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The Indigenous, The Colonizer, The Developer: our history with land and ownership

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By Marco Vesters

· 7 min read

“A civilization flourishes until it starts analyzing Itself.”

- A.N. Whitehead.

The above statement by mathematician and philosopher A.N. Whitehead appears to hold true. For those actively involved with existential risks associated with planetary crises, there is no end to our discourse on the need for change, individual or systemic—the need for behavioral change in the political, economic, entrepreneurial, and societal arena.

A more recent topic that is gaining popularity is Indigenous Wisdom. The underlying argument is that Indigenous tribes protect 80% of our untouched biodiversity. We must seek indigenous wisdom, but what if I told you that we were all First Nation (Indigenous) people once? 

Most likely, we all have traces of our First Nation’s ancestors in our DNA. One could even argue that it runs in our blood. With this lineage comes knowledge that was passed down to us through generations. Most of us have forgotten this and, over time, replaced it with other wisdom from those who subjugated us via conquest, religion, science, technology, and politics. There are almost no First Nation People left who have not been subjugated to some extent.

But within us resides the wisdom of our First Nation ancestors and their relationship with the land. You know this intuitively if you choose to attune to it. You can sense it even if you live in the glass, steel, and concrete Jungle. All you need to do is walk in untouched nature close to your home and take in the beauty of that experience. You may even live thousands of kilometers away from where you were born, but the experience of feeling that you are part of the land is universal.

All First Nations people have one thing in common. 

They say that they live IN the land. 

One tiny word makes all the difference in how we think and behave within our environment.

Our First Nation people viewed ownership as a more fluid understanding and was never applicable to land as it was a communal support system. A personal weapon could be considered owned. Still, they were gifted based on the Shaman’s, Druid’s, or witch doctor’s reading of the child; your weapon was also often connected to a deity or animal’s power and hence may not have been considered something you owned, as in today’s meaning, but rather authorized for use on behalf of a greater being and in service to your community. The same could be argued for technology, like tools of the trade. Land ownership was not a thing until the rise of feudalism.

When we trace our lineage to more recent times, we were once part of a colonizing civilization. Vikings, the Romans, the Mongols, the Zulus, the Ashanti, the Ottoman Empire, The Khmer, the Mayans, the Incas, the Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French, Chinese, Japanese, and British Empires. Most of our bloodlines are mixed, a soup of First Nation tribes and colonizers. 

What do all these colonizers have in Common?

They say that they are ON the Land. 

We conquered it, and now we control and own it. 

That is a significant shift in our civilizations’ psyche. Becoming a colonizer severs you from being in the land because what you colonized is not yours. After all, you are not from it. Therefore, the land loses cultural and societal value and becomes something you own, control, and exploit.

This Psyche became a societal and cultural condition enforced and controlled by treaties, armies, technology, and knowledge. Either in the form of more sophisticated weapons, military strategy, and tactics, as can be found in the histories of Alexander the Great, The Romans, The Zulus, the Ashanti, the Incas, the Mayans, and the Mongols. They can be found in later developments such as roads and written scrolls during the Roman Empire. Railroads, shipping, and written contracts during the age of the French, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and British Empire. 

One could argue that we still live in a colonial or neo-colonial era. Psychologically, we certainly still do. Many arguments and examples are available to confirm this, especially when it comes to exploiting other people, countries, or what is considered part of the commons, like water, ocean, and air. 

A significant new concern is that with the narrative of Indigenous Wisdom being spread on platforms like LinkedIn, we now see reports of big AG tech entering the domain of the Indigenous tribe. One can only wonder about the extent of the damage that these firms will cause. They have been doing it for over a hundred years to colonizers and those who liberated themselves from them. This, of course, is a natural trait of our modern civilization. It’s extremely difficult to break psychological conditioning that has evolved over millennia. We still compete over land, maybe not always with weapons, but certainly with contracts, treaties, and other legal papers. Battles are won or lost, mostly in courts of law. Cases of ownership disputes abound even today, and words in contracts are the weapons we use to force control.

Those who have experienced the societal and cultural shame of being designated as colonialists have designed systems in the name of progress called development. Until recently, the world was split between developed and developing countries, and in some corners of our economy, these terms persist despite the World Bank changing those two designations to High, Middle, and Low-income countries. 

Post-colonial empires have created development under the banner of socioeconomic progress to further the concept of ownership as a right. Its purpose: to improve society and expand the middle class. A stable middle class promotes peace and stability and prevents revolutions. The best way is to provide the right to individual ownership through labor in service to those who seek to manage you. All developers I propose have one thing in common.

We are developing the right to ownership in the name of progress. 

The appropriation of land to develop cities and roads and concentrate industrialization can be found on every continent and country and even happens to this day. Development has, of course, shifted from enablement to meeting demand. We need more housing, roads, and places to work. We need more resources so we may prosper. The more we own, the wealthier we are, is generally considered the global dominant consensus.

Our socioeconomic systems have become so complex that it is almost impossible to unravel, despite arguments that the great unraveling has already begun. Thanks to us, we are fast approaching the absolute limit of what we can continue to develop. We have already exceeded our capacity to sustain ourselves.

With big AG tech entering the last First Nation tribes with their GMO seeds and Chemical Fertilizers is another attempt to develop what remains. While they may not seek to own indigenous land, they will bind them to contracts and financial conditions. This is not unexpected because, from a developer's perspective, we are justified in our belief that we are helping them obtain the fruits of economic progress.

We have been very busy trying to develop Nature as an asset class by buying up forests, wetlands, and other so-called carbon sequestration, biodiversity credits, or even sacrificing nature for renewable energy mining projects from First Nation people and, in some cases, by pure colonization of indigenous land as we have recently witnessed in the rain forests and forests of Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia. Ask any First Nation person, or if you prefer the term Indigenous Tribe’s men, about ownership. He would frown on you and ask you: Who owns you? I would guess the answer would be money for many who would dare dwell on the question.

All asset classes eventually become mired in corruption and perverse incentives despite all the good intentions. Especially when there is insufficient regulation, we have plenty of examples to support this. There is a saying in business. Unregulated or weak-regulated ventures are the most profitable.

A Kikuyu witch doctor found me crying one day when I had lost my toy pistol. I was ten years old, and he told me the following.

All ownership eventually returns to the land and water. The more things you own, the faster they return.

I propose that we re-evaluate the benefits of owning things if we truly want to embrace Indigenous wisdom.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Marco Vesters is Chief Exploration & Curiosity Officer in the Age of Consequences and a deep thinking analyst on the metacrisis. Marco is on an expedition to discover and design frameworks for global protopian stewardship. He deals with topics related to the underlying dynamics of our global ecological, socio-economic, physiological, and psychological crisis.

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