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Indigenous Voices

From three continents come the same stories - western economic models are not working for indigenous peoples, many of whom have (or had) sustaining economies of their own. Sarah van Gelder asked leaders from three countries for their stories.
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Banking on Earth, Light, Water

by  Berito Kuwar U'wa of the U'wa People

The U'wa people have a traditional constitu- tion that was created many years ago. We look at the way that life works and the way life is interrelated.

The petroleum companies create their own constitutions and decrees with a computer. They plant the seeds of this constitution all over the entire world, and it's not for the benefit of the world. It's for the benefit of their country and themselves. The petroleum companies believe that they can be the landlords of the world, that they can control the whole world until it ends. Until it dies.

The money that the U'wa have is the Earth. Everything that we make, that we sow, that we grow, we also consume in our community. We don't have to sell it, and we don't have to buy things. The U'wa don't need money to build a house, for example. When we want to build a house, we plant a cassava plant. Then we take the cassava and make a drink called chicha, which is like our money. We pay people with chicha to come and help build the house.

As we say, “The sun is the money.” The Earth is also money—it's our gold. The water is also our gold. That's what we value. The Earth is what gives us everything that we need to live, to eat, and to drink. The light that the sun gives, the moon, our relationship with the moon—these are things that we need to value so that life can continue. We need light, because right now we are hungry. If we are hungry and we need food, where does that food come from? It comes from light; it comes from the Earth.

You should think about water. What is water worth? How do you value it? Water should be free for everyone. But now we're supposed to pay the government for water, when the water is born from our territory. Water is a benefit for everyone. All the world has property rights over water. But the government makes this law so the campesinos—farmers – have to pay. And it's very sad. It shouldn't be this way.

The government wants to have $40 billion in its bank. U'wa, all of us equally, are very poor. The bank that we have is the Earth, so we respect many things. We don't kill each other. There's nobody who has more money than anybody else. There's not this sense of inequality. If somebody doesn't have food, for example, then a person with food needs to give it to the one without. The poor help those who are even poorer. That is the U'wa.

We have always said that we don't want to enter the culture of money. Our word for it is “the number of money.” That's what we call their culture. Why? There's this mountain of money that only some people have. Tomorrow we will fight over that money, brother against brother.

No, that simply doesn't work.

It would be good if the people in America understood the organizational structures of the indigenous people of the world. The indigenous people have the most ancient structures of the world, and they have a kind of intelligence that is very concrete and complete. I've seen indigenous people from many parts of the world, and we are all almost exactly equal. Our hearts give us the intelligence to know we shouldn't rule the world.

There are many laws in the world, but no one thinks to protect Mother Earth. But I think that if the petroleum companies continue to exploit the petroleum, they will take all of the strength and spirit out of Mother Earth. If they do this, if they take it all, then we're all going to die. That's why I said to one of these petroleum men, “Take all of that money you make and stuff it into the Earth, and see if it sustains life. That money won't sustain anyone.”

For more information on the U'wa, or to obtain their information booklet, “Blood of our Mother,” contact Project Underground, 1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703; E-mail: project_underground@moles.org.

The U'wa: the “thinking people” of Colombia

by Steve Kretzman & Terry Freitas

The U'wa are known as “the thinking people” or “the people that speak well,” because for thousands of years, they maintained peaceful relationships with surrounding tribes without the use of weapons or war.

From 1940 to 1970, the Colombian government took away more than 85 percent of U'wa traditional territory. Since 1940, contact diseases, violence, and loss of land have killed more than 18,000 U'wa. Two U'wa clans were completely exterminated. The current territory of the U'wa is barely 386 square miles, far too small to produce enough food to sustain the tribe.

In 1992, Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum was granted exploration rights to much of the traditional U'wa territory in a combined venture with Shell Oil and the Colombian government.

U'wa oral tradition recounts that a portion of the U'wa tribe committed suicide 400 years ago rather than surrender to the Spanish Conquistadores. The U'wa have compared current developments on their land to that time in their history, and have not ruled out another mass suicide.


Buddhist Self-Reliance

by Tuenjai Deetes

The first time I visited the hill tribe community in Thailand, I was 18 years old. Their way of life is very unique, from their traditional costumes to the rich diversity of vegetables and herbs they produce on their farms. Every morning, the whole community helps to pound rice and take the day's food directly from the fields. I wrote to my mother in Bangkok and said even though I could not understand the hill tribe language, I felt that because they have very pure hearts, I could communicate with them with my heart.

