Big Plans: Scientists, indigenous people urge new frameworks for development

Last week, a group of scientists and development experts and the Colombian indigenous confederation each urged a fundamental rethinking of the priorities for planning “development”* in the twenty-first century. The technical experts published their perspective in a commentary in the prestigious journal Nature,Sustainable development goals for people and planet,” while the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia published a report called Another Vision, Indigenous Peoples and the Millennium Development Goals. (coverage from Intercontinental Cry). Both texts are intervening in the global discussion on the next version of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Outside of the United States (where this kind of international planning is treated as purely a foreign policy matter that won’t affect our future), the MDGs are taken as a general yardstick for directing aid and setting policy objectives, with goals like achieving universal access to primary school and eliminating extreme poverty that may change hundreds of millions of lives. Since I write from the USA, however, let’s pretend that this is just an intellectual discussion for how to think about the world. Even from that perspective, the scientists and the indigenous people raise some really important questions.

Since at least the 1990 Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, the conversation about the relation between human economic development and the planet on which it happens has centered around the phrase “sustainable development.” To begin with, the idea of development is a way of shoehorning two very different goals into one word: for the poorest and those concerned with them, “development” is having the basics: food, water, education, housing, health care; while for the richest use the same word for building the enterprises, real estate deals, and financial arrangements that make them richer. After a generation of conversations about whether the economic and demographic growth of humanity could be sustained by our finite planet, “sustainable development” was a catchphrase designed to underlie a conversation that talked about environmental and economic issues. Like the word development itself, there was always a bit of magic to the wording. Environmentalists could feel like they were demanding that development be limited to that small subset of economic systems that were actually compatible with the limited resources of the planet (these were the “sustainable” forms of development). Champions of economic growth could seek out policies that would make growth continue forever (development that would be sustained). Big contradictions were swept under the rug.

The triple bottom line (CC-BY-SA by Triplebotline)
The triple bottom line (CC-BY-SA by Triplebotline)

In the 1990s, the companion idea to sustainable development was the parallel existence of the economic, the social, and the environmental. UN conferences don’t really plan the direction of the planet, since nearly all of our effects on the environmental are organized as economic activities: decisions about them are made as economic and resource policies, the actions of corporations and the loans of private and public financial institutions. With this in mind, environmentalists tried to pressure and cajole economic institutions into taking the Earth into account. Literally. The metaphor that was created was the so-called “triple bottom line.” This was basically a request for businesses to put their environmental impact alongside their profit and loss statements. And the idea was that the effect on business owners, society, and the planet, were all similar measures of how right or wrong a particular course of action was. When I had the occasion, in my brief environmental advocacy career, to attend socially responsible investment conferences, the triple bottom line was just a big a buzzphrase as sustainable development was at the United Nations. The fact that any business was just a subset of society, and so didn’t necessarily need a separate account, didn’t really bother anyone. (After all, this was basically a tool for appealing to powerful interests to consider the Earth and humanity, too, alongside their own self interest. It was always intellectually and morally dishonest.) Inside the UN process, this idea was replicated as a “three pillars” (people, planet, profit) model of development.

This week’s intervention from scientists recognizes the growing blowback from damage to the environment upon the possibilities of social advancement and economic growth. The Nature article starts from evidence that “humans are transforming the planet in ways that could undermine development gains.” In response, it urges a rethinking of the triple bottom line:

First … we need to reframe the UN paradigm of three pillars of sustainable development — economic, social and environmental — and instead view it as a nested concept. The global economy services soci ety, which lies within Earth’s life-support system.

sustainable development … should therefore be redefined to “development that meets the needs of the present while safeguarding Earth’s life-support system, on which the welfare of current and future generations depends”

In short, Earth is finally recognized as the outside, without which there can be no social or economic development.

Sustainable Development Goals chart, from Griggs et al. article in Nature.
Sustainable Development Goals chart, from Griggs et al. article in Nature.

Colombia’s indigenous confederation takes up the conversation in a different place, grounded on defense of their communities, who have long recognized the Earth as the foundation for their ways of living. Indigenous peoples have most often experienced development as an economic process built on colonizing their territories and extracting their resources for use elsewhere. In the global South, the sale of these raw materials has been the income source for “social development” elsewhere, while many indigenous communities get a shrinking or degraded landbase. The Cauca Regional Indigenous Council (CRIC) had previously laid a critique (es) of the Millennium Development goals, which exclude any specific consideration of indigenous people and focus on the individual distribution of a small proportion of global wealth, rather than on rethinking the economic model.

Now, three Colombian indigenous organizations are offering their own additions to the Millennium Development Goals, five new goals to be achieved in a decentralized way:

1) the protection of indigenous territory;
2) indigenous self-government;
3) the self-development of indigenous communities on the basis of equilibrium and harmony;
4) free, prior and informed consent as a condition for developments on indigenous land; and
5) the ‘institutional redesign’ of the state in its relations with indigenous peoples.

Their intervention proposes making these goals as quantifiable and verifiable as the MDGs:

The third goal, of achieving self-development on the basis of equilibrium and harmony, for example, covers subcategories such as indigenous women’s rights, education, indigenous and intercultural health services, and harmony between mankind and nature. The education sub-theme includes the specific indicator of the number of teachers in a given territory who are teaching through indigenous languages. The harmony with nature sub-theme includes the indicator of the number of hectares of indigenous land replanted with native species.

Technocratic objectives are what set apart the MDGs from previous rounds of international targets. However, finding quantitative MDG goals that apply to every situation gave room for only certain very common problems—lack of sanitation, poverty defined by a dollar threshold, maternal mortality—to be addressed. This indigenous initiative is attempting to put locally defined rights, and the relationship with the environment back onto that agenda. The 200-page document is just one example of how indigenous peoples have inserted themselves into global conversations on humanity’s long-term future. By engaging with the global planning around the MDGs, they are raising that voice again.

It remains to be seen whether the power balance among profit, planet, and people can be made to reflect the intellectual reality that people depend on the planet, or to reflect the possibility that the economy could serve the vast majority of people rather than the other way around. A real shift requires changing the conversation, but also pressure to change that balance of power.

* Development is a rightly contentious term, but since the major challenges to it are all incorporated in these two critiques, I’ll just use scare quotes this once. If you’re wondering what is meant by this contentious term in the first place, consider these descriptions of economic development and the right to development.

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