By David Loyn
BBC Developing World correspondent
Indigenous people are much worse off even in developing nations
The health of indigenous people worldwide is much worse than that of other communities, even the poorest communities in the countries where they live.
This is among the findings of a major investigation launched by the medical journal The Lancet into indigenous communities.
The relatively poor health of aboriginal people in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand has been well-documented.
But this study finds that indigenous communities are much worse off than other poor people in Asia, Latin America and Africa as well.
Looking at infant mortality among the Nanti tribe in Peru, the Xavante in Brazil, the Kuttiya Kandhs of India and the Pygmy peoples of Uganda, researchers found much worse figures than in the "host" communities.
And the gap between these indigenous communities and the wider community was even greater than between the two groups in countries like the US and Australia.
In India for example, 25% of the population live below the poverty line, but among so-called "Scheduled Tribes" the figure rises to 45%.
Colonialism [created] an image of indigenous peoples as primitive, backward and deliberately obstructive to modernity
The concept of "indigenous" is a complex one, particularly in India and Africa.
The Indian government acknowledges the existence of "tribals", or "adivasis", adhering to pre-Hindu animist faiths.
It is among these "tribals" that India's biggest current security concern, the Maoist Naxalites, recruit and operate.
Lancet researchers record even more difficulty in defining indigenous people in Africa, blaming colonial persecution – inherited by other dominant groups since the end of Empire – for the poor health of some marginalised communities who live outside the mainstream.
Colonialism began the decline in health for indigenous peoples by introducing unknown diseases, and displacing them from their ancestral lands.
"Colonialism impacted as profoundly in a conceptual sense – creating an image of indigenous peoples as primitive, backward and deliberately obstructive to modernity," says the study.
Many of the indigenous people surveyed shared a sense of the loss or pollution of tribal lands, as mining, and other industries came in.
Unemployment, alcoholism, and drug dependency came along with their proximity to "civilisation". Homicide is a much more common cause of death among Australian aboriginal women than among the general population.
UN goals 'divert attention'
The biggest concern of the Lancet researchers, led by Dr Carolyn Stephens from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is that the health of indigenous people does not register on world statistics at all.
The current priority in development funding is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), targets set during the UN Summit in 2000. But the report says: "The MDGs could be achieved even if indigenous peoples disappear from our world."
Dr Stephens says the focus of the MDGs on "headline-capturing big numbers has an [negative] impact on indigenous peoples – both in terms of their international visibility, and in fund allocation".
The cultural traditions and knowledge of herbal medicine of indigenous people predate the collective knowledge of globalisation, and the Lancet researchers believe that we could lose much if these people are allowed to die.
"Globally, indigenous peoples represent a demographic minority and they are amongst the world's most disenfra
nchised peoples," says the study.
"Despite this, they have lived in and protected our most precious ecosystems and many of their ideas are vital to the survival of the ecosystem on which we ultimately all depend."
The authors quote approvingly the words of Mexican poet Octavio Paz: "The ideal of a single civilisation for everyone implicit in the cult of progress and technique, impoverishes and mutilates us. Every view of the world that becomes extinct, every culture that disappears, diminishes a possibility of life."