When I work with the hill tribes now, I learn from their wisdom, from their way of life, from their history. They are very healthy people—healthy in spirit and in their way of life. Although I don't want to change them, I try to be a bridge between the hill people and the modern world. They have to understand the modern world, even if they live far from it, because it is already altering their lives.

Many of the young people and even the middle- aged people in the hill tribes now want more material goods—better homes, a good car or motorcycle, and electricity. The result has been a big gap of understanding between the elders and the young people. When I talk with the elders, I find that many of them feel unhappy in their children's large, concrete houses. One elder got sick for about five years, and he said it was because the new houses were too cold. He told me the small hut made of bamboo and grass where he used to live was very warm.

Western ideas—like democracy or free market capitalism—have also been changing the foundations of Thailand's mainstream society. Ten years ago, the formal government wanted to change Thailand from a primarily agricultural country to an industrial country that would be the fifth “Asian tiger.” But we could only be that fifth tiger by importing the technology from the First World. Many of the people from the rural areas went to the city to work in the factories, and now our Thai songs actually talk about this migration.

We are a Buddhist society, and Buddhism teaches people to live in harmony with nature, to give more than to take, and to be pure in spirit. Modernization has encouraged people to receive more than give, to collect more money for their own benefit.

Our king has challenged this modernization in light of the Asian financial crisis. In his birthday speech, which he delivered last December fourth, he said, “It is not important to be an economic tiger. What matters is that we have enough to eat and to live. A self-sufficient economy will provide us with just that. It will help us to stand on our own and to produce enough for our consumption.” He also said if only a quarter of the country could change course and turn from a market-based to a self-sufficient economy, we would survive the economic slowdown.

People are now acting on his words. In the rural areas, people who went to work in the city are going back to their land to produce what they need. The hill people and rural farmers are considering ways to become less dependent on the urban markets for rice, cloth, and other goods. The king has encouraged the government to provide infrastructure, such as a water system for the farmers.

People all over Thailand, including the middle classes, also realize that they have to consume less. Some very rich people are perhaps not changing as quickly as we want, but they are changing. In the past, if you carried a handbag with a certain brand name , you would be accepted by society, because your designer bag shows your wealth. Now people simply say things like, “Why do you not understand the crisis in our country? Why do you have to import this nonsense?”

Many middle class people in Thailand think that the Asian financial crisis is not necessarily a bad thing. It could be the positive opportunity for everyone to think about what sustainable development means. We cannot deny technology or globalization, but we have to develop our own information and technology. And we have to integrate this development with our spirituality.

Every morning I do my spiritual practices so that I can radiate love and compassion without attachment. When I hear good music, I appreciate it, but I don't want to consume it. Or if I sleep on a good bed, I will not cling to it.

We need to be aware of what we use and what we discard. I was at an American restaurant, and I was given a little cardboard tray to hold my drink. Americans use the tray for a very few minutes and then just throw it away. In my country, we could use this tray for a month, at least. We need to be aware of everything we use and give value to how difficult it was to produce.

A shirt I often wear was made by the beautiful hands of the hill people. A woman from the hill tribes wove the cloth and then embroidered designs on it. So, I wear it with great appreciation, because it comes from the heart, the spirit, and the hand of the people.


The Hill Tribes of Thailand

One hundred and fifty years ago, the hill tribe people began their migration from war-torn Burma and Laos to settle in northern Thailand. Because of their nomadic ways, the hill tribes are perceived as a threat to Thailand. Consequently, almost half of them do not have Thai citizenship and therefore do not have legal rights to farm.

Farming has been the main means of livelihood for the hill tribes. However, logging, commercial cash crops, and tourism have caused severe soil erosion and deforestation on the lands the hill people use.

After 16 years of volunteer work with the hill tribes, teaching them the Thai language and serving as a bridge between their culture and that of mainstream Thailand, Tuenjai Deetes cofounded the Hill Area Development Foundation (HADF). Through HADF, Deetes has initiated sustainable development efforts in 28 villages, including reforestation and sustainable agriculture projects. Deetes is the winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Foundation Award, the Earth Summit's Global 500 Award, and she was one of 25 women honored by the United Nations Environment Programme for Environmental Conservation.

The Hill Area Development Foundation, 129/1, Moo 16, Pa-Ngiw Road, Soi 3, Robwiang, A. Muang, Chiang Rai 57000, Thailand. Email: hadfthai@loxinfo.co.th.


