by Rudolph C. Ryser, PhD

Fourth World nations (known also as “indigenous peoples,” “ethnic minorities,” “tribes,” “First Nations,” “natives,” “aboriginals,” “Indians,” “tribals,” “small peoples,” and “minority nationalities.”) are a modern geopolitical reality yet they are consistently left outside the social, economic, political and cultural dialogues that affect all of human kind.

Long denied a place at the decision-making table, relegated to the “disappearing past” by progressives; and opposed still by political, religious, corporate and civil society, organizational thought leaders of Fourth World nations have begun to claim their right to speak and act for themselves. Will the efforts of Fourth World thought leaders succeed in establishing normalized and constructive relations with members of civil society and with states’ governments and the international community?

Fourth World Geopolitics

Understanding the dynamic interrelationship between Fourth World nations and states’, and other corporate interests requires a careful understanding and thorough knowledge of Fourth World geopolitics. In the Americas there are more than 1000 Fourth World nations, in Africa 2,011, Europe 225, Asia 2,165 and in the Pacific there are 1300 or more nations. Together the more than 6700 nations have an estimated combined population of 500 million people living in territories claimed by 193 international states. Fourth World nations living on virtually every continent except Antarctica live in relation to more than 70% of the world’s remaining undeveloped natural environment where most of the world’s richest natural resources and biodiversity are located. Their cultural relationship to the natural world guarantees the health of the deserts, forests, jungles, rivers, oceans and mountains. Their separation from those lands often guarantees the destruction of desert, forest, jungle, and savannah habitats.

Statists, modernists and progressives working actively in states’ governments, corporations, religious institutions, multi-lateral states’ organizations, universities and non-governmental organizations force “development” into Fourth World territories and programs to convert the “backward” to modern ways. These efforts destroy Fourth World nations’ national identification, cultural adherence and tenacious hold on lands and environments. Most do not even question the right or the rightness of development. While there is nothing inherently negative about “development” per se, the forced imposition of development on peoples who have not invited such change can be profoundly negative and dangerous to people and to the environment.

Fourth World peoples seek to engage the process of mutually setting the agenda for dialogue on a wide range of social, economic, political and strategic issues as equal participants. They seek to participate as self-directed parties to future agreements in constructive and cooperative discussions with statists, modernists and progressives. Failure to undertake constructive dialogue with Fourth World peoples on terms mutually defined and agreed to will leave the modernists outside the Fourth World and the Fourth World outside the modernists’ First, Second and Third Worlds.

The more than 6700 Fourth World nations are the source of all known natural foods and medicines used to nourish and heal 90 percent of all human beings (many in the metropolitan regions of the world have begun turning to “alternative” and “complementary” medicines as well as organic and wild foods owing to the failure of orthodox medicine and food systems). Fourth World nations directly determine the sustainability of the world’s undeveloped environments and directly figure in 8 of 10 internal and external state conflicts. These nations are made among the poorest of the poor peoples in the world, often due to their forced separation from lands and environment—the same lands and environment that make them self-sustaining and even wealthy. Many Fourth World nations have their own economic systems outside the market economies of states while others actively participate in market economies. Researchers in genetics recently discovered that peoples who make up numerous Fourth World nations have genetic markers that account for their immunity to certain diseases and they have markers that specifically account for certain ailments and physical conditions. Left outside the important dialogue on these and many other subjects Fourth World peoples can only attempt to protect themselves by closing off their territories to outside access, committing mass suicide, engaging in defensive wars, or capitulating to progressivist development schemes that threaten and even destroy the cultural integrity of Fourth World nations.

The Question of Participation

Yes, it is true that Fourth World peoples have been increasingly invited to international meetings and more meetings are taking place involving states’ government representatives, non-governmental representatives and Fourth World leaders, but the reality is that these meetings are being set on terms defined by the states’ governments or other progressivist bodies. There is no mutuality in the definition of agendas and schedules. Indeed, when Fourth World peoples are asked to participate in meetings, invitations come only after long and difficult efforts by Fourth World peoples to demand an invitation. Once meetings have been called, Fourth World peoples are set to meet in “parallel meetings” where they have no access to actual decision-making. (Consider the Inter-American Congress on Indian Life – quadrennial meetings of western hemispheric states and the International Labor Organization meetings on revising Convention 107.) Meetings are called by states’ governments, corporations, religious bodies and non-governmental organizations to “consult” with Fourth World peoples to “hear their views” even after decisions have already been made that Fourth World peoples oppose. Despite thirty years of intensified efforts to establish constructive and mutually defined dialogue between those who seek to promote “development” and Fourth World peoples, the gap remains wide indeed.

