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Sunday, March 30, 2014

How Can Good Things Possibly Do Any Harm?

In the latest issue of Cultural Survival, Mililani Trask has a good – well, I think it’s good – article called “UNESCO: (Dis)honoring Indigenous Rights” (http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/unesco-dishonoring-indigenous-rights#sthash.3zBxAmxP.dpuf). Focusing on Hawai’i’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and Tanzania’s Ngorongoro Conservation Area, but generalizing to World Heritage Sites all over the world, Trask points out that such sites tend to be listed, or “inscribed,” with little or no effort at pre-decisional consultation with the indigenous groups that live in them or use them in their traditional cultural, spiritual, and economic pursuits.  Understandably and rightly, I think, she deplores this.

Alert readers may not be surprised that I think the issue Trask raises is essentially the same one I wrote about a couple of days ago with reference to H.R. 1459, the bill to require review of Antiquities Act withdrawals from the public domain under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Fans of World Heritage Listing and Antiquities Act withdrawals alike don’t think such actions need environmental impact assessment because, hell, what impacts could they possibly have?  They’re GOOD!  For the same reason, proponents of listing and withdrawal tend not to feel compelled to talk with those affected by the actions, because after all, the actions are GOOD, so anybody who has qualms about them must be a rotter.

I’m not opposed to World Heritage Listing, or to Antiquities Act withdrawals, but dammit, the fact that an action seems good to us – ANY of us – doesn’t mean it doesn’t have downsides that ought to be considered, thought through, and maybe mitigated somehow.  Nor does it mean that nobody’s innocent ox gets gored by such actions, and a decent sensitivity to the interests of fellow-occupants of the planet ought to require that we talk with those affected, consult them, and look for ways to respect their values. 

I recommend Mililani Trask’s article, and suggest that readers give thought to its broad implications.

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