Go Green, Save the Indigenous

OSLO - African indigenous peoples are important custodians of their natural environments with valuable local knowledge and skills, but are struggling to survive, according to a report."Indigenous peoples are communities that, even though they may be considered backward by urban people, in fact often have very sophisticated knowledge about biodiversity, forest management, and dry areas management," Nigel Crawhall told IPS on Thursday at the launch of his report for the NGO Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) in Oslo.

Crawhall is secretariat director for the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee (IPACC), a network of 150 African indigenous groups. In his report, 'Indigenous Peoples in Africa', he argues that threatened indigenous peoples will be easier to protect if their value as stewards of nature is appreciated by policy makers.

"We should take a human rights based approach to protecting indigenous peoples, but understanding that human rights is not a strong culture in some parts of Africa, you also consider how they can make important contributions to sustainable environmental management," said Crawhall.

The report focuses mainly on indigenous peoples that are hunter-gatherers or pastoralists (herders), such as the San of southern Africa or the Maasai in Kenya and Tanzania, but also other marginalised groups. They are usually nomadic or semi-nomadic.

Social marginalisation, alienation from government, forced relocations and land encroachment by farmers are some of the threats to these groups. They are extremely vulnerable in wars and conflicts -- for instance, a third of the Batwa population of Rwanda was wiped out during the 1994 genocide.

The situation is particularly precarious for hunter-gatherers. Unlike pastoralists they do not possess livestock, surviving instead by hunting and gathering different foods. They have been ignored by governments since colonial times.

"Most hunter-gatherer communities are not recognised by their own government. Their identity is not recognised at all, they're not counted in the censuses, their languages are not taught in schools, and in most cases they don't even have national identity documentation or birth certificates, so in practice they can't be citizens, they can't actually vote," Crawhall told IPS.

He rejects the suggestion that pastoralist and hunter-gatherer lifestyles are outmoded in the 21st century, emphasising that such lifestyles are necessary adaptations to the harsh environments in which they exist. He also rejects the view of some NGO and policy circles that nomadic groups need to become sedentary so that they can be supplied with services such as education and health.

"That civil servant, I'm talking about a real case, has never met nomadic families, and has no idea what kind of knowledge and competence a young nomad must learn to handle remote desert conditions with mobile animals and very scarce resources," he said.

"By the age of five to ten you will know basically everything you need to know for a lifetime in a traditional pastoralist society -- extremely sophisticated scientific, zoological and botanical knowledge. School is not offering any of that. School is offering a very primitive, often alienating process of teaching in a European language, a curriculum that has almost nothing to do with life in the desert or in the forest.

"Everyone agrees that it is valuable to have access to literacy and numeracy and education, but the quality of education in Africa is so bad that it doesn't give skills to young people, it deskills them," Crawhill said.

He argues that pilot schemes need to be implemented to develop ways of combining social mobility with the realities of pastoralist and hunter-gatherer life.

"We need to be creative. How do you mesh African knowledge systems with Western-style education so that a child will have choices but also a livelihood and a culture?

"It's not a question of primitivism. A lot of the work IPACC does is around introducing new technologies such as the Internet, satellite telephones, and palm pilot technology for tracking and monitoring biodiversity. It's about how to keep people on the land, working with the resources in a sustainable way that's good both for them and the environment," Crawhill remarked.

Despite the challenges, threatened indigenous peoples have witnessed progress at the legislative level in recent years, the report says. Last September, after intense lobbying by IPACC and others, African countries adopted the new Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, after 23 years of negotiations.

The Declaration, which was adopted by all but four countries worldwide (the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, Australia), sets important standards and makes it easier for indigenous peoples to press their governments to respect their rights, according to Crawhill.

(c) 2008 Inter Press Service

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