the desert. They know that mining can change weather patterns as surely as the Kogi know that deforestation and mining are drying the climate around them so their mountains no longer have adequate snow to feed the rivers on which their crops and lives depend. Both cultures have observed the destruction while the white man saw only the copper and the gold that would bring him wealth.
Native science uses the sacredness of nature as its guidepost to what should or should not be done by humans. To be sacred is to be inviolable, to be treated with utmost respect. To have a sacred contract with nature, as said above, is to care for it, protect it, give back to it as much as is taken. When the White Brother's inventive genius comes together with the Red Brother's deep wisdom, we will develop an appropriate technology that does not violate the Earth, but restores it and permits all creatures to live in health.
In terms of United Nations policy on indigenous peoples, it seems to me essential that:
- The UN sponsor an educational campaign designed to build respect for indigenous and traditional peoples; that supports them in telling their own histories and worldviews, and that makes clear that much land was taken from them by utterly unjustifiable means.
- The UN set up a World Council of Indigenous Elders with international media coverage to advise world leaders (CEOs, international bankers, politicians, religious leaders, etc.)
- The UN immediately begin inviting Indigenous Elders, even before formal recognition of their nations, to address the General Assembly on critical world issues.
- The UN support indigenous peoples who survived the past half millennium of industrialization in their land claims, lest the very basis for their existence be denied them further.
- The UN look very seriously into its policy of not recognizing indigenous nations existing within the borders of member nations, though these member nations have never legitimately acquired title to the aboriginal lands.
- Whenever indigenous nations have conflicts with industrialized nations, whether over patents on their intellectual property, independent nation status, land disputes, or other issues, the negotiations do not take place within the legal structure of one disputing party's culture: e.g. industrial society courts. Fair negotiations can only be possible in some compromise structure of discussion agreeable to both sides, possibly within the UN.
- Ethnobiological research be supported by the UN in ways that promote the conservation of indigenous and traditional cultures and actively prevent their exploitation.
- Appropriate technology be made available to indigenous peoples upon consultation with them.
In conclusion, as a western scientist, a planet biologist, I believe that indigenous peoples are the guardians of our species; the part of humanity that alone holds the wisdom to insure our healthy survival.