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Bridging the fourth world: assessing the conflict between industry and indigenous peoples

By Conor Johnson - posted Wednesday, 26 November 2014

In 2010, the United Nations publication on the status of Indigenous peoples worldwide reported that the 5% of the global population identified as Indigenous suffer greater disparities in health, education and quality of life regardless of the development status of their countries. According to the report, Indigenous people represent 15% of the world's poor, have life expectancies 20 years less than non-Indigenous compatriots and endure higher rates of suicide, incarceration and substance abuse.

When considering issues of economic development, a great divide exists between the interests of industry expansion in the developed and developing worlds and those of Indigenous conservation in the 'Fourth World'. The marginalisation of indigenous people into 'Fourth World' status attests the need for action against the extreme poverty and disadvantage experienced by Indigenous communities around the world.

First contact with Indigenous peoples has in many cases resulted in devastation and the threat of displacement as they become redefined within nation states as pariahs of mainstream society. Since the 20th century, technological advancements have enabled industrial expansion into previously inaccessible remote regions. This expansion reveals isolated tribes to the modern world for the first time and threatens the survival of fragile ancient cultures.


A clear example of the effects of industrialisation and expansion into remote areas where Indigenous cultures are present is that of the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. With over two dozen pristine tribes remaining in the rainforest, forestry and clearing for agriculture have displaced or disassembled many communities. As Third World nations in the modern era strive to grow their economies and exploit available resources, the conflict between economic/industrial enterprises and Indigenous cultural preservation has never been more intense.

For organisations including the World Bank, and economically affluent nations with significant Indigenous populations such as Australia, it is of the utmost importance that decisive strategies be devised to improve the relationship between Indigenous cultures and industry.

In many instances a trade-off is seen to exist between sponsoring either industry or Indigenous development. The World Bank has outlined goals for the preservation and uplifting of Indigenous communities through its Indigenous Peoples Plan (IPP) as well as the stimulation of industry in developing countries through initiatives including the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).

However, it becomes difficult for the World Bank to fulfil its objectives of polygonal growth in developing countries when industry and Indigenous advocates are locked in a conflict of interests. This situation is the same for governments in wealthy nations like Australia, where $8.4 billion has been devoted to the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS). Therefore it is of immense importance that governments and transnational organisations seeking to stimulate economic development recognise this highly detrimental trade-off which threatens the expansion of industry and the preservation of Indigenous cultures.

It is also important to recognise that industry is not the villain in the conflict between Indigenous and industry stakeholders. The true villain is the conflict itself, which drives Indigenous people apart from industry and the possible benefits it may bring.

Promoting Indigenous cooperation and representation in the expansion of industry is absolutely necessary to tackle this devastating trade-off. To combat the conflict, the World Bank must realise the trade-off as a major problem in its campaign against poverty. Furthermore, the implementation of respectful, culturally appropriate prior consultation involving all stakeholders, Indigenous, government and corporate, must be introduced as standard practice for World Bank sponsorship of industrial projects.


The missions of achieving economic growth for both Indigenous communities and Third World economies can be accomplished through the expansion of industry. Indigenous cooperation is essential in ensuring that communities receive the full benefits of nearby industry and the most effective form of such cooperation is via Indigenous employment in industry projects. The sponsorship of vocational training and work experience programs provides Indigenous youth with the skills and opportunities required to gain employment in industries including mining and energy production and in doing so, injects income into local communities.

It is therefore recommended both to the World Bank and the Australian Government that cooperative education initiatives be supported for classroom and workplace based training of Indigenous youth. This is a crucial prerequisite to opening pathways into meaningful employment for the working age populations of Indigenous communities. For Australian Indigenous people, the provision of well-funded and comprehensive vocational training programs will reduce the dismal unemployment statistics of remote Aboriginal youth and provide a trained and professional source of labour for Australia's resource extraction industries.

The sponsorship of Indigenous representation in addition to the encouragement of Indigenous youth in attaining employment in industry is vital for the establishment of mutually agreeable development. With the founding of respectful relations focused on the pursuit of common economic goals, a successful relationship between Indigenous peoples and industry can assist in eliminating 'Fourth World' status and support a future based on growth and prosperity.

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About the Author

Conor Johnson is a student at James Cook University and was a Global Voices delegate to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund Annual Meetings in Washington DC.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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