Indigenous Peoples, Digital Technologies and the Environment

The Digital-Environment System Coalition (DESC) is committed to developing an open access database of relevant high quality research on all matters pertaining to the interface between digital technologies and the environment. We also share bibliographies of recent important literature that may be of use to the community of researchers and practitioners wishing to explore specific themes. These not only address direct linkages with digital technology, but also provide scientific background on important emerging themes.

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Much research and practice at the interface between digital technologies and the environment is based on models and principles developed by those living in the world’s most economically and politically powerful countries.  This is usually based upon ideas that emerged from the European so-called “Enlightenment” in the 17th century.  The beliefs, voices and practices of ethnic minorities living in economically poorer parts of the world are all too often ignored.

According to the World Bank, there are between 370 and 500 million Indigenous Peoples worldwide living in more than 90 countries. Although comprising around 6% of the global population, they account for about 15% of the world’s extreme poor. Importantly for DESC, Indigenous Peoples own, occupy, or use a quarter of the world’s surface area, and they safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity.  Yet they often lack any formal recognition over their land rights.

The UN, Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development

The dominant model of “international development” often inadvertently – and sometimes deliberately – damages the cultures and lifestyles of Indigenous Peoples, as well as despoiling the environments in which they live, sometimes moving them into new forms of poverty where none previously existed. Such development frequently assumes that the assimilation of Indigenous Peoples into the cultural, social and economic systems of the dominant societies in which they live is the most desirable outcome for both themselves and for everyone else.  However, this is often not the case. Within this development orthodoxy, the exploitation of natural resources becomes a common policy. Unfortunately, a disproportionate percentage of these resources are located where Indigenous Peoples’ live and the continued abrogation of their rights is all too frequently seen as a necessary evil if these development ends are to be achieved. For Indigenous Peoples globally, the term development therefore often equates to dispossession of lands and resources, increased deprivation and destruction and loss of traditional livelihoods and environments.

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which expresses concern that Indigenous Peoples have suffered from historic injustices as a result of, inter alia, the colonization and dispossession of their lands, territories and resources, thus preventing them from exercising their right to development in accordance with their own needs and interests. It also acknowledges that respect for indigenous knowledge, cultures and traditional practices can contribute to sustainable and equitable development and proper management of the environment.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by United Nations Member States in 2015, supposedly provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future. However, the SDGs make only passing reference to Indigenous Peoples – lumping them together with other vulnerable groups such as women, farmers, pastoralists, fishers, persons with disabilities, and children. International indigenous organisations have consistently objected to this as: i) it obscures the adversity and specifics of the issues that  Indigenous Peoples everywhere face, and ii) it ignores the potential contributions that  Indigenous Peoples can make towards development that is sustainable and especially to the understanding and mitigation of climate change through the traditional knowledge that they possess of their environments, which tend to represent the areas of the globe that will be most affected.  The contributions that Indigenous Peoples can make towards the sustainable use of the world’s environments are thus of central interest to DESC’s activities.

Digital technologies, the environment and Ethno-Development

The notion of ethno-development has emerged to describe development policies and environmental processes that are sensitive to the needs of ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples. Ethno-development builds on the positive qualities of indigenous culture and societies to promote local employment and growth. Such qualities include their strong sense of ethnic identity, close attachments to ancestral land, and capacity to mobilize labour, capital, and other resources to achieve shared goals.  Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have been convincingly demonstrated to offer opportunities for ethno-development when introduced within processes that take full account of the local socio-economic context. Moreover, as the UN points out, Indigenous Peoples play a crucial role for conservation of the environment, but usually only if they are allowed to maintain much of their traditional cultures and lifestyles. Digital technologies can strengthen the ability of Indigenous Peoples to do this, which is especially important given that they occupy the environments that are most affected by global warming, such as rainforests, the arctic, low-lying islands and mountain glacial regions.

Many of the core characteristics of ICTs can be used to promote and implement environmentally sustainable ethno-development.  Experiences with deployments of ICTs within Indigenous communities emphasise the value of four main processes:

  • Bringing new forms of communications to remote and isolated locations in which many indigenous peoples reside;
  • Improving participation, thereby allowing groups to formulate their own proposals for development and counter misinformation that threatens their implementation;
  • Giving voice to those who were previously voiceless, allowing them to participate in public debates surrounding environmental issues that affect them;
  • Preserving, promoting, and strengthening indigenous languages, knowledge and culture, which counters the perception that ICTs are only being used to drive cultural homogenisation.