Eco-Justice in the Niger Delta

by Oronto Douglas

I grew up in a village called Okoroba, which is in the Niger Delta. Okoroba is a community that lives in harmony with nature. We don't have this distinction westerners have between the environment and humanity; everything is whole. We depend on the forest for healing herbs. We depend on the water for our fish. We depend on the land for our food.

Because of this holistic view, we have a culture of protecting nature. Our kind of farming is not the type where you cut down the forest and plant your crops. And vast areas of forest are considered sacred because we believe that our ancestors made sacrifices there, or a momentous event occurred there, or a sacred animal made that part of the forest its home.

When I was ten, my uncle took me away from the village to go to school. When I returned eight years later, I was appalled by the assault the multinational oil companies had made on our forests, our waters, and our land. As I viewed the destruction of my community, I decided at that moment to dedicate my life to fighting for ecological justice.

Forty percent of Nigeria's oil is imported by the United States. Americans need oil to heat their homes, drive their cars, work the industries, and maintain a luxurious lifestyle. The question is at what cost? The oil comes from my village and from the Niger Delta. In taking the oil, forests are cut down, waters are polluted, the air is fouled, and indigenous cultures and communities are mowed down. Over 2,000 people in Ogoniland alone have been slaughtered because of their peaceful protest against Shell—including writer and environmentalist Ken Saro-Wiwa—and 27 Ogoni villages have been burnt down.

In the Mobil area of operation, communities have been fighting each other over resources. Nigeria suffered a civil war between 1967 and 1970 because of oil. It was not because of ethnic strife; it was oil. This oil has been taken from Nigeria at a great cost to human beings and to nature.

Nigeria also suffers because industrial countries have brought what they call “development” to the country, which means cutting down vast areas of forest and converting them to large, monocrop plantations. Their idea of “development” was to take down what is natural and bring what they think will help the people. That is wrong, because the people who are living here already enjoy so many things from the forest. They get their medicine, spices, meat, and water from the forest. If you cut down the forest and replace it with a monocrop, all that diversity is lost.

Our tradition believes that development cannot be imposed. Development has to grow. You cannot go to my village and say “this forest is my personal property.” The forest belongs to the community. A forest is not owned by individuals. It is a collective thing. A river is not owned by individuals. If you pollute the water that belongs to the community, you are not only violating the right of one person, you are violating the rights of every person.

And what about the US? What about America's future? Would it have been better for those Nigerian forests that were destroyed to have remained intact to reduce global warming? Would it have been better for those rivers not to have been polluted so that there would be fish to eat? Would it have been better for there to be peace in Nigeria so the US will not have to worry about global insecurity? What cost will the US pay?

It took the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa for the world to know that something was wrong in Nigeria. The American people are still not being given the correct information about the true situation in my country. Because of this lack of information, ordinary Americans—who through their voices and votes can make the right decision for future generations in the US and Nigeria—have been denied the truth. Shell and the other oil companies owe all of us—not just people of the Niger Delta, but the whole world – reparation. They've made billions of dollars over the years; now they need to clean up very thoroughly and replant the areas that have been destroyed.

The culture of the moment is acquisition. The culture of the moment is consumption. The culture of the moment is, “Everything is good. Let us live the good life.” But if the good life conflicts with the good life of tomorrow, then there is a problem. Our actions, our activities, our decisions are not making it possible for future generations to have a good life.

And is there really a good life now? If there's a good life in the US, and there's no good life in Japan, the Japanese will move to the US and that good life in America will be imperiled. If there's good life in America and there's no good life in Rwanda or Mexico, the people of Rwanda and Mexico will go there and you will have no good life. Why not work towards having a good life for all?

Oronto Douglasis deputy director of Environmental Rights Action: Friends of the Earth Nigeria, 214 Usely, Lagos Rd., Benin City, Nigeria, E-mail: obebi@infoweb.abs.net. Or contact the Sustainable Energy & Ecology Network, 202/234-9382 ext.208; Web: www.seen.org/



The world learned about the plight of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta when environmentalist and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed. His crime, the nonviolent protest of the environmental degradation of his homeland caused by Shell and other multinational oil companies.

Oronto Douglas, a member of the Ijaw ethnic nation, environmental activist, and lawyer, represented Ken Saro-Wiwa until his death in 1995.

As this issues of YES! went to press, tensions between Nigerian government troops and environmental protesters had escalated into one of the worst conflicts since civil war erupted in the area in 1967 (see indicators).

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