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The Anthropology of Development 101: Rethinking Local Culture and Indigeneity


The Anthropology of Development 101 intends to review the contributions of anthropological knowledge to development theories and practices in ‘underdeveloped‘ and ‘developing‘ societies, as well as the critique of development as a social, economic, and political phenomenon. It critically examines the major theories, strategies, institutions, and social consequences of global development while emphasizing what development means in relation to particular places and people. By placing development theories and practices into broader historical contexts, these articles look at development as a dynamic phenomenon that is continuously shaped and reshaped by new social, economic, and political circumstances.

This 101 series is divided into six articles including:

In the last decades, local communities and Indigenous peoples’ struggles to keep control over their lives and their lands have moved from being of interest to themselves, as well as some specialist organizations, to becoming issues of wide public awareness and debate worldwide. This article explores why local culture has become such an important concept in development policies and practices before highlighting some of its implications in terms of local identity and indigeneity. Finally, it draws on the example of ecotourism to show the limitations of local culture and indigeneity in development projects.

The Importance of Local Culture in Development

Development projects have better chances of success if they consider the local culture in project design and implementation. Drawing from the example of a farming cooperative program in rural Bangladesh, Miller (2011) highlights the dramatic consequences of not considering the local culture in development projects. The program, the author explains, was oriented toward adult males, ignoring the traditional role of women in farming practices. Additionally, it required the use of crop seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. Over time, the pesticides entered the food chain, causing an increase in birth defects and the death of livestock. Eventually, the people rejected the development program and returned to their traditional ways of organic farming with the help of an NGO that, contrary to the initial program, emphasized the importance of the local culture (Ibid).

Rural farming is recognized as key to development projects

In a similar vein, in East Africa, the World Bank developed an irrigation and settlement project geared to transform local pastoralists into small-scale sedentary farmers (Kottak, 1990). Pastoralists were expected to abandon their traditional farming practices and adopt new commercial farms. The project failed because it was benefitting commercial farmers at the expense of pastoralists who not only lost their land but also had to work “three times harder growing rice and picking cotton for the bosses” (Ibid, p. 725). Countless other examples of development projects which disregard the local culture result in local people and indigenous populations losing their land and resources, thus putting their traditional lifeways at risk (Miller, 2011). In response, a growing number of development practitioners now consider the importance of culture in efforts to improve local well-being. The inclusion of culture into development models can take several forms. For instance, culture can serve as the central focus through tourism and other efforts that promote and enhance the local culture (Meza, 2019). Culture can also be a factor that needs to be addressed to determine its impact on development programs through resource management or environmental protection (Conklin & Graham, 1995). From these perspectives, local communities are more likely to accept and embrace development projects that depend primarily on cultural factors.

Indigeneity and Development

In the midst of heightened environmental awareness, Indigenous peoples and their advocates have denounced development as inherently abusive of their universal human rights. The Mapuche, for example, have lost control over their land to large-sized entrepreneurial landowners (Meza, 2019), which has impacted their “traditional” relation to land, their culture, and their identity, since the “survival of their culture depends on deeply-rooted ties to their ancestral land” (Culliney, 2013, p. 1). The interest in sustainable development also provided them with a platform to build the argument that Indigenous communities are an important factor in sustainability. As the sustainable use of the environment become the stated goal of several development institutions, Indigenous peoples came to be seen as worth preserving along with nature. At first sight, the “discovery” of a common environmental cause seems to benefit both Indigenous groups and environmentalists. However, there are conflicts of interest among Indigenous groups, large forestry companies, and conservation NGOs (Mezza, 2019). As the authors show, in this process, Indigenous people are not passive actors of forces beyond their control, but actively engage in new forms of resistance to neoliberal governmentality, ranging from violent protests to property destruction (Mezza, 2019; Torres-Salinas et al., 2016).

Indigenous people are seen as crucial actors in development projects

Conklin & Graham (1995) show that the recent interest in Indigenous peoples’ struggle draws from the essentialization of indigenous people as the “Other.” They note that “Indians – formerly seen as irrelevant to economic development – now were championed as the holders of important keys to national development” (Ibid 1995, p. 698). The value of indigenous people is often shaped by the “West” to serve environmentalist interests. The idea of Indigenous people as the “ecologically noble savage” (Conklin & Graham, 1995) – or “primitive ecologists, living in pristine harmony with their environment in principled conformity with their ancient culture” (Turner, 1995, p. 104) – serves Western conservation interests. However, as Conklin and Graham (1995) remark, for many indigenous people, the main goal is to achieve self-determination and control over their own resources, not sustainable development. Turner (1995), for example, demonstrates that the Kayapo can engage in environmentally destructive practices if it better serves (some of) their interests. Nonetheless, the idea of the “ecologically noble savage” continues to shape the collective imaginary. The symbolic construction of Indigenous people as a homogenous group sharing the same interest in environmental issues conflicts with the reality of many people's lives.

