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Indigenous Peoples, The Environment, and Commercial Forestry in Developing Countries: The Case of Awas Tingni, Nicaragua

From: Human Rights Quarterly
Volume 18, Number 2, May 1996
pp. 345-367 | 10.1353/hrq.1996.0016

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Human Rights Quarterly 18.2 (1996) 345-367

Tropical forests are a vital source of biodiversity on the planet. The earth's forests, however, are being depleted at an alarming rate, due to unrestrained commercial harvesting of valuable timber and the stripping of forest lands for agricultural use. A large portion of the world's remaining tropical forests are on the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples such as the Sumo Indians of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast region. On 15 May 1994, the Community of Awas Tingni, which is indigenous Sumo, or Mayagna, signed a trilateral agreement with a foreign-owned timber company and the government of Nicaragua for the large scale harvesting of timber on lands claimed by the Community. The agreement, negotiated under the watchful eye of a major international environmental organization, is an effort at a new model of forestry development that is economically beneficial, environmentally sound, and respectful of the rights of indigenous peoples. As this article explains, however, the negotiated agreement did not come easily, nor is its faithful implementation secure. The Awas Tingni case is at the intersection of diverse interests and value categories that find a theoretical basis for convergence in the concept of sustainable development. This case is a lesson in both the potential applications and limitations of this theoretical convergence.

This article begins with a brief overview of the theoretical underpinnings of sustainable development as a synthesis of diverse values and interests. Then, Part II describes the players involved in the Awas Tingni case and events leading to the signing of the trilateral framework agreement and the first annual timber harvesting cycle. Part III evaluates the Awas Tingni case critically and makes observations that can be used to gauge the desirability and feasibility of subsequent partnerships between commercial logging interests and indigenous peoples, especially in developing countries where a high level of demand for capital investment often is not matched by a stable legal and political climate.

I. Sustainable Development: The Modern Synthesis of Diverse Values and Interests

Environmentalism, with its embrace of the concept of biodiversity, is a value and interest category that primarily has been promoted by Western progressive elites and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The environmentalist agenda traditionally has emphasized the preservation of the natural world and its diversity of animal and plant species, with only secondary attention to the economic or material welfare of human beings. Indeed, the traditional environmental movement typically has cast human beings as the culprit, the antagonist to be defeated in the quest to preserve nature.

A second and often competing value and interest category is that of economic development, which has been promoted especially by governments of the less developed world and fueled by conditions of poverty as well as by the flow of capital transnationally. The economic development agenda has as its goals the raising of material standards of living and the accumulation of material wealth. This agenda thrives on the nexus of common interests among impoverished sectors of humanity and profit-motivated industry, a commonality of interests in which the resources of the natural environment are to be exploited to serve the ends of human consumption.

The concept of sustainable development represents the contemporary synthesis of environmentalism and economic development. This concept is reflected prominently in the concluding documents of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, particularly the environmental program and policy statement known as Agenda 21. Sustainable development refers to the enhancement of human well-being through methods that do not lead to the long-term decline of the natural environment and its biological diversity, thereby maintaining nature's potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations. The concept of sustainable development thus embraces normative elements of both the environmentalist and economic development agendas, while relying on science and the existence of objective criteria to provide its methodology. However, sustainable development is a largely theoretical concept that is only beginning to be implemented in large scale projects in the less developed world.

Another value and interest category that arises is that associated with the rights of indigenous peoples. The rubric of indigenous peoples is generally understood to include the Indians of the American continents and other culturally...

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