Tread Gently On The Earth

Indigenous Peoples

new internationalist
issue 230 - April 1992

[image, unknown]
Tread gently on the earth
The UN's 'Earth Summit' in Brazil is a chance for the North to
listen and learn from the South. Here's what some leading
environmental activists from the South are saying.


The Motto for the North at the UN Earth Summit and other global negotiations seems to be: 'What is yours is mine; what is mine is mine.' This lopsided view of a common future is made easier by the idea of the 'global'. Through its global reach the North exists in the South. The South, however, exists only within itself. The South can only exist locally, while only the North exists globally.

The ordinary Indian woman who worships the tulsi plant worships the cosmic as symbolized in the plant. The peasants who treat seeds as sacred see in them their connection to the universe. Treading gently on the earth becomes the natural way to be. Demands for a planetary consciousness are made on the self, not on others.

The moral framework of the 'global reach' of the North is the opposite. The G-7 group of rich countries can demand a forest convention that imposes international obligations on the Third World to plant trees. The Third World cannot demand of the industrialized countries a reduction in their use of fossil fuels and energy.

'Global ecology' at this level becomes a moralization of immorality. It is empty of any ethics for planetary living. It is based not on concepts of universal solidarity but on universal bullying.

The reversal of ecological decline involves strengthening local rights. The two central planks of local environmental rights are the right to information and the right to prior consent. Any activity with potential impact on the local environment should have the consent of local people.

The 'global' must cede to the local, since the local exists within nature while the 'global' exists only in the offices of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and multinational corporations. We should not worry about how to get the last tribal to sit in on World Bank decisions in Washington. But we do need to ensure that no World Bank decision that affects the resources of tribals gets taken without their prior informed consent.

The Earth Summit will be a failure if it does not create conditions for an earth democracy. An earth democracy cannot be realized so long as there is global domination by undemocratic structures. It cannot be realized on the basis of an anthropomorphism that excludes the rights of non-human nature. And it cannot be realized if planetary survival is used to deny the right to survival of those who are poor and marginal today because they have borne the accumulated burden of centuries of subjugation.

Vandana Shiva is Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy, Dehradun, India.


Is the South using the environment as a bargaining chip, a leverage, to get more aid from the North? Is the South saying: 'If you don't give us money, we will chop down all the trees and poison the atmosphere just to spite you?'

We don't think so.

The message is this: 'We are defending the last vestiges of our sovereignty over resources. This is a last chance for the people to survive and live with dignity.'

If Northern politicians are afraid to advise their public to buy fewer cars and use less oil, can a Southern government really be expected to tell its people to tighten their belts further and make room for two 'structural adjustments': one forced on us by external debt, the other by new ecological imperatives?

What we are talking about ultimately is survival, humanity, dignity and democracy. As national development agencies we in the South have spent a lot of our energy broadening the democratic spaces in our national societies, removing the barriers to people's participation, helping social movements regain their right to land, to good health and adequate nutrition, to safety, housing and a sustainable environment.

We now realize that the fight for democracy must also be extended to the international arena, where the lack of democracy is so obvious. International democracy is needed just as much as national democracy. Until there are moves towards a more balanced world economic order there is little hope for any genuine partnership on environment.

There must thus be a review of the behaviour and performance of the major economic players, including the transnational corporations, the international banks, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). These institutions, which make the decisions that affect so much of our lives, must be made much more accountable to the public.

Local communities in our countries must also have the opportunity to participate. The public has this right because it is the public that suffers the consequences if something goes wrong - whether it be the Bhopal residents dying from chemical poisoning or the more than 100,000 farmers dying from pesticide poisoning annually, or the hundreds of millions of people suffering the social and economic effects of structural adjustment policies imposed by the World Bank and IMF.

Environmental and economic issues have to be resolved simultaneously. The operating principles must be ecological sustainability and social equity. With a fairer North-South balance non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the South can encourage people's participation in socially just and environmentally sound development. The North has to change within itself, and the battle for that 'adjustment' will be as difficult as it is necessary.

The barricades on the road to Rio can be removed, and the fires dampened down, if the North starts talking economics and the South responds more to ecology. Otherwise, history will remember the leaders of today as we remember Nero, for fiddling when there were more important things to be done.

Martin Khor Kok Peng is Managing Editor of Third World Resurgence magazine.


We live in countries where people are dying in larger numbers than dolphins or elephants; where indigenous and sustainable lifestyles are being disrupted by loggers or large-scale farmers or miners; where poor and indigenous peoples face the manipulation of their production systems into greater and greater dependence on an unfair world market; where the social and traditional safety nets of people are being eroded by a market economy that is unreliable and capricious. Therefore, in our view, the urgency of saving the world's environment lies in saving human beings from abject poverty alongside their natural resources.

The central issue is the empowering of communities and the poor to take control over their own resources. We ask the North to strengthen its own social security systems for the poor and reduce income disparities worldwide. We ask the South to give priority to relieving poverty and redistributing land and assets in favour of the poor.

Internationally we call for a review and revival of the UN General Assembly's declaration for a new international economic order, programmes to reverse the declining terms of trade of the Third World, to reverse resource flows, to regulate transnational corporations and to democratize multilateral financial institutions like the World Bank. We ask that the World Bank's interference in national and regional policy-making be curtailed.

Charles Abugre is an economist from Ghana.


More than 500 years ago, before the United Nations, before the Earth Summit or even ecology as a concept existed, the indigenous peoples knew already how to explore and conserve their natural resources.

And we shall continue doing so for another 500 years. We hope that the Earth Summit will take this into account and include in all its resolutions the priority of giving indigenous peoples land rights.

We also claim our rights to control our own resources and apply our traditional practices of wise management. The two million members of the indigenous peoples of South America's Amazon basin, representing more than 500 distinct cultures, have been using tropical forests in a sustainable way for thousands of years. We will go on doing so, and any state or international policy that aspires to do the same must co-ordinate with the indigenous peoples.

Unfortunately there has been very little co-ordination between the UN organizers of the Earth Summit and indigenous peoples. So-called 'participation' usually remains in documents kept on files. We do not want impositions and conflicts regarding the Earth Summit's conventions, nor national laws and projects which we do not understand and cannot support.

We, the indigenous Amazonians, talk with nature with or without conventions, with or without financial funds. With this historical and moral authority we call on governments and the United Nations system to work with us to avoid the destruction of the unity between Amazonia and its indigenous peoples.

Statement by the Co-ordinating Body for Indigenous People's Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA).

All the above extracts are reprinted with permission from The battle for the Earth Summit', Third World Resurgence. No 14/15 October/November 1991. Third World Resurgence is published monthly by Third World Network, 87 cantonment Road, 10250 Penang, Malaysia.

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