Michelle Nhuch


Indigenous groups face extinction, an MIT study reports

Human rights program at MIT seeks to create a global initiative to assist First Nations
October 20, 2008

CAMBRIDGE, MA—Indigenous peoples have lived in the same territories for hundreds of years and attempted to preserve, generation after generation, traditional and cultural practices. Today, however, control of their land is being taken away, as mining and oil extraction, intensive cattle ranching, shrimp and crop farming, timber production, and other unsustainable uses of their land are being allocated to global corporate interests. In some instances, they are being forced off their land entirely. If ties to their ancestral lands are cut, a recent MIT study reports, their survival is in jeopardy.

The MIT study explores 14 cases in which the land claims of indigenous societies on six continents are being contested. "We found that land and the control of land is essential to the survival of First Nations. Taking away their land or forcing them to integrate into the dominant society is equivalent to destroying these cultures," said Lawrence Susskind, senior author of the study.

Susskind is a Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at MIT, director of the Public Disputes Program at Harvard Law School, and founder of the Consensus Building Institute. The study was co-edited by Isabelle Anguelovski, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT.

Although international law supports the rights of First Nations, the study finds that international law often fails to help them retain control of their land and natural resources. For example, when gas reserves or minerals lie under the land of a First Nation, national governments can take control of the area (by declaring it a public utility), even when national constitutions protect the right of indigenous people. States then allocate extraction concessions to public or private corporations, often without the consent of the indigenous communities, leading to long-lasting negative environmental, social, and cultural impacts.

The study identifies clear winners and losers, depending on how the land claims of indigenous people are addressed. First Nations with support from international civil society seem to fair better than most of those who have to pursue their claims on their own. For indigenous peoples relying entirely on international legal assistance, however, the results are disappointing. Corporations and national governments have the time and money to delay lawsuits while indigenous communities do not have time or resources to dedicate to years of litigation. Civil society networks, in conjunction with strong leadership within indigenous groups, can support political action that is often more effective than appeals to international law, the study finds. "It took the United Nations a long time to formally recognize the rights of First Nations. Even now, however, broad statements of support don't translate into real protection. We don't have much time; indigenous cultures are disappearing. We need to do something now," said Anguelovski.

Susskind and the University's Program on Human Rights and Justice—an initiative of the Center for International Studies (CIS) and the Department of Urban Studies at MIT—have called for the creation of a global network of scholars to document the status of indigenous peoples and to develop a credo spelling out the extent to which the survival of indigenous communities depends on the extent to which they exercise control over their land and what happens within their borders. The study details the preconditions for effective resolution of the land claims of First Nations. The ultimate goal, Susskind says, is to link with other groups of scholars to provide capacity-building assistance to First Nations.

The study was prepared by graduate students from MIT, Harvard Law School and the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University enrolled in Professor Susskind's course: Addressing the Land Claims of Indigenous Peoples. Co-authors include: Summer Austin, Talia Berman-Kishony, Shunling Chen, Artur Demchuk, Andrea Glen, Autumn Graham, Shizuka Hashimoto, Jonathan Kaufman, J. Eric Kent, Steven Lewis, Maria Reyes, Alexis Schulman, Jessica Tucker-Mohl, and Katherine Wallace.

Program on Human Rights and Justice at MIT:
The MIT Program on Human Rights and Justice (PHRJ), is a collaborative effort between the Center for International Studies and the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Established in 2001, the Program on Human Rights and Justice aims to create a cutting edge inter-disciplinary environment for research, teaching, curricular development and real-world application in human rights, especially relating to the global economy and science and technology. It is the first human rights program in a leading technology school and the first in the world with a specific focus on the human rights aspects of economic, scientific and technological developments. Cross-cultural dimensions of human welfare, security and dignity animate all the activities of the Program.

MIT's Center for International Studies, a dynamic international affairs research center, is home to a variety of research, education, and outreach programs. It seeks to bridge the worlds of the scholar and the policymaker by offering each a place to exchange perspectives, and by encouraging academics to work on policy-relevant problems. Center scholars, and the students they helped educate, have served at senior levels in every administration since the Kennedy years. They are today among the nation's most distinguished analysts and executives in government and the private sector.