The expansion of the global economy has brought both prosperity and peril to indigenous communities. But Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, who is the executive director of the Tebtebba Foundation and was recently appointed United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, champions the inventive ways communities are negotiating the pressures of the global marketplace while protecting traditions and natural ecosystems.
How has the global demand for resources affected your community?
I come from a community of indigenous people in the northern part of the Philippines. I was born there and live there, and it mainly thrives on subsistence agriculture. We have a lot of resources. We have rich forests, strong rivers, minerals, and diverse cultures and traditional knowledge systems. Our mineral resources include high-grade gold deposits, silver and copper, according to the reports of some big mining companies that have done initial exploration in my hometown. But our elders and even local officials have not agreed to let our lands be mined. Most of us think that we should not sacrifice our ecosystem for short-term gains, when one of our responsibilities is to leave to future generations lands and resources that will ensure their well-being. One of the values we, the Kankana-ey Igorot peoples, hold dear is good stewardship of our territories and resources. We want to continue protecting and sustainably using our forests, rivers and farms over generations; we don’t want our rice fields as well as our whole ecosystem destroyed.
The national government encourages the entry of mining companies by giving them many incentives. However, we have resisted their attempts to exploit our lands because we have seen the destruction wrought in our neighboring province, which has hosted large-scale mining operations since the early 1900s. The ecological destruction of the mined lands is horrific—a few people got rich but most of the other people just remained poor. So our elders asked us, “Do you want to go toward that direction?”
The dominant thinking is, you open up to the markets and become part of the whole global economy and you will become very modern. But there are still a lot of us who don’t think that way.
We are engaged with the market; there’s no doubt about that. But allowing our community to be drawn in totally to that whole system remains a question for many of us. Some of our communities have shifted from subsistence agriculture toward cash crop vegetable production. However, since they do not have control over agricultural supplies, credit and marketing, they find themselves cheated many times. We think we can get engaged with the market but on better terms—or, better yet, on our own terms. We believe we have the right to determine our own economic, social and cultural development because we have lived on and nurtured these lands since time immemorial. This is what the right to self-determination is all about. We indigenous peoples have diverse economic systems, and we should not be forced or pressured to convert our economies to fit the global market economy. The state should not be imposing its interests on us without our being part of planning how development in our communities should happen.
You have worked with indigenous communities around the world. How do these groups interact with the private sector?
My organization has partner organizations in 13 countries in the world. The way we work with the private sector is to get engaged. It ranges from engaging more substantially with the private sector to resisting the private sector—especially if people are not part of the decision-making processes.
For instance, we have partners who have agricultural cooperatives in Vietnam and in Mexico. They engage actively with the private sector by selling them their products and getting a fair price for these products. But our partners in Indonesia have some conflicts with the private sector, particularly the palm oil companies that are coming to their communities and hastening the deforestation of their lands. In the Philippines, our partners are resisting big mining companies. Many cases have been filed against some of these companies.
So our partners relate with big and small companies. And with both types, we try to raise their awareness of indigenous peoples’ rights. Then there are international minimum standards, such as the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to ensure our dignity and well-being are respected, protected and fulfilled. The United States and the U.N. should implement this declaration, which includes the need to obtain free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples before any development project is brought into their communities. There is also the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which several corporations have already agreed to use. We want to raise the awareness within the private sector that it’s good business to be respectful of human rights.
We also want to get companies to talk to the governments to say, “You also need to respect the basic human rights of these people and you should put in the regulations that we should follow as companies coming into your country or into the community.” Because even if we have the international standards, if these regulations or laws are not done nationally or translated nationally, then companies will have a basis to say, “But you don’t have the laws in place.”
What are some examples of good relations between the private sector and indigenous communities?
Our partners in Oaxaca, in Mexico, are autonomous and self-sustaining. They hardly depend on the government. They produce organic coffee and many other agricultural products that they sell to the market. They have community forests, which provide them with timber and non-timber forest products. Since they have maintained their watersheds, they also produce and sell bottled water. They engage in ecotourism and handicraft production. Because almost all of the products they harvest, process and manufacture are organic, they can demand better prices in the market. They have their own trucks that bring their produce outside of their villages. They have set up production and credit cooperatives that ensure community participation and better sharing of benefits from their economic endeavors. Thus, they deal directly with corporations that are interested in buying their products and they cut out the role of the middlemen.
These types of partnerships aren’t always easy. What can help bridge the divide?
One way of bridging the divide is to demand consistency from corporations. I was invited to Davos and I had a meeting with the CEOs of the biggest mining companies in the world; they assured me that they believe in human rights. So I told them, “You seem to have the right values, but this is not translated to your country managers.” If the big bosses believe that their corporations should respect rights, then it has to be reflected in the operations at the country level.
One of the divides is simply the differences in what people perceive as progress. The dominant thinking is, you open up to the markets and become part of the whole global economy and you will become very modern and you are OK. But there are still a lot of people like us who don’t think that way. And we would rather not be very rich but also, of course, not very poor. We would rather sustain our ecosystems, our territories, and make sure something is left for our future generations to live on because we are basically people of the land and we rely heavily on nature for our subsistence and well-being.
There should be a totally different paradigm—a transformation of how we think of our good life or well-being. There’s a lot of discontent—a lot of dissatisfaction and unhappiness—even among the richest people in the world. At the same time, there are people, including many indigenous peoples, who are not materially rich but still maintain values of sharing, reciprocity, solidarity, harmony with nature, and respect for human rights, and who practice sustainability. Their concept of a good quality of life is not to accumulate unlimited wealth and not to engage in incessant consumption but to live in communities where healthy social relations, respect for cultural diversity, food security, intercultural education and health services, more equitable sharing of wealth, and a sustainable environment are ensured.
So the secret is the balance between these two, where you raise the level of living standards for the extremely poor and then you reduce the wealth and the power of these very rich people who continue plundering the earth for more wealth. For instance, these investment companies who are doing these speculative investments—how can you have such a world where you earn money because you are speculating on the collapse of prices? What kind of world is that where you get rich because you have enough money to gamble anywhere, even at the expense of people dying?
I don’t believe we can have a sustainable world if that’s the kind of economic system that prevails and governments have no capacity to regulate it.