As the world’s economic activity grows so too does the idea for the benefits of globalisation to be shared more fairly amongst all peoples—including indigenous peoples. However, this requires a change of mind set, not only for non-indigenous peoples but also many indigenous peoples. At i2i Development Global, we recognise that the world’s First Peoples are also the ‘First Innovators’ and ‘First Entrepreneurs’. Experience with advancing indigenous economic participation has highlighted the need for modern indigenous communities to acknowledge that their ancestors were leaders in the local economy and that enterprise was a traditional practice. For tens of thousands of years, indigenous peoples have survived in challenging environments by adapting, innovating, inventing technology and practicing enterprise.
Indigenous peoples used the environment as a source for food, building material for their houses and canoes, and as clothes, ornaments, ritual objects, medicines, weapons and tools. The First Peoples of Australia, who have ancestral connections to ancient Amazonians, invented bread making 36,000 years ago and the first evidence for the existence of agricultural practices in Latin America dates back to circa 8,500 years ago, when potatoes, chilies and beans began to be cultivated for food in the Amazon Basin. Over 5,500 years ago Latin American cultures began domesticating llamas, guinea pigs and alpacas, animal husbandry, in the highlands of the Andes. These animals were used for both transportation and meat; their fur was shorn or collected to make clothing. Such agricultural food production was founded on a culture of enterprise and innovation.
However, as reported by Bruce Pascoe in his text ‘Dark Emu’, “…. the economy and culture of indigenous people had been grossly undervalued”. Pascoe relied on the journals of explorers and colonists which revealed strong evidence, as would have been the case in Latin America, of “a much more complicated indigenous economy than the primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle” we had been told was the simple life of First Peoples.
Sadly, governments and media have routinely promoted indigenous stereotypes based on perceived disadvantages and ‘weaknesses’ in comparison with non-indigenous populations. However, recognizing the ‘strengths’ of indigenous peoples; their culture, traditional practices, governance, innovations, enterprise and heritage, is the first step towards a world where indigenous peoples play an active role in the modern economy. The advantages of indigenous peoples participating in the economy are significant including: contributing to the regional and national economic growth, reduction of social conflict, and improved education and optimism among young people.
This is demonstrated by changes in mind set about the value of indigenous people’s contributions to the planet with the establishment of an increasing number of indigenous owned natural resource management enterprises. A recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report acknowledged that Indigenous peoples and local communities play a key role in safeguarding more than half the world’s land, including much of its forests and called for a range of “policies that enable and incentivize sustainable land management for climate change adaptation and mitigation include(ing)… empowering women and indigenous people.” Further, after centuries of marginalisation in society, increasing numbers of indigenous peoples are contributing to economic growth through sustainable business, payment of taxes and investment of their knowledge.
In terms of a decrease in social conflict, the experience in many colonised nations is that the degradation of indigenous culture and peoples, tends to lead to widespread conflict. However, those peoples who participate in the economy, and accept enterprise as a ‘traditional practice’, are assuming a collaborative approach along with increases in political power and societal influence.
Participation in the modern economy requires indigenous peoples to not only value their ancestral skills and knowledge, but also learn new skills and technical knowledge based on modern day practices. Some countries are actively promoting indigenous students undertake university studies in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) so that they can contribute to the economy and maintain pride in their culture. Significant indigenous education and entrepreneurship programs are being implemented in several countries to position indigenous youth for an inclusive future.
At i2i Global, we deploy capable indigenous professionals globally to support indigenous peoples in other countries and communities. The world has a growing stream of qualified and experienced indigenous professionals in many sectors. They are ready to capacity develop, advise and support local goals in development, governance and economic growth.
We should investigate ways in which indigenous communities can sustainably participate in the economy and grow an economic future for their children. Based on our learnings, some recommendations to promote indigenous economic activity include:
- protect culture and language;
- encourage community leaders to focus on the benefits of participating in the economy for their children, grandchildren and future generations;
- explore sustainable markets and economic opportunities, ‘think big business’ to support the community;
- accept that you can borrow from the experiences of other indigenous communities’ experiences around the world as their situations are economically, socially and politically similar;
- ensure sound community and enterprise governance and accountability, ensuring what Stephen Cornell calls, ‘cultural match’;
- contemplate that communities can participate in varied commercial models, such as owning a business which utilises their land or is external to their land;
- remember indigenous professionals exist to advise indigenous communities and can do so in trust and respect for local culture;
- develop the technical skills and knowledge of the people, particularly women and youth;
- seek out opportunities to empower women and girls;
- consider programs not projects, as projects have an end date and programs seek ongoing sustainability;
- institute public and private sector policies which incentivise indigenous economic participation; and,
- seek trusted indigenous people’s business advisors on ways to attract working capital
i2i Global’s Director for Latin America, Sandra Paillal, a Mapuche from Chile herself, is investigating financial opportunities for indigenous communities in Latin America. For example, in the Peru, joint efforts are being explored between i2i Global, Loreto Regional Government, Ministry of Culture, Indigenous University Student Association and the Chaikuni Institute, to investigate funding sources for the acquisition of land, and design and construction of a 200 university student dormitory, in Iquitos, a regional centre in the Amazon. An outcome of assisting indigenous students to graduate is aligned with advancing indigenous economic growth. In several Latin American countries, there exist indigenous economic opportunities in several emerging markets including construction, forestry, food production, export markets, waste management, technology and environmental management. It is anticipated that opportunities for indigenous economic growth can emerge within new markets.
i2i recently visited Washington DC to meet with donor agencies including the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank and USAID to better learn of the priorities being considered by countries across Latin America. With so many countries and so many different contexts, the complexities deserve proper consideration to move forward in a respectful and deliberate strategy. Latin American countries will open their eyes to the demonstrated advantages of approving policies and strategies which provide incentives for indigenous peoples to once more see themselves as innovators and entrepreneurs, contributing to the future of society as a whole and building on their culture and heritage.