Indigenous peoples: justice and sustainability

Watene, Krushil (2018). 'Indigenous Peoples: Justice and Sustainability' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


Indigenous good living philosophies have guided the actions and relationships of Indigenous peoples with the natural environment - actions that we now refer to as 'sustainable, resilient, adaptive' - for centuries. Despite ongoing colonial oppression, Indigenous peoples have not only managed to survive, but to maintain relationships grounded in their own philosophies. In Aotearoa New Zealand, Mātauranga Māori has become central to a range of government policy and tribal development strategies. Sovereignty movements such as Sumaq/Allin Kawsay or Buen Vivir in Latin America, and Minobimaatisiiwin’s Living Good from the Great Lakes Region of North America have become political signifiers able to express the aspirations of autonomy and self-determination of many Indigenous peoples globally. Similar movements can be found amongst Indigenous communities elsewhere such as Feng-shui or living in harmony with nature in China[i], and Laman Laka[ii], the well-being principle of Nicaragua’s Indigenous peoples

Global development agendas such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs)[iii] [iv] highlight the significance of local Indigenous knowledges for global sustainable development[v]. Yet, so far, in Oceania, Latin American and North American Indigenous good living philosophies have not been recognised in sustainable development[vi] [vii]. This panel explores the ontological, epistemic, and legal challenges and opportunities faced by Indigenous peoples in Latin America, the Pacific, and Australasia for pursuing and realising socio-environmental relationships grounded in Indigenous good living philosophies. This panel asks:

  1. What challenges continue to exist for Indigenous peoples?
  2. How are Indigenous communities continuing to pursue and realise (sustainable, resilient, adaptive) relationships grounded in Indigenous philosophies even given these challenges?
  3. Can the capability approach serve the pursuit and realisation of these relationships for Indigenous peoples?

More specifically, we begin with a discussion of Indigenous peoples’ worldviews of Anishinaabek people who are Indigenous peoples of North America and Quechua peoples of the Peruvian Andes. The discussion sets out the theoretical foundations of these ecological philosophies to identify and evaluate the various ways in which these Indigenous peoples continue to define, practice, and envision environmental stewardship and food security in their lives today and into the future. Furthermore, this panel sets the platform for a discussion about Indigenous epistemic inquiry that highlight the potential contribution of Indigenous peoples’ epistemologies to the challenges of extractivism and biodiversity preservation for food security.

We then move on to an exploration of the impact of significant legislative regimes governing land and environmental resources on Māori (the Indigenous peoples of Aotearoa New Zealand), as well as the ramifications of the on-going resolution of Indigenous claims under the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty of Waitangi was signed between the Māori leaders, known as rangatira, and the British Crown and this treaty supports Māori rights to self-determination in order to conceptualise their governing policies and to engage in policy implementation oriented to well-being in their own affairs[viii] This discussion culminates in a case-study discussion around the struggle to maintain traditional values relating to land, freshwater, flora and fauna by the Indigenous communities in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Finally, we consider the experiences of Yindjibarndi of the Pilbara, Western Australia and Te Whanau a Apanui of the East Cape, Aotearoa as they negotiate through the courts for the right to execute their traditional law obligations in the face of state-sanctioned mining operations. This comparison first highlights the fundamental epistemological and ontological disjunctures between the law systems. It then concludes with a discussion of the asymmetry of rights and legal outcomes within the Australian and Aotearoa’s neocolonial structures and considers how the CA as a political theory supports this neo-colonialism, despite best intentions.

[i] Yu, K. J. (1994) Landscape into places: Feng-shui model of place making and some cross-cultural comparison. In: Clark, J.D. (ed.) History and Culture. Mississipi State University, USA. Pp. 320-340.

[ii] Cunningham, M. (2010). Laman laka: Our Indigenous Path to Self-Determined Development. Indigenous Affairs, 1(2/10), 52-59.

[iii] UNDESA. (2017). Millennium Development Goals Report 2016. New York City, NY: United Nations.

[iv] UNDESA. (2015). Investing in Development: A practical plan to achieve the Millennium Development Goals Report. Retrieved from

[v] United Nations. (2008). United Nations declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples: United Nations. Retrieved from

[vi] International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty (IPC). (2004). Food sovereignty. Retrieved from

[vii] International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food). (2016). From uniformity to diversity: a paradigm shift from industrial agriculture to diversified agroecological systems. Retrieved from

[viii] Ballara, A. (1998). Iwi: The Dynamics of Māori Tribal Organisation from c.1769 to c.1945. Wellington: Victoria University Press.

Durie, M. (2000). Beyond Treaty of Waitangi claims: The politics of positive Māori development. InA. Mikaere, & S. Milroy (Eds.), Ki Te Ao Marama: Te Huinga Roia o Aotearoa Tenth Anniversary Hui-ā-tau 1998: Conference Proceedings (pp. 11-21). Hamilton, New Zealand: University of Waikato.

Sen, Amartya. (1999). Development as Freedom. New York. Oxford University Press.

Sen, Amartya. 2004. How Does Culture Matter?, in V. Rao and M. Walton (eds.), Culture and Public Action. California: Stanford University Press.

Nussbaum, Martha. 2006. Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press.

Anaya, S. James. 2004. Indigenous Peoples in International Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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