The Example of Ecotourism

Ecotourism is thought to benefit both the environment and the local population

Turner explains that ecotourism was intended as a sustainable way to profit from nature compared to more extractive processes like mining and logging in Kayapo communities (Turner, 1995, p. 114-115). Similarly, Meza (2019) explains that a Huilliche spokesperson believes that the goal of the indigenous park is to promote conservation and ethical tourism (p. 157). Ecotourism seems like a beneficial project because it can improve economic conditions in indigenous communities while possibly instilling an appreciation for indigenous culture and biodiversity in visitors. All too often, however, ecotourism benefits Western tourists rather than the local population (Walsh, 2012). In the north of Madagascar, for instance, ecotourism is disconnected from the local population. Although it offers some economic opportunities, for most rural poor, ecotourism remains elusive and offers few benefits. The payoff of conserving wildlife is far less important than the more immediate benefits of, for example, mining and selling gemstones (Ibid). The paradox of ecotourism is that local people benefit very little from what foreigners value so much. Foreigners travel to “poor” countries in search of authenticity, that are believed to exist in protected areas of the global margins. Although ecotourism programs claim to provide environmentally sound tourism and conservation, while incorporating and benefiting the local communities, in Madagascar, ecotourism reinforces the gap between foreigners and Malagasy people, who are systematically marginalized in this process (Ibid).

Commodification of local culture and indigeneity

Additionally, national and international development discourses coincide with the colonial and postcolonial hierarchy of identity that describes some ethnic groups as modern, developed, and entrepreneurial, and others as traditional, underdeveloped, and backward. An increasing number of people found new ways to access wealth, notably through their ethnicity. In Ethnicity, Inc. Comaroff and Comaroff (2009, p. 1) argue that following market liberalization in Africa, and elsewhere, ethnicity did not disappear but rather became “more implicated than ever before in the economics of everyday life.” As they look for new ways to access resources, people commodify their ethnicity. This tendency has raised new challenges for belonging. On the one hand, it “opened up new means of producing value, of claiming recognition, of asserting sovereignty, of giving affective voice to belonging” (Ibid, p. 142). On the other, the commodification and incorporation of ethnicity “may also entrench old lines of inequality, conduce to new forms of exclusions, increase incentives for the concentration of power, and create as much poverty as wealth” (Ibid, p. 52).


Local culture and indigeneity have become critical aspects of development policies and practices. They are perceived as the sine qua non condition to the successful implementation of development projects while ensuring the protection of the environment. However, these concepts remain shaped by Western interests and a representation of locality and indigeneity that essentialize people while offering creative ways to think about collective identity and the self.

Bibliographical References

Comaroff, J. & Comaroff, J. (2009). Ethnicity Inc. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Conklin, B. & Graham, L. (1995). “The Shifting Middle Ground: Amazonian Indians and Eco-Politics” American Anthropologist 97 (4): 695-710.

Culliney, S. M. et al. (2013). The Mapuche Struggle for Land: A Legal Analysis, Lewis & Clark Law School.

Kottak, P. C. (1990). “Culture and Economic Development.” American Anthropologist 92 (3): 723-731.

Meza, L. (2009). "Mapuche Struggles for Land and the Role of Private Protected Areas in Chile." Journal of Latin American Geography 8(1): 149-163.

Miller, B. (2011). Cultural Anthropology, 6th edition. Boston: Prentice Hall.

Torres-Salinas, et. al. (2016). "Forestry Development, Water Scarcity, and the Mapuche Protest for Environmental Justice in Chile." Ambiente e Sociedad vol. XIX (1): 121-144.

Turner, T. (1995). “An indigenous peoples struggle for socially equitable and ecologically sustainable production: the Kayapo revolt against extractivism”, Journal of Latin America Anthropology 1(1): 98-121.

Walsh, A. (2012). Made in Madagascar: Sapphires, Ecotourism and the Global Bazaar. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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Valentine Hallard

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