Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Dedicated to All Indigenous People in the World: "DOES LAND HAVE RIGHTS?"

An interest article written with Indigenous People in mind after the author, Adi Elisapeci Samanunu had seen the movie Avatar. The movie had such an impact that she was compelled to do some research into this topic and share her personal thoughts of what she discovered.
Click link to view "Voice for Indigenous People."
Lali Ni Vanua

United Nations Declarations for Indigenous people acknowledges traditional cultural connections they have with Mother Earth. Furthermore, the recognition of Rights of Mother Earth recently identified on a world stage by Indigenous people, nations and organizations as fundamental affirms its importance. It recognizes that land and their environment forms a basis of traditional culture prevalent to Indigenous people who see themselves as sons and daughters of Mother Earth. Colonization changed this view as the Western world notably ahead in defining its Bill of Rights post English revolution in 1688, saw a shift in how rights were determined. Interestingly, elements of spirituality can be observed in the thinking by John Locke, a Western natural rights theorist, who argues specifically about property, citing Christian biblical references and articulates that God had given nature to all mankind thus making it common to all. This essay will examine both arguments identified; the Indigenous beliefs deeply rooted in spirituality with Mother Earth against the Western model, which point towards a secular approach blended with Locke’s calculated and rational biblical perspective of property and asserts that Human rights must be interpreted by this concept. It compares Indigenous and Western approaches to nature, spirituality and traditional cultural connectedness to Mother Earth, human rights, secularism, religion, cosmic and property concluding on two levels; the arguments by Indigenous peoples in their beliefs deeply rooted and defined by its spirituality and traditional rights towards Mother Earth; Western concept of rights, rationality, commonality, order, human, property or economic model and the ongoing political debates on rights at international level.

United Nations, during the period of second world war, found itself taking charge in deliberating the issues of how western world viewed doctrine of rights for the nation, individuals and nature. Much debate had occurred prior to this when some theorists as noted by Cranston

“…positivist, empiricist, utilitarian – who regarded natural law and natural rights as nonsense.”

These controversial debates are pitted against John Locke, the most famous and notable philosopher of natural rights whose writings linked to the English revolution of 1688 arguing that men have a natural right to life, liberty and property. Cranston notes the Bill of Rights enacted by English Parliament in 1689 transformed these rights into positive rights. The Western world followed suit and embraced Locke’s theory into their Bill of Rights with a later addition of the words pursuit of happiness. As Cranston added the arguments on theory of rights were further exacerbated by legal positivists who claims the court determines outcome and upholds whilst logical positivists argue,

“….that any so-called truth that could not be verified by sensory experience was meaningless.”

Notably, little considerations are given to spiritual values on Mother Earth by which natives rooted their beliefs and more on the controversial view of a secular concept by some theorists.

With the backdrop of these line of arguments on rights theory by experts in the Western world, what chances are there for those lesser developed worlds that do not fit this model of thinking or share their languages? Some early Western theorists argued there exist universal rights, rooted in higher law which encompasses reason and nature, somewhat similar to the Law of God as defined by early religious thinkers. Perhaps, this revelation gives a clue to how the plight of Mother Earth as echoed by the Indigenous people and can be a solution in further defining its rights.

Furthermore, the inclusion of natural law by these theorists as being higher than any positive law identifying the basic principles of justice saying any rational minds can have the ability to discern without divine powers. This same thought supported by another jurist who states there exist a true law in accordance with nature which is unalterable and eternal. Although it can be said that these theorist were well behind Locke’s time, it does however, reveal that their arguments were overpowered by the elites within the philosophical and legal inner circles of modern times. One such theorists as noted by Cranston,

“ No one spoke more bitterly against natural rights than Jeremy Bentham…bears stubborn, if not living, witness ….imperishability of nineteenth century utilitarianism. “Rights”, Bentham wrote, “ is the child of law;…..Natural rights is simple Nonsense…….nonsense upon stilts.”

Whilst citing Bentham for his thoughts, who was joined by other political philosopher of modern times flagging that natural rights was “mischievous’ and a “mistaken activity”. Ironically, Mother Earth as viewed by Indigenous people are pitted against thinkers as such from the Western world who share the same view and it is inevitable to draw such conclusions that these thinkers were caught up in their own Western world of thinking that none other exists.

John Locke, on the other hand, as highly regarded for his part as a naturist theorist maintained his firm belief on God and how he views property as referred to earlier in this research paper and asserts that,

“Though the earth and all inferior creatures be common to all men, yet every man has a “ property” in his own “person.”

