How the Global Fashion Industry Contributes to the Colonisation of Indigenous Peoples

Chief Joseph--Nez Percé by Edward S. Curtis, 1903 article indigenous people fashion amberoot

Colonialism: Past or Present?

When we think of colonisation, it commonly evokes memories of a distant past. The conquest of Africa, massacres of first nations peoples in the Americas and the annihilation of indigenous cultures worldwide. We think of Gandhi and countless independence movements that drove out colonial powers in the period after World War Two. We consider colonisation to be a remnant of global history, a product of a time when greed and the race for access to natural resources across the globe could be hidden behind a ‘civilising project’, so colonisers could alleviate their consciences with the pretence that they were bringing human progress to what they saw as the undeveloped world. In our global consciousness, we ascribe these practices to the past, and we tell ourselves that we would not repeat the barbarities that occurred in the process of global colonisation.

We don’t tend to think of colonisation as an ongoing process. Yet the colonisation of indigenous peoples and their traditional lands continues to this day. Indigenous people’s across the globe continue to be massacred or driven off their lands so that companies can access the land and the natural resources. Fashion has been tied up in the colonisation process in the past, and it continues to be tied up in human rights violations against indigenous communities today.

Before we delve into the present day, and how the fashion industry continues to be tied up in colonisation, it is important to understand how this is a continuation of the past. The global fashion industry has been linked to indigenous colonisation and massacres right from the start. For example, in Australia Aboriginal communities were forced off their traditional lands to make way for wool grazing across the Australian landscape, which enabled Australia to be the world’s leading exporter of wool for a long period of history. This colonisation process routinely lead to massacres of Aboriginal men women and children, the most recent of which are still within living memory in some parts of Australia. This is just one historical example from across the globe, but it is by no means unique in our global history.

Indigenous Peoples Forced of Their Lands for the Sake of Fashion

Fashion industry continues to benefit from the illegal seizure of indigenous lands across the globe. Yet it often is able to disconnect themselves from responsibility due to opaque nature and complexity of the global fashion supply chain. It is notoriously difficult, and in many instances impossible, to trace a finished garment to the raw materials that went into the textiles. This enables global fashion companies to distance themselves from the human rights violations that are tied up in their supply chain. But global demand for fashion and the business models of the global fashion industry is linked to the ongoing processes of colonisation of indigenous peoples. As ethically conscious consumers, this is important for us to understand.

In Indonesia, rainforests are being illegally cleared to make way for monocrop softwood plantations. The pulp that comes from these plantations is used to make viscose/rayon and modal, chemically processed textiles which are frequently marketed as a greener option due to the biodegradability of the finished textile. The clearing of rainforests in Indonesia frequently displaces indigenous people’s from their lands and traditional lifestyle. In the Pandumaan-Sipithuta community in North Sumatra, around 800 indigenous Tano Batak families are fighting for justice after TPL- a large wood pulp company in Indonesia- illegally cleared their lands. These families use the forest for sustainable livelihoods, interplanting the natural rainforest with local benzoin trees, from which they harvest the fragrant sap for incense, without destroying the trees. By clearing these forests, TPL has destroyed the sustainable livelihoods of this community, and the clearing has also damaged the watershed, meaning they no longer have access to reliable water for wet rice farming or drinking. The Tano Batak families have indigenous land rights over these forests, and the demand for fashion’s forest textile fibres is implicated in this gross violation of indigenous rights.

In other cases, the supply chain is easier to trace, and the colonisation of indigenous lands can be directly traced to a company. In Argentina, the indigenous Mapuche lands in Patagonia have been taken over by the Benetton family, who bought the large property in 1991 for wool farming.

The Benetton property has cut the local Mupache people off from the local water supply, the river that runs through the lands. Yet residents have to jump the fence that has been installed on the property, closing off local access routes to the river and denying access to the indigenous communities for fishing. It has also cut off communities who would normally walk through those lands to connect with each other. There is now a 90 kilometre trip around the property for separate Mupache communities to connect with each other.

This has led to the ongoing confrontation between the Mapuche community and the Benetton family, supported by the Argentine gendarmerie [border police], as the Mapuche community continue to fight for access to their traditional lands. The most recent clash occurred this year (2017), when armed gendarmerie dispersed protesters who had blocked the roads. This incident also caught the attention of global humans rights monitors, with the disappearance of an Argentinian activist, Santiago Maldonado, who was protesting in solidarity with the Mupache community. His body was found in the local river 2 months later. While an autopsy in November 2017 found that he died by drowning, with no evidence of violence, questions still remain about how and why he ended up in the river seeing as he was unable to swim.

This Benetton property in Patagonia runs 280,000 sheep, which produce 10% of the wool needs for this company, who is the world’s biggest consumer of virgin wool. This case of Benetton in Argentina is a clearly traceable instance of indigenous colonisation and human rights violations and its links to the fashion industry.

Protecting Indigenous Peoples Land Rights is Socially and Environmentally Beneficial

Aside from being an important human rights issue, the ongoing indigenous colonisation is also a grave concern for the environment. Deforestation is one of the largest contributors to climate change, and it is shown that when indigenous land rights are protected, deforestation goes down. Forests and sustainability managed rangelands have the ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere. Indigenous communities have found sustainable ways to exist within the landscape, preserving it for generations to come, while still meeting their needs for sustenance and income. The protection of indigenous land rights was recently recognised by leading economist Lord Nicholas Stern as an important part of the fight against climate change. He was drawing upon a recent report by the World Resources Institute which showed the economic benefits of protecting indigenous peoples and their lands.

But the fashion industry can also be part of the solution. Increased transparency and traceability in product’s supply chain would enable us to make better informed decisions. In 2017 our own Amberoot took baby steps and became the first world’s multi-brand retailer providing transparency maps for almost every product sold. Moreover, there are an increasing number of fashion initiatives and social enterprises that harness the skills, talents and traditions of indigenous communities in sustainable ways. Companies like The Fabric Social work with indigenous communities to utilise their traditional textiles and weaving skills in their clothing designs. Another example is the Bábbarra Women’s Centre in the remote Aboriginal community of Maningrida in Australia which sources fabric from outside their community, but they print traditional artworks onto fabrics and earn a sustainable income while still maintaining their traditional connection to their lands

Colonisation is not something that is only confined to history. Yet by educating ourselves, by calling the global fashion industry to account and by choosing to shop products that empower indigenous communities, we can play our role in the global fight to recognise indigenous communities and their sustainable relationships with the lands they inhabit.

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