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Indigenous Peoples and Violent Conflict: Preconceptions, Appearances, and Realities

Conflict resolution specialists assert that conflict is a normal, even healthy part of human interaction. While that may be true in circumstances in which the parties to a conflict share similar values and cultures, have equal status and ability to press their claims, and are equally protected by the rules under which the conflict materialized and must be resolved, such "healthy" conflict conditions do not characterize the asymmetrical conflicts between indigenous peoples and states or other outside interests.

This year, the United Nation's Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights sponsored a study on indigenous peoples and conflict resolution, which was the theme of that body's Working Group on Indigenous Populations. Working Group Chair Miguel Alfonso Martinez analyzed the root causes of conflict involving indigenous peoples and identified two features that distinguish them from all other conflicts. First, indigenous peoples have a unique relationship with their lands that cannot easily be translated into Western notions of ownership or legal title. For indigenous peoples, land is not a commodity. It exists for collective material and spiritual benefit, and must be preserved for future generations. Second, indigenous peoples aspire to fully exercise their right to self-determination. Martinez defines self-determination as "the possession of the political authority and legitimacy, as well as the enforcement power necessary to take effective, practical actions to fully materialize their rights to their lands, resources, cultural heritage, and religious practices, and to secure and protect their autochthonous institutions."

Indigenous rights to land and to self-determination are what most threaten non-indigenous interests involved in conflict with indigenous peoples. Modern states still tend to eye indigenous lands as terra nullius available to be taken for national security purposes, to house burgeoning non-indigenous populations, or to be exploited for wealth or development. Wealthy private interests, often in cahoots with states, covet the riches from natural resources to be accrued from indigenous territories. The power disparity between states and wealthy interests on the one hand, and indigenous peoples on the other, is huge. While modern medicine now prevents some of the devastation once caused by contagious disease, and international human rights norms and watchdog mechanisms help curb mass expulsions or genocidal practices, indigenous peoples today are still the most marginal and exploited members of society in all of the states in which they live. Despite national law reforms to the contrary, states and other powerful interests resist including indigenous peoples in decision-making processes that impact their lives, and almost never let indigenous values or practices govern those processes.

This issue of the Cultural Survival Quarterly offers a multi-dimensional, contemporary examination of indigenous peoples and conflict involving states and other outside interests. Like Martinez, we use the phrase "conflict" to refer to those circumstances and events that include not only war or other violent confrontation, but the events that precede the eruption of violence or recourse to arms, including disputes that have festered without appropriate solution for a long period. In addition, we include those events that follow violence, including the processes by which violence is quelled, and post-conflict reconstruction measures aimed at ensuring that violence does not recur.

Changes Over Time

This is not the first time that the Cultural Survival Quarterly has addressed this issue. In 1987, at a time when the Cold War dominated international politics and proxy wars were commonplace, CSQ guest editor Bernard Nietschmann wrote:
The Third World War has already begun. It began when new states tried to take over old nations. ... It has produced millions of casualties and massive forced dislocations of nation peoples. ... The new world war is focused on the Third World, and pits guerrilla insurgencies against state governments and states against indigenous nations. ... It is over control of the state and state control over autonomous nations. Most of these wars are over territory, resources and identity, not politics or economics."

Articles in the two 1987 CSQ issues on militarization and indigenous peoples had titles like "Left-wing Revolution, Right Wing Reaction, and the Destruction of Indigenous Peoples," or "Indians, Dictatorships and Democracies." They also addressed the problems faced by indigenous peoples in apartheid South Africa, and the causes of conflict in recently independent postcolonial states.

Much has changed in the world since 1987. Cold War political polarization and apartheid are gone, and the colonial era is a generation further away. The world is still ordered into sovereign states with considerable autonomy and authority, but new forces, including a single superpower, globalization, international human rights law advances, and an information technology revolution have transformed the international political landscape. As Necla Tschirgi put it in the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, today's wars "are a web of interlocking conflicts involving the transfer of populations, arms, armies, finances, and conflict goods across increasingly porous boundaries."1

In the early post-Cold War period, ethnic conflict and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia, and genocide in Rwanda, raised the specter of a worldwide scourge of ethnic conflict. In Cultural Survival Quarterly's second look at the topic of indigenous peoples and conflict in 1994, David Maybury-Lewis queried, "Did we awake from the familiar nightmare of the Cold War, only to find ourselves confronting the terrors of our own based instincts, the primordial urge to band together with those like ourselves and harass or kill those who are different?" Research by noted political scientists documented a significant upsurge in ethno-political conflict. One oft-cited study by Ted Robert Gurr found that violent rebellion by communal groups had more than quadrupled between 1950 and 1990.2 Moreover, Gurr found that indigenous groups had the greatest proportional increase in conflict, which at the time he attributed to the influence of the global indigenous rights movement.

