by Rhodri C. Williams
Just like last year, I spent the previous week celebrating Thanksgiving with relatives in northern Virginia and, just like last year, the curious nature of the holiday got me thinking about all the people that used to live there and may now find themselves west of the Mississippi in the best case. This year I found some inspiration in both the Economist I brought on the plane and the Dr. Seuss book I read my daughter. You, gentle reader, can be the judge of whether it all adds up or I just put a little too much gravy on the stuffing.
The Economist got me thinking with an apparently unconscious pairing of articles on natural resource conflicts in the Americas (hurry up if you are interested, both are sliding fast toward the paywall). The first focuses on Peru, where newly anointed President Ollanta Humala has found his newly minted ministry of ‘development and social inclusion’ outflanked by a brushfire of protest movements against large-scale gold mining concerns in the highlands.
The article implies that by passing new legislation requiring consultation with local indigenous peoples on extractive projects, Mr. Humala has opened a floodgate of dissent stifled under previous, more business-friendly regimes. However, as in nearby Bolivia, the real political and economic power that flows from meaningful consultation also appears to have highlighted unresolved tensions between indigenous peoples that may range from identity politics to competing political and economic agendas:
The native-consultation law could … prove perilous for Mr Humala. By January the government must decide which groups should be consulted, and how recommendations will be made. Formally, the process only applies to indigenous groups, prompting squabbling over who can use that label. “The situation in Cajamarca is heating up and could boil over if people feel excluded,” says (Cajamarca president Gregorio) Santos.
The second article focuses on Canada, where the socio-economic status of the country’s ‘First Nations’ remains far below the national average and natural resources exploitation represent a grave threat to traditional ways of life. Recently, First Nations have apparently responded by resisting the historic pattern of woefully low representation in the national government bodies that are dominated by the majority but take many of the important decisions regarding the fate of minorities:
“Aboriginal peoples realise that decisions regarding their future, their territories, their resources are being made in Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, and perhaps in Shanghai and New York,” says (Cree First Nation parliamentarian Romeo) Saganash. “So they understand they have to participate in the democratic institutions of this country.”
Without either minimizing or exaggerating the undoubted historical, socio-economic and cultural differences that complicate any attempt to compare Peru and Canada, I found the second article encouraging. ‘Consult’ and ‘participate’ are both transitive verbs but in the former case (consultation), indigenous peoples are the object, the recipient. Participation, on the other hand, is something that peoples – and people – do as active subjects. As with Mr. Saganash, who aspires to be Canada’s first aboriginal prime minister, you take it to the majority on the ‘best defense is a good offense’ theory.