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Plundering of knowledge and territory

Industrialised countries mine raw materials in areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples and appropriate the knowledge and culture of these peoples. Leiden anthropologists work to protect their rights.

Industrialised countries mine raw materials in areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples and appropriate the knowledge and culture of these peoples. Leiden anthropologists work to protect the rights of the Indigenous Peoples. Thanks to their knowledge and advice, governments can purchase more sustainable products.

The affluent lifestyle of industrialised countries requires incredible amounts of raw materials. These are often extracted in areas inhabited by Indigenous Peoples, thus threatening their way of life. Companies from industrialised countries also appropriate the knowledge and culture of these peoples without offering them anything in return. Leiden anthropologists investigate the interaction between indigenous peoples and other parties, and study how the rights of Indigenous Peoples are enforced in practice.

The voice of the Agta

Mayo Buenafe – herself a Filipino with indigenous roots – is conducting PhD research on the Agta, a nomadic people who live as hunter-gatherers in the tropical rainforests on the northern most island of the Philippines. The Agta depend on water; rivers and the sea provide them with drinking water, food and transport routes. Through her investigation of their language, traditions and relationship to water, Buenafe was caught in a conflict between the Agta and a mining corporation. This corporation has a permit for mining nickel and chromium in the area inhabited by the Agta, which has resulted in water pollution and is threatening their livelihood. Buenafe followed the Agta in their protest actions, recorded these events, and became indirectly involved in a court case led by human rights activists who ultimately forced the mining corporation to compensate the Agta for the damage.

After her PhD defence, she hopes to return to the Agta to share with them the results of her research. She also wants to make a film recording ancient Agta traditions for future generations, and to organise workshops for non-indigenous administrators. In this way, Buenafe hopes that when administrators make new plans for the area, the voice of the Agta will be heard too.

The Agta in the Philippines (photo: Gerard Persoon)

Intellectual property

Not only the raw materials, but also the culture and knowledge of Indigenous Peoples are simply appropriated by industrialised countries, often without any compensation. Companies from rich countries freely draw from ‘ethnic’ music and art unprotected by copyright. An example of this is a British pharmaceutical manufacturer that in 1998 patented the cactus plant Hoodia Gordonii, which had been used for centuries by the South African San or Bushmen to suppress appetite. The company wanted to use this plant to combat Western obesity without respecting the intellectual property of the San people. For decades now, Leiden anthropologist Gerard Persoon has been one of the few researchers to investigate this kind of injustice worldwide and publish his findings. Nowadays, the rights of Indigenous Peoples are better protected, for instance by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. Persoon is currently investigating how effective these treaties are in practice.

Sustainable wood

The anthropologists’ specialised knowledge of remote areas and cultures makes them valuable partners for anyone who champions sustainability. Gerard Persoon is for instance a member of the Advisory Committee for Sustainable Wood, which reports to the Dutch State Secretary of Infrastructure and Environment. The State Secretary is responsible for purchasing sustainable wood on behalf of the Dutch government. This raises a number of questions: In what countries are woodworkers given decent housing and sufficient food? Where are the rights of Indigenous Peoples respected? Persoon is able to provide a realistic view of the situation. Thanks to this process, the use of ecologically and socially sustainable wood has substantially increased in the Netherlands.

A mining company at work in the territory of the Agta. (Photo: Gerard Persoon)
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