One reason for this historic failure to establish a mutually defined forum where all parties are “inside” the decision-making room is the mistaken view that human beings can be defined individually and as groups on an evolutionary line of progress. In this view there are primitive and backward peoples and there are modern peoples and it is the job of the enlightened, modern people to either see the primitive, backward people disappear or to “help the primitives” become modern. This notion creates a position of superiority for the “moderns” and rationalizes aggressive social, economic and political behaviour as evidence of “progress.” The fact is there is no “higher” society nor is there a “lower” society—there are only “different” societies.

Identifying the Invisible People

Many people quibble over the definition of the word indigenous as it is applied to various peoples and complain that there ought to be a strict definition so “We know whom we are dealing with.” Fourth World thought-leaders have urged that the term not be defined because it will create a class of human beings in much the way the terms “primitive,” “aboriginal,” “First Nations,” and “native” have been used. The use of the term indigenous has become fairly universal as a term of art applied to distinct peoples not integrated into the social, economic and political life of the state, but it is often used as a substitute for terms like “savage,” “tribal,” “aborigine,” and “native” originally used by colonizers and emigrating settlers in a country.

Fourth World nations are modern geopolitical realities whose actions, decisions and mere presence in the neighborhood affect and regularly determine the success or failure of each of the world’s 193 international states. Their official status in relation to states’ governments is often subordinated to that of the civil society. International bodies fail to deal with Fourth World nations as distinct political identities and instead choose to deal with them as “groups,” “organizations,” or “mere individual persons.” The Catlans, Welsh, Basque, Sami, Abkhaz, Chechens, Jura, Georgians, Faroese, Frisians, Even and Tartar are some of the Fourth World peoples, which with many others populate Europe. While their names occasionally appear in the popular press – usually in a context of violence – as peoples and distinct cultures they are made invisible by the historical cover of modern state names (France, England, Russia, Rumania, etc) and the increasingly invoked general identification of people as “Europeans.” In the Americas, Africa, Melanesia, Asia and the Pacific and Atlantic Fourth World invisibility follows the same pattern.

Anishabeh Dené, Inuit, Lakota, Tiwa, Shoshone, Cora, Maya, Sumo, Kuna, Naga, Aymara, Hawai’ian, Maori, Tamil, Ladakhis, Baltis, and Mapuché are some of the peoples not commonly referred to in social, economic or economic discourse. In Russia the Fourth World peoples are seen as yet their visibility in the state dialogue concerning the social, economic and political life of peoples in the Russian Federation is virtually non-existent. As peoples they are not considered part of civil society nor are they considered one of the international players along with states, trans-state corporations, trans-state religions, organized crime or non-governmental organizations. People who assert their status outside of state control are subject to pejorative references such as “nationalism” or anarchists. The status of Fourth World peoples in discourse is further clouded by the obscure reference of their place in an even more obscure civil society.

The Relationship of Fourth World Nations to Civil Society

Rodney Bobiwash, Director of the Center for World Indigenous Studies Forum for Global Exchange notes, “Civil Society, as a movement, has a tendency to be open to co-option by state governments and by corporations. Keep in mind that civil society itself, as defined by the United Nations and in other international forums, includes as one of its constituent stakeholders, business.” Bobiwash notes that the Malmo Declaration produced from the Global Environment Ministerial Forum in May 2000, devotes one-third of its text to the interests and responsibilities of corporations. He finally asserts: “The United Nations Millennium Forum, the World Trade Organization, the meetings of the Organization of American States, the Commission on Sustainable Development have all defined Civil Society in a very different way than the bottom-up process of the “local” transforming the state envisioned by social theorists like Gramsci.” Fourth World nations could hardly play a role as members of “civil society” if the interests expressed in that environment fail to incorporate the ground-up influence that would be most typical in the Fourth World.

James Manor of the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, England (1999) notes the difficulty with the term “Civil Society” in this way:

“…one can discern two underlying understandings of the term – the political and the sociological conceptions. The political conception of civil society is rooted in the Anglo-American tradition of liberal-democratic theory, which identifies civic institutions and political activity as an essential component of the emergence of a particular type of political society based on the principles of citizenship, rights, democratic representation and the rule of law. The sociological conception of civil society is that of an intermediate associational realm situated between the state on the one side and the basic building blocks of society on the other (individuals, families and firms), inhabited by social organizations with some degree of autonomy and voluntary participation on the part of their members.”