Although it is evident gauging from the articles written by Locke in the Two Treatises on Government, his focus on property and his use of the word common throughout his writings in this treatises formed the basis of what property is today in the modern sense. It is on this note that the United Nation has to work and try and find solutions which will best cater for the needs and demands of the diverse world today. It is true that the outcome of these deliberations by Western powers spearheaded by United Nations as noted by Cranton,

“..was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was “passed and proclaimed” by the General Assembly in 1948.”

It can be said that these deliberations did not stop there and which continues today as can be seen in the response taken by Indigenous peoples staking their claims for Mother Earth. Spirituality links Indigenous people to nature and underpins the notion that Mother Earth is a living being creating a sense of connectedness to them for over thousand of years.

As a mark of solidarity towards this end, its response to the Copenhagen’s Climate conference held late 2009, the Indigenous people, nations and organization hosted its own conference and subsequently added the words ‘Rights of Mother Earth’ in their recent declaration compiled at this conference held at Tiquipaya, Cochabamba in Bolivia between 19th to 22nd April, 2010. This is indicative of the pull between the two worlds where one defines itself with its coexistence, wisdom, harmony and cosmic spirituality with nature which they claim is their natural habitat and subsequently must be regarded to have certain rights whilst the other with its model as defined by Locke of property, rational, common, prosperity, acquisition, ownership, private or absolute private. As a result, Western world, bent on globalisation, economic process and as articulated by Stammers,

“….the early liberal challenge to absolutist state power came to sustain and continues to sustain, economic power in the private realm and challenges to private economic power has served to sustain state power.”

It is therefore appropriate to say that globalization or westernization are geared and economically driven by the industrialized nations which the Indigenous people and their advocates view as one of self serving which promotes exploitation of Mother Earth and wealth accumulation.

It is important to note the Indigenous thinking in asserting their beliefs in the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change & The Rights of Mother Earth Indigenous Declaration,

“Mother Earth, is a living being in the universe that concentrates energy & life, while giving shelter and life to all without asking anything in return, she is past, present and future; this is our relationship with Mother Earth.”

Evidently, these line of thoughts indicates the spiritual value and deep respect placed on Mother Earth which far outweighs the dollar value placed against it by those looking at it purely from a market and economic perspective. The Indigenous people view Mother Earth as provider of resources and articulates that the Western economic models of exploitation and negative activities being forced upon Mother Earth are acts of violations against their soil, air, forests, rivers, lakes, cosmos and more. Ultimately, these actions taken are a direct assault against the Indigenous people and their territories which marks as one of disrespect on their land and environment which are dear to them. As noted earlier, these onslaught is attributed to colonization effected by Western nations who as a result appropriated lands with little or no considerations for the values of Indigenous society that pre-existed and lived on these lands. This has had a negative outcome and which impacted greatly on the relationship between Mother Earth and the Indigenous people.

Alternatively, although in writing his two treatises on Government, being a western theorist, Locke (2003) frequently cites references to God or Divine power and draws a parallel view of nature where men have been born into entitles each one to claim their rights of preservation drawing from Nature for its sustenance and subsistence as well as gleaning over what the Bible reveals and its account of God’s gifts to the early characters such as Adam and Noah. Here we see the vast differences between the two approaches taken, as one is in harmony with nature whilst Locke’s line of thoughts flags a more definitive materialistic and rational perspective of the Bible, particularly when comments by Locke , reiterates,

“…Nature affords for their subsistence, or “revelation” which gives us an account of those grants God made of the world….”

Evidently, Locke (2003), appears to consult and cites Biblical text in his treatises it does however, exposes elements of a rational ordered, calculations in play particularly when he notes the account of what God gave the world via those Biblical figures. Locke’s use of the word grants in his quote can be interpreted to mean monetary in the modern sense. When examining remarks by Locke (2003), and being one of the notable early European philosopher, his remarks was to be expected considering that he came from a much more developed nation which cannot be equated to the thinking and languages of those Indigenous people with little or no contact with Western world and who viewed Mother Earth as a spiritual being which not only connects them but also provides for their subsistence, sustenance and basic needs for many generations.

Aggression to the land executed during colonization can still be felt today and parallel view of modern colonization as large scale operations are seen to be facilitating the entry of markets as well as extractive industries. These negative actions ultimately hurts the land and its people, an experience which is viewed as primitive by some developed nations. Industrialized countries with multi-national corporations, World Bank, International Monetary Funding that have the economic clout to conduct and fund these negative activities are frowned upon by the Indigenous people as causing assaults and violations against their land, their resources, environment and ultimately Mother Earth. Alternatively, Westerners will argue their perspective on property differs from that of Indigenous and this can be read as articulated by Locke,

“The “labour” of his body and the “work” of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state that Nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined to it something that his own, and thereby  makes it his property.”

