The Role of Indigenous Peoples in Development

According to the United Nations there are an estimated 476 million indigenous peoples in the world in 2020, spread across 90 countries and they make up over half of the world’s 5000 distinct cultures.

For A-level sociology students studying the Global Development option, it is very useful to know something about Indigenous Peoples as they represent interesting case studies that make it difficult to make generalisations about globalisation or development.

The United Nations seeks to work with indigenous peoples and to help the protect their lands and cultures, and to increase awareness of indigenous ways of life through initiatives such as the International Indigenous People’s Day is a United Nations led initiative held on the 9th August of every year.

Indigenous Peoples – A Definition

Given the variety of indigenous peoples around the world, The United Nations has not adopted an official definition of the term ‘indigenous’.

Instead it uses the following principles to identify indigenous peoples:

  • Self- identification as indigenous peoples at the individual level and accepted by the community as their member.
  • Historical continuity with pre-colonial and/or pre-settler societies
  • Strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources
  • Distinct social, economic or political systems
  • Distinct language, culture and beliefs
  • Form non-dominant groups of society
  • Resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.

Whether we apply the term ‘indigenous’ to a group of people also depends on self-identification – the group has to self-identify as indigenous rather than being defined as indigenous (as outlined in various United Nations human rights documents).

(Source: United Nations Fact Sheet: Who are Indigenous Peoples).

Who are the Indigenous Peoples of the World?

This video on Facebook provides an easy, accessible, one minute overview of some key statistics on Indigenous peoples today.

  • There are 350 million indigenous people in the world today
  • They make up 5% of the world’s population
  • They inhabit 25% of the earth’s land surface
  • And their land stores 60% of the world’s carbon
  • They are a diverse group and speak 4000 languages

A useful starting point to find out more about the world’s Indigenous Peoples is the United Nations ‘International Indigenous People’s Day‘. This has an extensive resource collection with many links and even reports on the ‘state of indigenous peoples’.

Probably one of the best known examples of a self-identified indigenous group are The Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania.

Indigenous Peoples and Development

Western models of development – the processes of colonialism, capitalism, urbanisation and industrialisation have done much to undermine or even eradicate whole indigenous cultures.

Many indigenous communities are still under threat from the pressures of increased consumption which goes along with ‘western modes of development’ – which results in encroachment on indigenous lands – grazing lands all over Africa have been taken over for farming, for example, and large parts of the rainforest are under threat in the Amazon.

However, many indigenous communities continue to survive to this day and many have adapted to globalisation and ‘development’ pressures from outside.

The United Nations works to help preserve indigenous rights, especially land rights, agains the encroachments of nation states.

It it is actually very difficult to make generalisations about what the role of the indigenous communities in development is, because there are simply so many indigenous peoples!

Certainly in terms of globalisation, you will find several good examples of transformationalism in the different ways indigenous communities have adapted to global flows.

In terms of theories of development – the persistence of indigenous cultures criticises Modernisation Theory ( so many don’t want to Westernise) and there seems to be a good deal of support in here for People Centred Development – as indigenous communities work with the United Nations to preserve their cultural distinctiveness and find their own paths to development, selectively choosing what aspects of global culture they want to work with and which they would rather keep ‘at a distance’.

More to come….

I’ll write more specific posts on specific indigenous cultures and development in coming months, as it’s hard to make generalisations here!

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