But Maybury-Lewis hypothesized a different explanation for the post-Cold War surge in ethnic, including indigenous, violence. He observed virulent ethnic violence taking place where the state was the preserve of a single ethnic group and citizens of other ethnicities were made to feel like outsiders or suffer discrimination. Since nearly all states are multi-ethnic, and indigenous peoples are minorities (or treated politically as such) in all states in which they live, it superficially appeared that indigenous peoples were disproportionately involved in most of the world's ethnic conflicts. For Maybury-Lewis, the two traditional ways of combating ethnic states—using authoritarian tactics to repress ethnicity, and promoting liberal values of equal citizenship in a manner aimed at making ethnicity irrelevant—both failed to create conditions in which individuals and groups could simultaneously manifest and take pride in their ethnic identities, participate in the larger civil society, and enjoy the rights and protections afforded by their state.

By the end of the millennium, research into ethnic violence was resulting in more complex and nuanced conclusions. Writing in 2000, Gurr found that the onset of most post-Cold War ethnic violence occurred between 1988 and 1992, after which new episodes significantly declined. Moreover, most ethnic violence took place in post-communist states, and in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The patterns of ethnic violence involving indigenous peoples were distinctive. Constituting less than a quarter of the total of all ethnic conflict, most violence involving indigenous peoples occurred in the Americas or in other Western industrial democracies, and there was little variation in pattern between 1986 and 1998. Gurr concluded in Peoples Versus States: Minorities at Risk in the New Century3:
Virtually all these peoples had long-standing grievances about differential treatment and restrictive policies, but, in most instances, their situations did not worsen during the 1980s. With some exceptions. ... their political action was proactive: they had new leadership, new organizations, and new opportunities, especially openings provided by democratization and examples of effective action by similar groups elsewhere.

Gurr's findings validate Maybury-Lewis' hypothesis, especially when geographic realities are taken into account. Thus, where indigenous peoples live in ethnic or repressive states (or highly dysfunctional or collapsed states), they are susceptible to victimization in ethnic, anti-terrorist, or other conflicts initiated and sustained by others. As marginal members of society living in isolated areas, they are especially vulnerable to serious human rights violations including murder, disappearance, ethnic cleansing, destruction of their homes or lands, and the forced recruitment of their children into the parties' armed forces. On the other hand, where indigenous peoples live in states that purport to be liberal democracies, they become participants in conflict when they experience a combination of grievance or discrimination coupled with the capacity and political space to organize and take action on their own behalf.

The Root Causes of Conflict

While not neglecting situations in which indigenous peoples are the casualties of others' conflicts, the Martinez study and subsequent Working Group debate concentrated on the causes of conflicts in which indigenous peoples are participants. In addition to land and self-determination grievances, these include grievances over the meaning of treaties; opposition to resource extraction or development projects that take place on or impact indigenous lands, especially those that radically transform the landscape, are accompanied by human rights violations, cause forced evictions, open up indigenous lands to non-indigenous colonizers, or pollute the environment; militarization of traditional lands; discrimination by or exclusion from non-indigenous political or juridical structures; proselytizing activities of groups advocating predominately monotheistic faiths; socio-economic inequalities related to access to water, food, education, or health care; and violations of human rights justified under the campaign against terrorism or under the pretext of national security concerns.

The root causes of conflict articulated by the Working Group fit patterns that are familiar to political scientists, anthropologists including R. Brian Ferguson in this volume, and other scholars. These tend to be grouped into four categories, as outlined by Anne-Marie Gardner in From Reaction to Conflict Prevention4:

• Insecurity, which may result from shifts in political power or economic conditions, lack of judicial or other institutional capacity to provide alternatives to violence, or geographic or political isolation. Insecurity can be real but it also can be manufactured by states or other outside interests that desire to consolidate political power or wealth.

• Inequality, which refers to real or perceived differences in political participation, economic assets, income, education, or social status among recognizable groups in a society, rather than absolute amounts of deprivation. Real or perceived inequalities can be manipulated by leaders to intensify group identity and to draw followers into violent conflict.

• Private incentives, which can motivate both leaders and followers to engage in violent conflict. Leaders in power may initiate violent conflict when they feel threatened or see opportunities to accumulate wealth; those seeking power do so when presented with opportunities to gain power. Followers, particularly poor young men and boys who have few other opportunities for income, often participate in violent conflict when their leaders offer economic incentives for soldiering.

