Reimagining the social contract

Every year, the International Day of Indigenous Peoples is celebrated on August 9, which is a Monday this year. That sounds serious and enlightening.

Who are the so called ‘Indigenous Peoples’ of the world? In terms of population, there are apparently over 476 million indigenous peoples living in 90 countries across the world, but in terms of the total population of the world, they make up for less than 7 percent of the global population. In other words, they are truly the minorities in the world.

Among their unique characteristics is that indigenous people are the holders of a vast diversity of unique cultures, traditions, languages and knowledge systems. However, the languages and traditions of many of them, especially the smaller ones, are fast disappearing in the face of modernity’s onslaught and simply because not many speak the language or practise the traditions anymore.

Secondly, indigenous people have a special relationship with their lands and nature in general and they hold diverse concepts of development or land use which are based on their own philosophy about nature, their own worldviews, their culture and priorities.

There are a lot of things the world could learn from these concepts, views and philosophies but the world simply has no time to take a pause and look.

‘International Days’ are specific days, weeks, years and decades declared by the United Nations to designate as occasions to mark particular events or topics in order to promote, through awareness and action, the objectives of the organisation. There is one for the indigenous peoples.

Caretakers of pristine nature.

Leave no one behind

The theme selected for the Indigenous Peoples’ Day 2021 is: “Leaving no one behind: Indigenous peoples and the call for a new social contract”.

We are not sure when the theme was selected or composed but the theme is very appropriate and timely, not just because of the Covid-19 pandemic that is currently ravaging the world, and which puts indigenous communities at graver risks in the event of infections and due to their vulnerability and inability to deal with the effects and consequences of the pandemic on their lives and livelihoods.

On top of that, it is common knowledge that the indigenous peoples all over the world have suffered long standing disadvantages, discrimination and marginalisation in the capitalistic and other forms of socio-political systems that are currently prevailing or were in vogue in the past all across the world.

For this reason, it is imperative that every right thinking and morally upright individual must demand for the indigenous peoples’ inclusion, participation, informed consent and approval in the crafting and formation of a system with social and economic benefits for all, not just the majority or certain parts of the system, so that they too can partake of the benefits derived from the mainstream in societies.

The rest of us can also learn a lot of things about nature and on how to live in harmony with nature in a sustainable manner. That is, if we have the humility to do so, or make the time to learn.

Revisiting of the social contract

But, what does ‘social contract’ mean? A social contract is an unwritten agreement that societies make to cooperate for social and economic benefits. It is the generally accepted understanding or the given norm in the society that regulates the entitlement and enjoyment of the social and economic benefits in a society.

For example, and as an illustration, very often, we come across cases where indigenous peoples are driven from their lands, and ancestral homelands, and their cultures and where languages are denigrated, and their people are marginalised from political, social and economic activities, since they were never included in the social contract to begin with.

The parties to the prevailing social contract are usually the dominant populations, who have the numbers, resources control, and hence, the clout to start with. Of course, they have their own culture, values and approaches which they would want to prevail over all others.

Over the years and recent decades, various societies have sought to address the predicament faced by indigenous peoples, including through apologies (for historical maltreatment, injustice and so on) setting up of truth and reconciliation initiatives, administrative measures, legislative reforms, as well as constitutional reforms.

These are positive signs and developments which should be encouraged. Or they will remind signs and tokenisms only.

Codfish being prepared in the traditional way in Lafoten, Norway.

At the international level, similar efforts have included the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the advisory bodies such as the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

Based on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), indigenous peoples have the right to culture, identity, language, protection of traditional lands and many other rights, including the right to self-determination.

Despite the existence of international instruments to respond to these inequalities, not all are embarked on the collective journey to ensure that no one is left behind, especially the indigenous peoples.

Therefore, it is argued that the building and redesigning of a new social contract as an expression of cooperation for the sake of the social interest and common good, for both humanity as whole and the natural environment in particular is acutely needed.

Native music and culture are rooted in nature.

It goes without saying that the discourse on the new social contract must be based on genuine participation and partnership that fosters equal opportunities and respects the rights, dignity and freedoms of all.

Indigenous peoples’ right to participate in decision-making is a key component in achieving reconciliation between indigenous peoples and nation states around the world. Perhaps, that vision is just a dream. A created dream.

What’s the use of the annual international celebration if it makes little or no difference to the life of the indigenous peoples of the world? It’s a waste of funds and of breathes and, in the final analysis, all for nothing but a show.

Interesting points you need to know

•       More than 86 percent of indigenous peoples globally work in the informal economy, compared to 66 percent for their non-indigenous counterparts.

•       Indigenous peoples are nearly three times as likely to be living in extreme poverty compared to their non-indigenous counterparts.

•       Globally, 47 percent of all indigenous peoples in employment have no education, compared to 17 percent of their non-indigenous counterparts. This gap is even wider for women.

•       At least 40 percent of the 7,000 languages used worldwide are at some level of endangerment. Indigenous languages are particularly vulnerable because many of them are not taught at school or used in the public sphere.

•       Next year will be the start of another important milestone for indigenous cultures focusing on language: 2022-2032 will be declared as the “Decade of Indigenous Languages”. But by the next decade, it would be too late for many indigenous languages. On average, one indigenous language dies every two weeks, and this rate has only accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Useful links:





The writer is a regular contributor to this publication and belongs to one of the smallest tribes of indigenous people. Any views expressed herein does not necessarily represent that of this publication’s.  

Previous articleAffordable housing vital to quality of life
Next articleAge’s just a number-lah!