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When will the world’s financial powers learn?

Indigenous Peoples

Last week I read reports that the powers that are, the World Bank and IMF, admit they may have been mistaken in their treatment of Greece. Their holier than thou, cracking the whip attitude, beating down an economy that was already in desperate straits is sickening. The harsh, belt tightening exercises demanded of Greece, could have been ‘a bit extreme’, our experts in the highest echelons of world high finance now feel. How magnanimous of them.

The Greeks, together with alternative economists on every continent, were telling them so, but they wouldn’t listen. Since their inception after the Second World War, the Bretton Woods twins have ridden roughshod over countries they could bully. Yet they are allowed to get away with it, time and again. It’s only the poor who suffer and their voices are stifled by their own corrupt governments eager to get loans from the Bank.

I first encountered opposition to the World Bank’s funding policies as a greenhorn journalist in the early eighties, when I covered a story in the erstwhile Bihar state, now Jharkhand. Adivasis were protecting their indigenous forests from a huge World Bank funded project designed to cut down ancient sal trees, adivasi sacred groves and other local ecosystems in order to grow teak forests for commercial purposes. Environmentalists will shudder, and even most Bank people will cringe in embarrassment, but, they were giving millions for commercial forests totally ignoring environmental concerns. Actually, enabling the Bihar government to cut down historic, old forests.

Mexico and India went through IMF and Bank conditionalities when they too, were forced to go cap in hand, begging for money, desperate because of a shambolic, crippled economy. I wrote a New Internationalist article about the conditions demanded by the Bank and IMF, imperiously imposed in the early 1990s. In those days, essential food prices shot up, leaving poor people starving, while price wars offering cheaper ice-creams, burgers and pizza, proliferated. The Indian economy is presumably still galloping, but how its affecting the poorest in the country is an entirely different question. Most corporate houses are laughing all the way to the bank. But malnutrition and hunger in our worst states hasn’t improved very much.

The economy must gallop to keep up with China, is the mantra in business circles. At what cost, no one wants to admit. In adivasi dominated states, people are being pushed off their lands, pauperized, beaten up, jailed and displaced because the mineral rights beneath their homes must be exploited for the economy to continue racing ahead. That entire communities are destroyed, their millenia old habitat wrenched from them with brutal paramilitary troops beating, killing and jailing innocent people who are merely fighting for the right to exist, is not an issue. Morality, justice, right and wrong is not a consideration when poor people are asked to sacrifice the little they hold on to, because someone in Delhi or their state capital, decrees progress is most important.

The scenario is repeated in Africa, South America and different parts of Asia. Australia, with its Mabo judgement, declaring that the rights of aboriginal people going back millennia, is paramount – it created history. It’s a judgement feared and hated by all who exploit aboriginal or indigenous people.

But Mabo has given activists around the world, a new lease of life, to fight for these rights when the future looks really bleak in the never ending battle against corporates grabbing land for mining rights. It’s a battle that continues. Perhaps some day, the spirits of the hundreds of millions of indigenous people who perished in the world’s largest, most glossed over genocide, will see justice for their descendants. And finally rest in peace. I see a very long, hard struggle ahead. But indigenous people have patience as an inbuilt trait. God knows, they’ve had centuries of practice

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