GUEST POST: “Imagine if… Building a new future for Indigenous trade”

by | Feb 16, 2022 | Trade Working Blog


Indigenous business leaders from the APEC region contributed to the first-ever ABAC Indigenous Dialogue in July 2021.

Carrie Stoddart-Smith imagines the wealth and well being Indigenous peoples could bring to international trade, if the opportunity is seized.

Indigenous peoples have always been global in outlook and action. They are among the world’s earliest navigators and entrepreneurs. Their economies provide the foundation upon which many modern societies now flourish. Although colonialism and imperial conquest disrupted their economic journeys, Indigenous leaders have spent generations rebuilding and growing their asset bases to support their peoples’ economic self-determination. But not all journeys are equal, and not all wealth has been restored.

An estimated 370 to 500 million Indigenous peoples live in over 90 countries and represent 5,000 different cultures. Their people are youthful, and their descendants will help to create future solutions. Indigenous peoples are guardians of 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity, which is central to humanity’s survival. They speak 4,000 of the world’s 6,700 languages, but estimates are that one Indigenous language dies every two weeks and with it exclusive knowledge that has been stored, validated and shared for thousands of generations.

Like others, Indigenous businesses have not been immune to the Covid pandemic. Many non-Indigenous businesses are also experiencing the pain of operating at the economic periphery. This shared pain runs across nations, sectors and communities. The desperation being experienced highlights the need for change. I believe there is urgent need for a new trade imaginary that awakens a shared global purpose.

Applied to international trade, an ‘imaginary’ can be thought of as new or imagined forms of trade architecture and economic cooperation. Without limiting our imaginations to one world view or a particular school of thought, a ‘trade imaginary’ encourages us to think about the way different world views might complement each other. The aim is to imagine the best possible trade future for all.

a ‘trade imaginary’ encourages us to think about the way different world views might complement each other. The aim is to imagine the best possible trade future for all.

As we shift from analogue to digital, from extraction to regeneration and from protectionism to globalisation, Indigenous businesses are imagining and building new pathways. They’re repurposing their ancient practices and forging new alliances to meet today’s challenges and to address disparities between communities. They’re pursuing stronger links to supply chains that ensure continued access to the goods and services essential to the survival of their peoples. As they do so, they’re actively exploring ideas to capture more value and challenging the old imaginaries.

Indigenous peoples’ voices were a strong presence during APEC 2021. Aided by host nation New Zealand’s determination to bring indigenous economic inclusion into sharper focus, APEC’s call to advance the Putrajaya Vision 2040 in the spirit of “equal partnership, shared responsibility, mutual respect, common interest, and common benefit”, brought an exuberant surge of indigenous trade imagining.

From indigenous policy to indigenous business dialogue, APEC, and its independent business voice ABAC, presented several opportunities for Indigenous businesses, tribal leaders, peak bodies, and subject matter experts to provide a range of viewpoints to a previously impenetrable economic forum. Maintaining that momentum across economies in 2022 will require a sustained push from both business and economic leaders.

International trade is a vital contributor to the sustainable economic development of Indigenous tribes and communities as their economies resurge. Indigenous trade imaginaries matter to Indigenous people but they can play an equally vital role for the world’s trade architecture.

Indigenous peoples need more than an invitation to participate in a side forum. Building shared understanding and enduring reciprocal connections starts with family-like relationships with each other and also with the natural and spiritual worlds. Relationships, reciprocity, and responsibility are what distinguish indigenous trade imaginaries from other profit-driven models.

Trade and economic cooperation must not limit itself to profits, incomes and jobs. Whilst important, these factors form only part of the resurgence that Indigenous imaginary offers. Economic cooperation needs complementary approaches to economic self-determination. Indigenous peoples must be able to protect and govern the responsible use of the many sources of wealth that are tied to their identities. These range from their customs, languages, and values, to science, knowledge, arts, natural resources and technologies. All of these things will play a part in ensuring all forms of life flourish on this planet.

Economic leaders will benefit from working with Indigenous peoples by engaging more deeply with long practiced indigenous concepts such as sustainability and inclusivity which consumers value. Embracing a new imaginary that includes Indigenous peoples will challenge old politics and old ways of thinking that have obstructed the achievement of Asia Pacific goals.

While Indigenous peoples’ economic experiences continue to be shaped and refined, a respectful engagement that upholds their values and responsibilities alongside their rights, interests and aspirations is quickly emerging. It combines both the ancient wisdom and the innovation needed to curate a relational and responsible trade future. This is the essence of the Indigenous trade imaginary.



This post was prepared by Carrie Stoddart-Smith (Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Whātua), Director and Founder of OpinioNative a research, policy, and project design consultancy firm. Carrie and is a board member of the Trade for All Ministerial Advisory Group, Te Taumata Māori Trade Advisory Board, and the Global Centre of Indigenomics. In 2021 she was a key member of the ABAC NZ team, advising on Māori engagement.


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