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November 15, 2007

Jeffrey Sachs Invokes Moral Obligation to
Indigenous Peoples

In the U.S., Native Americans have been pushed onto reservations on the margins of arable land. In Malaysia, the indigenous Orang Asli live with no sanitation and no safe water. And in Sudan, ethnic minority herders and subsistence farmers have been forced to migrate because of their pastures’ desertification, brought about by climate change and reduced rainfall.

In a November 12 presentation at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in honor of Native American Heritage Month, Jeffrey Sachs, director of the UN Millennium Project, spoke about the global health challenges of indigenous communities. He was introduced by Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who referred to him as one of his heroes and as someone “who speaks with great moral clarity.” The event was sponsored by the School’s Center for American Indian Health.

Filling a 350-seat auditorium, as well as an overflow room, Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the author of The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, recounted broadly the history of colonial brutality toward indigenous cultures, including among those cultures Native American nations and Alaska Natives. Colonialists’ brutality toward native peoples, he said, was only one form of violence, occurring alongside legally sanctioned land grabs, the extinction of languages, the forced separation of children from their parents, and the breaking of cultural heritages. The pattern in evidence worldwide, he said, is that indigenous communities have been pushed to the most marginal physical environments that will feel the first and greatest burdens of climate change.

“We shudder at what we’ve done,” said Sachs, referring to the common threads of marginalization and voicelessness that run throughout indigenous communities. But now is the time, he said, to eradicate hunger, disease and extreme poverty by overcoming “our indifference, our cynicism, our willful ignorance and our willful violence.”

Some of Sachs’s predictions for future include the desertification of already barely livable environments and the subsequent unwanted mass population movements. Violence will break out, he said, and crises involving ethnic cleansing will occur, much like we are seeing in Sudan today.

The problems of public health, said Sachs, PhD, must be put into a full social context. At its best, public health is the meeting place of science and practice, “the translation of knowledge into action.” But tools and technology are not enough; the solutions to health problems for indigenous communities, and for all impoverished communities, will be “holistic” solutions that involve community governance, he said.

“The absolute keystone for success,” said Sachs, a macro-economist, is sovereignty. Solutions must include investments in economic livelihoods, the health sector, education and infrastructure. He cited optimistic data from Native American communities where the life expectancy gap has narrowed in conjunction with gains in sovereignty that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. In some Millennium Villages (impoverished villages adopted by the UN Millennium Project), he said, we can see clear progress against mortality and food insecurity over the course of only a few months of those villages having been empowered with technology, education, infrastructure and clean water.

“In the end,” Sachs said, “we’ll see how utterly useless all this conflict is—in the 21st century there is no excuse for a fight to the death. There is actually enough to go around.”

He closed with a quotation from late President John F. Kennedy, delivered in 1963 at American University in Washington, D.C.: “For in the final analysis, our most basic common link, is that we all inhabit this small planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s futures, and we are all mortal.”  —Christine Grillo

The Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health was established in 1991 and is based on 15 years of collaboration with Southwestern tribes. The Center’s mission is to work in partnership with the Native American communities to raise the health status, self-sufficiency and health leadership of the population to the highest possible level. The Center provides training and/or scholarship support each year to more than 100 Native Americans and other indigenous scholars, who attend public health institutes, graduate and doctoral programs at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.