John Locke’s theory, no doubt has impacted the economically driven world and it is evident the Western world has premised much of their economic policies based on Locke’s theory. Could it then be said, is it this difference that has created the gaps between the haves and the have- nots? It is imperative to note here the existence of competing and conflicting interpretations of not only cultural in this instance but the term coined by Locke as common and is viewed as universal. As noted by Freeman ,

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights,….associates human rights with “the highest aspiration” of the Common people, and proclaims itself to be a “common standard” for all.”

Freeman goes further and states that in the early part of drafting the Universal Declaration, it had been noted that there existed questions of conflicts within the human rights principles and other views such as those of philosophers, religious or cultural. This gives an indication of how convoluted and challenging the topic of human rights and effort by experts to try and define as well find consensus to justify it. Perhaps, citing a classic model that depict the perils of Mother Earth and its Indigenous people can be extrapolated from James Cameron famous movie titled Avatar. This movie speaks volume of the plight of Mother Earth and the Indigenous people and which must be made mandatory as an educational tool as here lies the answer to bridging the gaps between the Western world and Mother Earth. In addition, the inclusion of Aotearoa, in signing the Declaration of Indigenous Rights also speaks volumes of the importance Mother Earth and the Indigenous people are acknowledged here.

To conclude, Land does have Rights as evident from the value and arguments put forward by Indigenous peoples on Mother Earth, be it in their deeply rooted beliefs defined by spirituality and traditional rights toward this end and also the recognition given by United Nations. Alternatively the putsch by Western world economic order must be reigned in on side of caution to avoid further damage to Mother Earth. Lastly, ongoing research, conversations and political debates on these issues on rights at international level to ensure that Mother Earth and the Indigenous people are given the platform, equipped with support mechanism to write their own history and determine their destiny.


 Cranston, M., “Are there any Human Rights?” in POLS/INTP 363 Polity, Economy, Culture and the Dialectics of Human Rights. (2010). cm.p.2.

 Freeman, M., “The Philosophical Foundation of Human Rights”, Human Rights Quarterly 16 (3), 1994.

 Kenny, A., “The Political Theory of John Locke”, in an Illustrated Brief History of Western Philosophy. (Blackwell Publishing, 2006). p.p.226 – 236.

 Tarnas, R., “From Locke to Hume, in The Passion of the Western Mind.” Understanding the ideas that shaped our World View. (Crown, 1991). p.p. 273-290, 308-309, 333- 340, 434-445.

 Rorty, A. O., “The Origins of Philosophical Ideas”, In The Many Faces of Philosophy. Reflections from Plato and Arendt. (Oxford University Press, 2003). chap. 12., p. p. 144 -151.

 Stammers, N., “Social Movements and the Social Construction of Human Rights”. Reconstructing Human Rights in an Era of Globalization?, in POLS/INTP363, Politiy, Economy, Culture & the Dialectics of Human Rights. (2010). p.p.166-167.

Internet Sources

 Locke, J., The Law of Nature and Nature’s God. Two Treatises on Government (1680-1690) e-online. http://www.lonang.com/exlibris/locke/loc-205.htm

 Mother Earth. http://motherearthrights.org/ accessed 21/05/2010 at 4.30pm.

 Avatar: Movie Review http://screencrave.com/2009-12-11/avatar-movie-review/ accessed 4pm 21/05/2010

 http://www.un.org/rights

 http://www.unhchr.ch/

 http://www.hrw.org/

 http://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/

 UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—Government Support. http://www.parliament.nz/en-Z/PB/Business/QOA/8/3/d/49HansQ_20100420_00000001-1-UN-Declaration-on-the-Rights-of-Indigenous.htm accessed 21/05/2010 at 4.30pm


  1. This posting has everything to do with what Thomas Linzey and his co-workers are striving for -- reworking constitutions to include inherent rights for nature, ecosystems, and the land. Please check it out at http://www.celdf.org/ -- I heard him speak (as well as communities he was working with) at the Bioneers Conference in CA years ago. Blew me away...

  2. Bula Lindsay W,
    Your comments is much appreciated. We will definitely look at the site you have suggessted and give our feedback.

    Thanks for popping by.
    Luvei Viti Team


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