In Canada and the United States about 5% of tribal economies are so-called “informal.” In Mexico about twenty percent of the indigenous community economy is considered by conventional economists as “informal.” In various other parts of the Americas, like Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Columbia, and Peru that portion of indigenous communities that is not specifically measured or accounted for in the state economy–the informal economy–may reach as high as sixty percent in some communities.
What is this informal economy? It is the economy of life. Members of the community produce from their own efforts the foods, clothing, shelter and other of life’s necessities themselves. This is the ancient economy which balances human need with the capacity of nature to restore itself. The so-called informal economy provides for the subsistence of all members of these small societies.
Once with I traveled with Chief George Manuel, Quinault President Joe DeLaCruz and Yakama Councilman Russel Jim to Peru we visited several communities–communities where most of the people lived some distance from the “main town.” It was the town that was used to redistribute the production of foods, building materials, clothes, etc. We were invited into a home to have a meal with one of the families living on the inskirts of town. Chief Manuel turned to no one in particular and exclaimed in English: “Look at the poverty! These people have nothing!”
We were invited to sit down on some wool blankets. Each of us was handed a substantial bowl of clear soup with what appeared to be cabbage, rice and meat floating around. Chicha, a sweet corn beer, was poured for every one and as I looked at the one light bulb hanging from the ceiling on its long cord, I said to Chief Manuel: “This is really good food and look at the weave in this blanket.” And Chief Manuel turned to me and said, “But look at the poverty! They need our help”
Chief Manuel was then the President of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples and considered this organization he founded a beacon of political and economic hope for indigenous peoples. I asked Chief Manuel: “Can your people in British Columbia make their own clothes, there own blankets, their own shelters, and produce their own food without the Canadian economy?” After a long silence he responded “No, I guess not.” “Then who is impoverished, your people or the people who just gave us a wonderful meal from their own hands?”
Self-sustained, user economies are clearly closer to life and sustaining life than the exchange economy that focuses on only one thing: money. You can’t eat money. Money won’t replace a destroyed forest. The single minded drive for money is destructive of life, and when a Fourth World nation gives up its self-sustaining ways in exchange for the chase for money gives up life in exchange for death.
(c) 2007 Center for World Indigenous Studies
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