There first, though, has to be the will to used digital technologies in such ways. As the World Bank has belatedly realised, whilst digital technologies have spread rapidly in much of the world, the digital dividends—that is, the broader development benefits from using these technologies—have lagged behind. There is therefore a need better to understand how Indigenous Peoples and the environments in which they live can benefit from the appropriate use of digital technologies once access to them is provided.

Indigenous Peoples and Digital Technologies within the DESC Framework

The Digital-Environment System Coalition aims to examine the wider holistic environmental context within which digital technologies are created and used.  It pays particular attention to the ways through which Indigenous Peoples can contribute to such an understanding, and also benefit from our findings. Digital ethno-development is a valuable lens through which the needs of Indigenous Peoples for sustainable development can be realised through the appropriate use of digital technologies in order to overcome their socio-economic marginalisation and to empower them further as custodians of vulnerable environments and fragile biodiversity.  In the first instance, three main uses of digital technologies can be seen as being of particular importance in achieving these ends:

The eBario project led by ISITI in UNIMAS (Sarawak, Malaysia) provides an important example of the ways through which indigenous communities can work with researchers and practitioners to implement appropriate digital initiatives that are sympathetic to their environmental concerns:

The work of those involved in eBario provided part of the context within which the Indigenous DESC Thematic Working Group has been established.

Research resources 

Bala, P., Kulathuramaiyer, N., Harris, R.W., (2020) From the Margins to the Mainstream: Indigenised Development in Borneo with Information and Communication Technologies and its Contribution to Global Sustainable Development, Journal of Borneo-Kalimantan 6(2):84-97, DOI:10.33736/jbk.2904.2020

Broadfield, K. (2017) Ethnodevelopment: Indigenous Development in Indigenous Hands. 10.13140/RG.2.2.16098.43203.

Chapin,M., Lamb, Z., and Threlkeld, B., (2005) Mapping Indigenous Lands, Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 34:619-638

de Goye, G. (2017) Evaluating How ICT Interventions Affect the Wellbeing of Indigenous Communities in the North Rupununi, Guyana, dissertation;

Government of Canada, (2021) Indigenous fund for community-based environmental monitoring

Harris, R., N. Ramaiyer, A. N. K. and Tarawe, J. (2018) The eBario Story: ICTs for Rural Development, 2018 International Conference on ICT for Rural Development (IC-ICTRuDev), 2018, pp. 63-68, doi: 10.1109/ICICTR.2018.8706855.

Harris, R.W. (2018, August 6-8). Indigenised and indigitised: Technology for development among Borneo’s indigenous peoples. 14th International Borneo Research Council Conference, Translating the Past, Envisioning the Future. Kuching, Malaysia

International Labour Organization (ILO) (2017) Indigenous peoples and climate change: From victims to change agents through decent work.

International Telecommunications Organisation (ITU) (2021) Indigenous-led tech solutions for a better planet.

Ramos. A.R., Osorio, R.G., and Pimenta, J., (2009) Indigenising Development, Policy In Focus issue 17, ISSN:2318-8995

Rice, E., Haynes, E., Royce, P and Thompson, S.C. (2016) Social media nad digital technology yse among indigenous young people in Australia: a literature review, International Journal for Equity in Health, 15, 81 (2016).

Ryan, P. (2018) New technologies in traditional communities: how digital media is helping Brazil’s indigenous people find their voice, Mediático, 23

Sheppard, A. et al, (2020) Indigenous-led technology solutions can boost biodiversity and ensure human rights. Mongabay.

Tauli-Corpuz, V. (2010) Indigenous peoples’ self-determined development: Challenges and Trajectories. In Tebtebba Foundation (Ed.), Towards an alternative development paradigm: Indigenous peoples’ self-determined development (pp. 1-78). Baguio City, Philippines: Tebtebba Foundation

UN Nairobi, International Expert Group Meeting (2019) Conservation and the rights of indigenous peoples.

Contributions to this list of resources were provided by Roger Harris (revised by Tim Unwin)

Please add further suggestions through our Contacts Page.

Updated 27th August 2021

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