Sharing resources is a primary cultural imperative of Indigenous communities worldwide; it is the practical precursor of more nebulous values, such as respect and balance. Through the sharing of resources, historical Indigenous communities assured diversity of wealth rather than surplus, stability of means rather than productive expansion, customary stewardship rather than ownership and consumption.
These priorities continue to operate in many Indigenous communities today. As a relentless global quest for resources enters its third decade, environmental distress, food shortages, and economic disasters have begun to shed light on the potential, for modern times, of cultural practices that evolved from sharing. But where the economic model of growth, surplus and consumption is deeply entrenched, it will take more than catastrophe to get a hearing for Indigenous paradigms of sharing.
It will take, as well, social experiments and a handful of high court decisions, and the plain old passage of time. But at least we can hold the catastrophe. The results of one such experiment, and one such court decision, are at hand now.
First Peoples Worldwide of Fredericksburg, Va., conducted the social experiment. Given guaranteed access to $20,000, how would Indigenous peoples from Africa, Asia and the Asia Pacific islands go about distributing it? This was a social experiment, rather than a scientific one; the settings were a series of roundtable meetings, rather than a laboratory; the results were local, limited, and circumstantial rather than global, large-scale, and objectively predictive. But if the experiment lacked all the attributes of scientific rigor, it showed distinctive, strategic paradigms of sharing at work in three divergent Indigenous cultural settings.
In Africa, where many states do not even recognize Indigenous peoples, participants recognized the solidarity of Indigenous peoples as a paramount need, and distributed funds evenly. In Asia, an imminent threat, with regional implications, to the land tenure of one group led others to join ranks around them and provide them with the lion’s share of funding. In the Asia Pacific, where the customary tenure of Indigenous people over marine territory is recognized by all governments as a given, Indigenous groups from islands separated by vast oceans set up a learning exchange, providing those islanders whose efforts to enforce marine protected areas have been most successful with extra funds for travel among the other islands, to share how they’ve done it.
This fragmentary evidence for distinctive, strategic paradigms of sharing in Indigenous culture has found validation as key evidence in a Western court decision. Handed down in the Supreme Court of Belize (former British Honduras, under precedents of British common law), the decision contains one of the strongest legal acknowledgments of traditional Indigenous resource-sharing systems ever registered. In the case of the Maya, the court held, “these practices have evolved over centuries from patterns of land use and occupancy by the Maya people.” The court cited several affidavits that bore out Maya oral testimony. Together they make a strong record of the complex Maya land management system for maximizing resources by sharing land.
Maya land management practices begin with a concept mostly invisible in the West: a collective conferral of rights on individuals, “… a mixture of quasi-private use rights with collective decision-making. … Families can claim and retain agricultural plots over long periods of time. Each family is responsible for its own agricultural work and reaps its own harvests. … The collective aspect of this system is the community decision making regarding how land is distributed among households. Maya communities strive to distribute farmland equitably. They also seek to ensure that all members of a village have access to communal or shared forest areas that are used for hunting, fishing, collecting water and gathering various resources.”
Elsewhere in the Supreme Court of Belize judgment, we learn why: “This is because each Maya farm family … requires access to a variety of land types in order to grow and gather all the crops and resources they need to survive in any given year. Each family needs several acres of dry-season cornfield land in a wet spot or along a riverbank, several acres of upland wet-season land for corn, and slightly wetter upland fields for rice. They also need access to secondary and primary forest for wild foods, hunting, and construction materials, access to common grazing for livestock within the village, and access to rivers for potable water, bathing, laundry, food processing and fishing. No single 40- or 50-acre plot of land can contain an adequate amount of each of the necessary kinds of resource. The variety of resources available is therefore often more important than the total amount.”
Family need and labor capacity also influence collective decisions on land occupancy. Other norms for Maya land management include “ecologically sound rotating and permanent agriculture, animal husbandry, hunting, and gathering; and reciprocal obligations of land and community stewardship.”
The resulting system of land occupancy and use is essential to Maya culture, but also a godsend to Belize. Stable enough to encourage long-term investment in permanent annual crops, “yet flexible enough to allow Maya farmers to respond to market opportunity,” it has often made Maya lands “the primary source of national foodstuffs” in Belize.
As global food stockpiles decline, food prices rise, climate change alters growing seasons, and Western-modeled economies teeter on the brink of failure — altogether putting a premium on variety of resources — a proper comprehension of customary Maya land management would seem to hold some potential for collective agricultural practices. That it all rests on Indigenous paradigms of sharing must be still more difficult for current economic modelers to accept, short of catastrophe.
Jerry Reynolds is a reporter, researcher and communications specialist in Indian country USA and international indigenous affairs.