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Brazil '98: Introduction
Brazil '98: Participants
Brazil '98: Map of Brazil
Brazil '98: Itinerary
Brazil '98: Debates
Biodiversity
Global Warming
Indigenism
Sustainable Development
Brazil '98: Sponsors
Brazil '98: Brazil Facts

Indigenism

The fashionable defence of indigenism is part of the sentimental consensus that has put the brakes on the rational development of Amazonia and should be opposed in the interests if its people as a whole.

 


Opinion:
A

The defence of indigenism or tribalism or primitivism does nothing to help solve the real social and economic problems facing people living in regions like Amazonia, in fact it does a disservice to the future of Amazonian tribes themselves.
The arguments for indigenism are predicated on a misunderstanding of human development; myths about the condition of tribal societies in the modern world and Indians’ relationship to nature and society. Perhaps, to begin with, a little should be said about the reality of life of Indian tribes in Amazonia. Indians live a life far from the primitivist image conjured up of people living at harmony with pristine nature. Most Indian groups live a life common to other sections of Amazonian society, they are very poor and to some extent live on a subsistence economy. Most Indians have long had contact with Europeans and many have intermarried with them. Their contact with the modern world is illustrated by the Indians of a Tikuna village just outside the airport in the town of Tabatinga in western Amazonia. When they want food and work they take a bus into the city, shop in the supermarket and are employed in a variety of jobs.
The Kayapo Indians in eastern Amazonia count their income in millions of dollars earned from concessions given on mining and logging. The Kayapo tribal leader, Paiakan–a ‘tribal’ person once promoted by the Body Shop–has homes in the city; owns cars; flies to international press conferences and has many of the other trappings of modern day life.
NGOs concerned with Indian rights, such as Survival International, recognise that Indians operate in the modern world but they argue that people can be both tribal and live a modern lifestyle. This is a case of transferring their own prejudices onto the peoples of the Amazon. Mimicking Swampy, the young underground road protester, their vision of life is a combination of a primitive lifestyle with people promoting their tribal philosophies on the internet. Westerners may want to imagine themselves in such communities but it is wrong for them to pigeon hole the people of developing nations in this way.
The argument for maintaining and extending Indian reservations seems to take no account of the fact that living in such reservations makes Indians prisoners of the state. It is the state that decides the extent of the reservations and how Indians should conduct their lives inside it. Far from giving Indians freedom, reservations keep Indians dependent on the state. In the name of sustainable development Indians are told what they can and cannot do. Should the Indian tribes decide to run casinos, allow industrial development or introduce logging, the environmental police will crack down.
Kayapo Indians have already been involved in conflicts with the environmental police. Recently Indians were caught logging mahogany on their reserve and promptly arrested. The wood, estimated at the value of $1.2 million was confiscated by environmental protection agencies. It seems that despite the myth that Indians are suited to sustainable gathering of forest products they were non too pleased with the hard labour of picking up Brazil nuts from the forest floor for the products of the Body Shop. Life in the forest is a little different than Western supporters of a primitive way of life often lead you to believe. It is not all blowpipes, grass skirts and harmony with nature. Nor could it be.
There are several myths that lie behind the primitivist propaganda that has made tribal cultures romantic caricatures and assigned them a way of life which privileged urban people should emulate. First, the myth that primitive communities are natural. The idea that primitive lives can be at one with nature is false from a historical point of view. It has been observed many times that basic human characteristics are no more than basic animal characteristics–eating, drinking, procreation, shelter. But while nature has provided for animals, it has been miserly to humans. Birds see better, dogs smell better, cheetahs run better. A new-born foal can walk within minutes. But the human baby will never learn to walk, never mind talk, without society’s help. Humanity had to develop socially in order to survive and that social experience is what separates humanity from nature. If humanity means anything at all it surely means transcending nature’s meagre gifts to us.
Humans developed societies with structures and social institutions to transcend ‘nature’s gift’ at an early stage. These social structures and institutions were susceptible to human change and through these changes human society progressed. Society is unique to human beings and different from the simple ‘communities’ of animals which only adapt to nature in a passive way. It is wrong to talk about any society therefore as natural.
The notion of being ‘close to nature’, in the sense that the environment of tribal groups is relatively pristine, does not make that society the same as nature. Long before the tribes of the Amazon existed, at least as far back as Homo Erectus, humans had learned to fashion and elaborate tools, established a crude division of labour and developed kinship relations. They learned to use fire and burnt away vast areas of forest to create grasslands, used torches to drive wild animals over cliffs and chase off predators. They were no longer adapting to their environment like animals but had begun to significantly change it in a conscious way. They began to transform their environment in order to improve their material lives at a very early stage of development. So even ‘primitive culture’ is in fact very ‘unnatural’. Naturalising tribal life is the first insult environmentalists make to the intelligence of Amazonians, who are certainly not primitive humans.
Spiritual beliefs are also supposed to prove the association of tribes with nature. Mother Earth mysticism and other forms of spirituality are associated with the environmental sense of worth of tribal life. Spiritualism like other forms of religion is a human construction. It is an ideology–there is nothing natural about it. Ideologies mark humans out from the natural world, no-one has yet written a piece on the ideological beliefs of an Amazon parrot. Spiritualism is an ideology that usually reflects a less developed form of human understanding of the world. The practise of spiritualism does not imply a superior understanding of nature. For example spiritual magic is often practised because its practitioners do not understand what causes sudden changes in the weather, natural disasters and disease. Spiritualism often reflects the fear of things not
yet comprehended.
Equating tribal ‘knowledge’ and methods as of equal worth to modern science and practices is erroneous. Most tribal knowledge, in medicine for example, has evolved through adapting the properties of plants and other naturally occurring products through trial and error. No-one today would seriously consider rubbing the goo of a tree bark on their testicles to see if it acted as a form of sterilisation. Adaptation and hit and miss is not the basis for making true leaps and bounds to improve the quality of our existence. Such a basis for ‘knowledge’ would have left us all in the dark ages. We might want to investigate the properties of certain naturally occurring drugs that Indians have adapted for their use but it will be through the practise of modern science that we will be able to understand its properties, evaluate its usefulness and be able to mass produce and develop it. Given that Amazonian Indians have themselves shown a desire to learn from modern society, we should not deny them the advantage of taking the benefits of humanity’s advanced knowledge.
Modern myths about a primitive way of life reflect an irrationality, that has little to do with understanding the lives of Amazonians today. In fact, Amazonian tribes have been dragged into the cause of sustainable development to bolster up the arguments of those who consider that the boundaries of modern development have been reached and should go no further. This is a modern prejudice little informed by rational scientific thinking. It reflects Western irrational fears for the future of the planet.
Today very few people argue for human intervention to change the world for the better through modern development. The logic of environmentalism is to argue for conserving the world as it is. Some even argue for taking us back to a more primitive type of existence. Amazonia and its people desperately need development to solve wide ranging problems of poverty and social inequalities. The defence of ‘indigenism’ stands in the way of this development. It is harmful to the people of the Amazon and to the general interests of humanity.