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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

An analogy: bio-engineered salmon


Recently I tweeted that “As an indigenous person, I’m feeling a little like a bio-engineered salmon”. This may seem a little random, but while attending the recent World Indigenous Lawyers Conference this made sense, to me at least.

Let me explain. In the very first seminar, Rebecca Tsosie gave an example about the backward way in which we approach a crisis. Instead of taking a precautionary measure to preserve the environment in its natural state, we intervene. She spoke of an example where salmon populations had depleted because of climate change. The waters were warmer and became inhabitable for the salmon that had a history of breeding in those waters. This affected not only the salmon migration patterns, but also affected the availability of a food resource for the indigenous people in that area. The suggestion (and I am unclear on whether this actually happened or whether it was simply a suggestion or merely a hypothetical) was to bio-engineer the salmon to adjust to the warmer waters. The consensus is that climate change is a result of excessive carbon emissions. The peculiarity is why we would bio-engineer a species to adapt to worsening environmental conditions, when we could simply change human activity that adversely affects the environment. Prevention or precautionary measures are more sustainable and therefore, better in the long term. 

How does this relate to my statement? Well, the example stayed with me throughout the whole conference – in every seminar I attended, whether it be about education, politics, banking and so on.

Lets talk about the banking seminar. The issue was: Do we need a Maori bank or do banks need to be more Maori? It was claimed that a key factor in accelerating Maori success in business was overcoming issues of access to finance. The suggestion was that the banks need more Maori in banking roles and to be more Maori – this being more Maori was about ‘pastoral care’ of whanau and Maori enterprise to improve the Maori experience of banks. Personally, I seethed throughout the whole seminar. My view was: in what ways was it conducive to tikanga Maori to promote capitalist structures to trap Maori in a fake credit system? Encouraging Maori to take on debt in order to fit within the structures of a society that has a different modus operandi so to speak – where success is measured by the profitability of a business or personal wealth is not particularly tika in my view. I am not here suggesting that business and profitability are negative in all aspects. 

My view is that as indigenous peoples, Maori should be very careful about conforming to an economy that conflicts with Te Ao Maori (the Maori worldview). So here's where the salmon analogy comes back in. Prior to colonisation Maori had a very productive economy. It may not have been capitalist, but it functioned in a way that was beneficial to all its members. Since colonisation, Maori have been forced to adapt to the ways of the colonising empire in all aspects. This adaptation is analogous to the bio-engineered salmon example. Instead of recognising that Maori had an economy, that they had rights and interests in natural resources and allowing them to continue to operate in that way, a way that was sustainable and a way that every member was cared for, deculturating Maori prevailed.

Additionally, instead of educating Maori in Te Reo, in an environment that was suitable for their learning and in subjects that enabled individuals to find their own talents and roles in Maori society, the education system assimilated Maori. Maori were and predominantly are taught in English, taught subjects important to those in power and are taught to behave according to the norms and values of a foreign culture.  Bio-engineered salmon. Suffice to say when sitting in the politics seminar on the last morning of addresses, I realised that we Maori, as indigenous peoples, enable the deculturation. The status quo is that the key is to be at the table. My opinion, this buys into the bio-engineered salmon. The disharmony at the moment over consultation as to water rights and interests shows that while the government can divide Maori, Maori will remain politically modified to fit within a system that refuses to recognise Maori indigeniety and the rights, interests, duties and obligations that come with that indigeneity.

The conference also helped me make sense of a reading that I had done prior to the conference. It was from an International Environmental Law paper I am doing, the chapter comes from a book called "When two worlds collide" written by my lecturer Klaus Bosselmann. In this particular chapter, Klaus sets out a planetary calendar from the beginning of time to the possible moment of the extinction of the world in which we have to make a radical choice to prevent the decimation of humankind . It is very dramatic but reminded me of the presentation given by Justice Joe Williams, who told a similar story but more specific to Maori about there being two scenarios in the future for Maori which depends on a common vision within and between Maori. Those scenarios were a dystopia and a utopia, with the former being a world where our indigeneity was simply seen as an experiment and has no value in that world with Maori continuing to dominate the negative statistics, while the latter is a world where Maoridom is embraced by all New Zealanders and is integral to national identity (I will discuss this further in a later post).  

While the bio-engineered salmon analogy impacted how I understood and interpreted the seminars I attended, another statement also had a profound effect on my thinking. Bentham Ohia shared a statement made to him by Bolivian President Evo Morales: “I am not a capitalist, I am not a socialist, I am Indigenous”. Bentham shared this with the audience because it resonated with him. I am pretty sure it resonated with every indigenous person in the audience. 

The key ideas, that I took away from the conference are as follows:  
(i) Recognising the struggles of indigenous peoples as being analogous to struggle of the salmon and the foreign solution - to bio-engineer; and  
(ii) Acknowledging that I am an indigenous person and that I need not subscribe to a dichotomous political spectrum that does not appropriately recognise my idigeneity. 

NOTE: The World Indigenous Lawyers Conference 2012 was the first ever held and was hosted by Te Hunga Roia o Maori Aotearoa. I will write more on these seminars when time permits. My understanding is that Maori Lawyer Joshua Hitchcock intends to do a write up on this conference so keep an eye out: http://roiamaori.wordpress.com/