Manor’s political and social conception of civil society leaves no place for Fourth World nations at all. Indeed, by virtue of their population size (most often smaller than 5000 people, but occasionally in the hundreds of thousands and tens of millions) Fourth World nations will have no influence in the context of majoritarian politics or civic institutions that rely on majority voting. Democracy in the “winner-take-all” environment ensures that Fourth World peoples will always lack a political voice. This condition is equally true in the social definition since Fourth World nations have political identities rooted in culture, territory and history—similar in some ways to international states. While Fourth World nations are not “states” (and most do not want to organize into states) each is the cultural equivalent of a state though most are not generally hierarchical, centralized, territorially bounded, or recognized by a state. From a Fourth World geopolitical view, these nations are distinct human, social, political, economic and cultural organisms that are a major player in the international arena and they are a significant determinant in the health of the modern state and the state system.

Everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s that Chief George Manuel (founding president of the World Council of Indigenous Peoples) traveled in search of support for his people he found Fourth World nations were desperate to protect their own use and access to land from outsiders. Marginalized by immigrant societies formed as states and other newly formed states in only the last two centuries (most were established in only the last forty years) the nations Chief Manuel visited were denied the human courtesy of respectful participation in the formulation of public policy and veto authority in decisions that affected their livelihood. The peoples of these nations suffered from confiscation and degradation of their territories and outsider use of their sources of food, shelter and clothing. In the Americas, the Pacific Islands, Europe, Africa and Asia Chief Manuel, leader of the in eastern British Columbia, Canada declared the peoples he met peoples of the Fourth World — peoples sharing a common relationship to the land and natural world, and peoples internally colonized by the formation of a state entirely or partly covering their territory without their consent. Chief Manuel spoke frequently that the Fourth World peoples were the wealthiest people as long as they lived their culture, but when the Fourth World nations became separated (by force or circumstance) from their land they became the “poorest of the poor.”

Where Progress Can Be Made

There are some appropriate ways that Fourth World nations can and should become included parties in the public policy dialogue within existing states and the discourse establishing global policies. Fourth World nations in Europe are increasingly recognized as parties in public policy discourse as a result of the Principle of Subsidiarity — a principle where the State and the Fourth World nation recognize that “decisions must be made by those most directly affected by the consequences of decisions.” This permits Fourth World nations to make social, economic, and political decisions autonomously or in consultation with the State. The principle is well applied in Spain where the Catalans, Euskadians and Galicians have a great deal of power to decide matters directly affecting local interests. With the emergence of parliamentary government in Wales and Scotland it is apparent the government of England has come to recognize the importance of subsidiarity. Were variants of this principle applied in states around the world, it would be more likely that Fourth World nations will take direct decisions that ensure their inclusiveness at the State level.

At the international level there ought to be greater emphasis placed on regional organization and communications instead of massive global conferences that have to do with the interests of Fourth World nations. Bodies already established by Fourth World nations should be recognized as “quasi-governmental bodies” exercising authority granted them by individual nations until an internationally recognized political status is defined as a result of mutual agreement between nations and states. The political status of Fourth World nations should become the subject of central importance to states and nations alike. Without a clear political status Fourth World nations are left to fall between the categories of international organizations. Since Fourth World nations are not states, corporations, religious institutions or non-governmental organizations they must be defined with, perhaps, the political status of “nation.” That designation would, naturally, carry responsibilities in relation to international legislation as well as have obligations consistent with their status.

Fourth World nations must have an identified status within and outside states to ensure their inclusion in the policy dialogue that affects all humanity. Without such a defined political status distinct from existing bodies and entities the Fourth World will remain invisible and excluded to the disadvantage of all peoples.


Dr. Rudolph Ryser [rcryser@cwis.org] is the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for World Indigenous Studies and originally conceptualized Fourth World Geopolitics as a field of study. He has written numerous essays including the Fourth World Geopolitical Reader (1999, DayKeeper Press). He is a Taidnapum from the Cowlitz Indian Nation, the Editor in Chief of the Fourth World Journal and he writes a monthly column entitled the Fourth World Eye which appears on the world wide web at www.cwis.org.