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BMJ. 2007 October 20; 335(7624): 795.
PMCID: PMC2034694

Health of indigenous people suffers modern world ills

The impact of the modern world continues to wreak havoc with the health of indigenous people, centuries after entire civilisations of native Americans were first wiped out by diseases introduced by outsiders, according to a report launched this week by the pressure group Survival International.

New roads and development schemes not only increase the risks of HIV and the spread of infectious diseases, but people are often forced into a sedentary life and become dependent on processed foods, it says.

“This change in lifestyle and diet—from high protein to high fat foods—is often disastrous, leading to obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes,” says the report.

In Arizona's Pima reservation, more than half of native Americans over the age of 35 have diabetes; while those living in the mountains are far less affected by this condition. The impact on future generations will be catastrophic, warns Paul Zimmet, of the International Diabetes Institute: “Without urgent action there certainly is a real risk of a major wipe-out of indigenous communities [because of diabetes], if not total extinction, within this century.”

The Cree activist Matthew Coon-Come says, “The human costs of unrestrained development on our traditional territory, whether in the form of massive hydroelectric development or irresponsible forestry operations, are no surprise for us. Diabetes has followed the destruction of our traditional way of life and the imposition of a welfare economy.”

Survival International points out that when people are forced off their land “their health and wellbeing plummet, while rates of depression, addiction, and suicide soar.”

The report cites a study by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians that described the health of Aboriginal Australians as “disastrously poor.” The fundamental cause was “disempowerment due to various factors, including continued dispossession from the land, cultural dislocation, poverty, poor education, and unemployment.”

Compared to other Australians, Aborigines are six times more likely to die as an infant; eight times more likely to die from lung or heart disease; and 22 times more likely to die from diabetes.

Their life expectancy at birth is 17-20 years less than other Australians. On average, Aborigines live 10 years longer when on their own land, compared with Aborigines in resettled communities.

Survival maintains that “tribal people living in freedom on their own land, making decisions about their own lives, are far healthier than those who have been uprooted and had ‘progress' forced upon them.”

The report cautions that “the ‘modern' health care available to tribal peoples—even in the richest nations—is never enough to counter the effects of introduced diseases and the devastation caused by losing their land.”

Notes

The report, Progress can Kill, is available at www.survival-international.org.


Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Publishing Group