Today’s political ethics are surprisingly similar to the doctrine of discovery set by the Vatican back in 1452.
Al Jazeera, 04 Apr 2012
New York, NY – One does not think of archaic papal bulls when witnessing democratic states like Brazil or the United States building dams on Amazon rivers or drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean. Yet today’s political ethics are surprisingly similar to the doctrine of discovery set by the Vatican back in 1452.
Fifteenth-century papal bulls that declared war against all non-Christian peoples also encouraged the conquest and exploitation of enemy territories throughout the world. European explorers like Columbus took possession of newly “discovered” non-Christian lands with the express authorisation of the Catholic Church.
This internationally recognised doctrine allowed claims to be made on “empty” invaded lands outlasted European absolute monarchies and has become enshrined in secular nation-states. In the US, for instance, Chief Justice John Marshall used the right of discovery in 1823 to invalidate native claims over their land and to assert the authority of the US government over land titles.
The World Council of Churches (WCC) recently disowned the doctrine of discovery, perhaps in light of its centrality at the 11th session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues this coming May in New York. Better late than never.
The discourse that rationalised the colonisation of the Americas in the sake of Christianity is the same that justifies protecting human rights in Iraq or privatising water supplies for the sake of development.
Intervention remains particularly strong when it comes to indigenous peoples and territories. Large-scale mining continues to engender human abuse and resource appropriation by multinational corporations across the Andes and Central America, perpetuating the pillage Spanish colonisers started centuries ago in Potosi. In the Amazon, governments and corporations alike take possession of “empty” lands to drill for oil in the name of development and national interest.
Latin American governments rhetorically insist on a foreign policy of non-intervention, yet are quick to intervene on indigenous territories to modernise the state. From the TIPNIS highway in Bolivia to the Belo Monte dam in Brazil, governments continue to bypass indigenous consultation and autonomies for the sake of national development.
The priorities of indigenous peoples are silenced in Chile, while their agency is dismissed in Ecuador, where massive indigenous mobilisations are dismissed as being manipulated by international interests. In Brazil, the government’s self-congratulatory tone for bringing a woman to direct the National Foundation of the Indian (FUNAI) seems to ignore its failure to appoint an indigenous person.
The idea that natives are un-modern, almost part of nature, and therefore unable to manage their own land continues to lead to “well-intentioned” intervention as well. When indigenous territories in the Arctic or the Amazon are not conceptualised as empty spaces to be exploited for national development, it is the turn of conservationists to intervene in the name of nature.
When parks such as Yellowstone were founded, conservationists like John Muir promoted the idea that the land had not been previously trodden upon, pushing out people who actively lived and fed on those lands to “protect” nature. Today, it is the turn of powerful conservationists groups in the global north to intervene by buying big chunks of land and pushing populations out.
The UN system itself may perpetuate forms of tutelage. On February 21, the Indigenous Forum at the World Intellectual Property Organisation unanimously decided to withdraw from discussions on the draft treaty relating to genetic resources in response to consistent efforts to undermine indigenous inclusion within the process.
How equitable can a treaty be that ostensibly holds indigenous interests as central but actually operates without significant indigenous decision-making? This unprecedented move calls into question the entire UN practice of incorporating indigenous voices in its deliberating process.
Dominant cultures continue to intervene in the autonomy of indigenous peoples. This continuum is proof that the doctrine of intervention did not die with formal processes of decolonisation, adapting to new zeitgeists like a chameleon.
The practice of conquest, more diverse than often assumed, needs to be reconceived as a global political challenge that concerns us all rather than as a mere cultural concern discussed in indigenous forums. It is the international system that is at stake. Universalism cannot be exported, much less imposed. It is a collective practice.
Manuela Picq has just completed a position as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College. She is currently writing a book on indigenous peoples’ rights in the Amazon.
Phi Beta Iota: Provocative indeed. There are 5,000 separatist movements around the world (27 of them in the USA), and it is now clearly understood by those who combine intelligence with integrity that a) the Western colonial system has totally hosed Africa, Latin America, and South Asia; and b) indigenous peoples know things that are essential to the future of humanity. There is a great deal of Truth & Reconciliation to be done, but there is no evidence at all that either The Most Holy Father or the US Government are at all interested in either concept. Future-Oriented Hybrid Governance is the new meme in town — governments without intelligence or integrity will resist this common sense imperative for the next twenty years while everyone else routes around them.
See for example:
Philip Allott, The Health of Nations: Society and Law beyond the State (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002)
Charles Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (New York, NY: Vintage Press, 2006)