Universiteit Leiden

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Group interests: rights of indigenous peoples

Industrialised countries extract natural resources in the territories of indigenous peoples, and appropriate the knowledge and culture of these peoples. Leiden anthropologists work to protect the rights of indigenous peoples. Their knowledge and advice enable governments to source sustainable products.

The affluent lifestyle in industrialised countries demands enormous quantities of natural resources, . resources that are often extracted in the territories of indigenous peoples, thus endangering their way of life. And companies in industrialised countries also appropriate the knowledge and culture of these peoples, while giving nothing in return. Leiden anthropologists research the interaction between indigenous peoples and other parties, and how the rights of these peoples are handled in practice.

Nickel and chromium in the rainforest

Mayo Buenafe – herself a Native Filipina – is conducting PhD research with the Agta, a nomadic people who live as hunter-gatherers in the tropical rainforest on the most northerly island of the Philippines. The Agta are dependent on water; rivers and the sea give them drinking water, food and transport routes. Buenafe wanted to research their language, traditions and management of water resources, but found herself in a conflict between the Agta and a mining company. This company has a permit to mine nickel and chromium in the Agta’s territory, and its activities are polluting the water and endangering the livelihood security of the native people. The interest of rich consumers in the cheapest possible products is here in conflict with the Agta’s right to live in their own way on their own land, or at least to receive financial compensation.

The Agta in the Philippines. Photo: Gerard Persoon

The voice of the Agta

Buenafe followed the Agta during their protest actions, recorded the events and became indirectly involved in a court case brought by human rights activists to make the mining company compensate the Agta. After obtaining her PhD, she hopes to go back to the Agta and share the results of her research with them. She would like to produce a video in which the ancient Agta traditions are recorded for future generations and to organise workshops with non-indigenous administrators. Buenafe hopes that, as a result, when officials are making new plans for the area, the voice of the Agta will be heard.

Intellectual property

Not only natural resources, but also the culture and knowledge of indigenous peoples are simply appropriated by industrialised countries, often without payment. Artists from affluent countries draw freely on ‘ethnic’ music and art, which are not protected by copyright. In 1998 a British pharmaceutical company patented the cactus plant Hoodia Gordonii, used for centuries by the South African San or Bushmen as an appetite suppressant. The company wanted to use it to combat Western obesity, without respecting the San’s intellectual property. The Leiden anthropologist Gerard Persoon is one of the researchers who for several decades have been studying inequality of this kind worldwide, and publishing the results. There is now better protection of the rights of indigenous peoples, for example through the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). Persoon is currently researching what effect such declarations have in practice.

Sustainable timber

The specialist knowledge of anthropologists about relatively inaccessible areas and cultures makes them valuable consultation partners for organisations where sustainability is a high priority. For instance, Gerard Persoon is a member of the Dutch government’s Sustainable Timber Committee, which reports to the Minister for Infrastructure and the Environment, who is responsible for buying sustainable timber on the government’s behalf. In which countries are forest workers provided with decent housing and sufficient food? Where are the rights of indigenous peoples respected? Persoon is able to give a realistic answer to these questions. This process has helped to achieve a substantial increase in the use of ecologically and socially sustainable timber in the Netherlands.

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