• Perceptions of history, identity, and past or present discrimination, which may motivate ethnic or religious groups that have achieved political power to adopt self-protective offensive strategies to ward off future suffering before it takes place. As Vesna Pesic put it in David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild's The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict, intrastate conflict often can be attributed to "fear of the future, lived through the past."5

Most indigenous peoples are geographically and politically isolated, and in many countries still lack adequate recourse to meaningful judicial or other institutional mechanisms for the peaceful resolution of conflict. Almost everywhere, indigenous peoples do not have the same access to political participation, economic assets, income, education, or social status that other groups within the state enjoy. In addition, because they tend to be poor and marginalized, indigenous peoples are vulnerable to the temptation of economic incentives that both lure them into others' conflicts and create conflicts within indigenous communities. Finally, centuries of suffering, abuse, and discrimination have undermined indigenous peoples' trust in states or other outside interests. As indigenous peoples organize and become more empowered, the adoption of self-protection tactics to prevent further harm becomes an attractive option.

Once violence breaks out, death, destruction, displacement, or fresh violations of human rights typically exacerbate the root causes and provide fresh rationales for fighting. Infrastructure destruction during violent conflict can produce severe economic, social, or cultural rights consequences that can fuel continued hatred of opponents. In ethnic conflicts, dehumanization of the "other" can fuel similar hatred and can block willingness to compromise to achieve peace. Unless one party to a conflict can muster the force to "win," the options for restoring peace once violent conflict has broken out become slimmer with the passage of time. Most analysts argue that in these circumstances significant international or regional intervention (ranging from coercive sanctions to armed intervention) is required to prevent the violence from festering for years or decades.

The Contemporary Context

The articles that follow both confirm and challenge scholarly wisdom about the root causes of violent conflict involving indigenous peoples. Ferguson addresses the age-old question: Is war an inevitable part of human nature? He finds the archaeological evidence replete with examples of peoples who did not make war, and an escalation in warring activities among societies whose ways of life are threatened by natural forces such as drought, disease, scarcity, or by other human groups that covet their lands or resources.

David Wilkie looks at the impact of decades of violent conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Ituri Forest on the Efe and Lese peoples who live there. He paints a grim portrait of how indigenous peoples who live in the path of violent conflict perpetrated by others are likely targets of human rights violations and destruction.

But while indigenous peoples may be victimized, the articles in this volume also reveal that living in conflict zones does not mean that indigenous peoples are always victims. Where they have had opportunities to become empowered, indigenous peoples are increasingly using their empowerment to demonstrate that self-protection mechanisms do not have to take violent forms. As the photo essay on indigenous resistance to Colombia's civil war highlights, indigenous peoples have engaged in protest marches, sit-down strikes, direct engagement and dialogue with warring parties, and the establishment of unarmed civil patrols to protect their communities and lands, reclaim community members who were forcibly recruited into armed groups, or demand negotiated resolutions to grievances.

Indigenous peoples are also demonstrating that indigenous traditional methods of resolving conflict offer powerful alternatives to warfare. Such methods also provide a fertile field of study for those who seek to mediate an end to violent conflicts. In addition to proposing the use of traditional mechanisms, indigenous peoples from different parts of the world are collaborating to design creative new conflict prevention and resolution processes that combine traditional and modern elements. As Tara Tidwell Cullen’s article about an indigenous-driven program to investigate and resolve conflicts using indigenous knowledge shows, these processes combine traditional and modern elements.

After violent conflict ceases, measures are needed to prevent violence from recurring. A post-conflict regime must simultaneously quell forces which could rekindle violence, while it rebuilds damaged infrastructure, invigorates a peacetime economy, reinserts former combatants into civilian life, deals with the return or resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons, and manages challenges from political opponents including "spoilers" who feel excluded from the peace process or oppose the settlement. Furthermore, it must take active steps to put in place the democratic, human rights, and rule of law systems that will reduce the likelihood that conflict will break out anew, and face the challenge of how to respond to past violations of human rights.

Democratic political and social institutions can offer an effective means for the peaceful handling of deep-rooted differences through inclusive, just, and accountable participatory processes. Democracies can foster the confidence of civil society, including indigenous civil society, through the establishment of independent, accountable judiciaries; well-trained, rights respecting police and security forces; and mechanisms to promote and protect human rights such as free legal services for the poor, human rights commissions, and constitutional status for internationally recognized human rights norms.

But establishing democracies with these capacities in the post-conflict milieu is a huge challenge. Post-conflict political and economic conditions are likely to make life even more insecure than it was prior to the onset violence. These conditions, in turn, create fertile territory for inter-personal and inter-group struggles for power or wealth, and defensive postures aimed at preventing a group from suffering future harm. Laura Arriaza's article on post-conflict Guatemala shows that the stresses of coping with so many problems at the same time can push leaders who believe in democracy to adopt strategies that undermine that goal, including kowtowing to powerful interests at the expense of indigenous peoples or other groups that historically were marginalized or discriminated against.

Taking a Stand

Even where violent conflict is unlikely, indigenous peoples are susceptible to actions by others that undermine their well-being or identities. The more indigenous peoples perceive themselves to have the power to assert their interests, the more likely they are to stand up to such actions. Increasingly, indigenous peoples are challenging encroachments onto their lands; development activities that are not undertaken with their free, prior, and informed consent; discriminatory state practices such as unequal access to education or health care; arrests of their leaders for political agitating or rights advocacy; or failure to guarantee basic human rights or respect treaty rights. In many cases those challenges take peaceful forms such as participation in dialogues or the filing of lawsuits. But sometimes they turn violent, as happened in 1994 when hundreds of Indian peasants, armed with machetes and rifles occupied several cities and towns in Chiapas, Mexico, to protest "more than seventy years of poverty, injustice and exploitation" and call upon the other powers of the nation to restore the rule of law.6

Finally, whether non-violent or involving the use of arms, such confrontations, even when peacefully or legally resolved, tend to stimulate new conflict. Sometimes the resolution of a conflict triggers a struggle for power within an indigenous community, particularly if involvement in the underlying conflict or its resolution caused a person or faction to gain or lose prestige. As Swati Mylavarapu and Theodore Macdonald's article on inter-indigenous conflict after the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruled in the Awas Tingni case shows, the resolution of a conflict between the state or other powerful outside interests and an indigenous people can cause conflict between that people and other indigenous peoples living in the vicinity. Sometimes it can trigger fresh conflict between the indigenous people and the state or outside interests. In sum, in the modern, globalized world in which multiple interests compete for increasingly scarce resources, indigenous peoples are more empowered to represent their own interests, and more venues for presenting grievances and seeking solutions are available, conflict is becoming an ongoing process, even a way of life, to which indigenous peoples and all those who interact with them must adapt.

What steps can be taken to ensure that conflict remains peaceful? The Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights recommended concrete steps that the international community can take. To reduce the impact of others' violent conflict on indigenous peoples, it has proposed that the United Nations Secretary General:

1. Ensure that the Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide take into consideration the need to protect indigenous peoples and their territories

2. Ensure that, in situations where there are forces present under a U.N. mandate, they protect vulnerable indigenous peoples, their territories and objects indispensable to their survival

3. Ensure that the mandates of U.N.-authorized operations include a requirement to protect indigenous populations and their territories

To address conflicts involving indigenous peoples directly, the sub-commission has called for a study on conflict prevention and resolution between indigenous traditional sources of authority and state-designated institutions and representatives. As part of that study it has called for an examination of what types of positive roles can be played by domestic and international third parties in brokering a dialogue for the peaceful resolution of such conflicts.

In 2000, indigenous peoples from around the world came together in Manila, Philippines to share their stories of conflict and peace building, and their visions of a just and peaceful future. In their recommendations, they called upon states and the international community to uphold the dignity of indigenous peoples and to promote and defend their rights—including their rights to their territories and resources and to self-determination. They also stressed the importance of creating mechanisms through which indigenous peoples could help and support one another to strengthen their capacities and to prevent and resolve conflict. The Manila Declaration of the International Conference on Conflict Resolution, Peace Building, and Sustainable Development and Indigenous Peoples concluded7:

The dream and vision of indigenous peoples for a just and lasting peace and for sustainable development to reign in their territories can be realized. What is needed is for others to share this dream and work in partnership with indigenous peoples to make it a reality.

1. Necla Tschirgi, "Making the Case for a Regional Approach to Peacebuilding," Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, Vol. 1, No.1, 2002, pp. 25-38.

2. Ted Robert Gurr, Minorities at Risk, Washington D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1993, pp. 316-317.

3. Ted Robert Gurr, Peoples Versus States: Minorities at Risk in the New Century, Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 2000, pp. 44-46.

4. Anne-Marie Gardner, "Diagnosing Conflict: What Do We Know?" in Fen Osler Hampson & David M. Malone, Eds., From Reaction to Conflict Prevention, Lynne Rienner Pubs., 2002: 15-40.

5. Vesna Pesic, quoted by Lake and Rothchild, "Spreading Fear: The Genesis of Transnational Ethnic Conflict," in The International Spread of Ethnic Conflict, David A. Lake and Donald Rothchild, eds., (Princeton" Princeton U. Pr., 1998): 7, quoted in Anne-Marie Gardner, supra.

6. Zapatista National Liberation Army (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional/EZLN) letter, entitled "El Desperatador," January 1, 1994.

7. The Manila Declaration of the International Conference on Conflict Resolution, Peace Building, and Sustainable Development and Indigenous Peoples. Organized and convened by Tebtebba Foundation (Indigenous Peoples' International Centre for Policy research and Education) in Metro Manila, Philippines, on December 6-8, 2000.


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