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Trapped in a prison of underdevelopment

High infant mortality, crippling disease, grinding poverty: this is tribal life, as celebrated by Survival International.

Rob Johnston

Topics World

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At the end of May, newspapers around the world showed photographs of an ‘undiscovered’ Amazon tribe taken from a low-flying light aircraft that circled the tribe’s camp near the Brazil-Peru border. After the first fly-past, the tribes people scattered into the jungle; when the plane returned the men were painted red and they fired arrows up into the air.

A typical reaction on internet discussion groups was: why are you buzzing them with an aircraft if they are afraid of the outside world? According to Survival International, a campaign group that claims to support and protect indigenous peoples, ‘If they keep firing arrows they will be okay, if they stop they are doomed’.

So it seems to be a deliberate policy to stir up fear, suspicion and hostility to outsiders. Yet the generation of such hostility is exactly what has caused trouble for similar tribes in the past. Violence against outsiders – whether missionaries, loggers or charity officials – has often been the excuse for governments to go in with a heavy hand and massacre tribes people before stealing their land.

But the policies of Survival International seem more than just misguided. Behind its warm words about self-determination and indigenous rights, Survival’s literature reveals that the real hostility to the modern world comes from the organisation itself. In its pamphlet Progress Can Kill: How Imposed Development Destroys the Health of Tribal Peoples (1), a romantic view of poverty is displayed on every page. Apparently, in Africa, only the Maasai people who have ‘largely avoided the market economy’ are happy and healthy, as are tribes who ‘live on their own lands eating traditional food’. And up pops that well-worn cliché: ‘These groups may be poor in monetary terms but are rich in many other ways.’

As the UK Sun reports, Miriam Ross, one of Survival International’s ‘lost tribes specialists’, believes life in an ‘undiscovered tribe’ is a bit like a hippy Shangri-La: ‘They live communally and do not recognise chiefs… a hunter shares the meat he has killed among friends and family.’ (2) And their life is not at all arduous! ‘It takes [the tribe] less than four hours a day to satisfy all their material needs … much time is left for leisure and social activities’, says Ross. Tribal womenfolk work mainly in the fields to harvest edible plants and collect insects and larvae for the ‘table’. A slight concern, for Survival, is the regular wars between tribes in which large numbers of adult men are slaughtered.

Survival strongly approves of such a ‘healthy’ lifestyle and boasts that ‘life span and child mortality rate [are] not so different to what was observed in Europe a few centuries ago’ (3). That a campaign group can congratulate itself on maintaining infant (and maternal) mortality rates at 40-50 per cent, and life expectancy of only 35-40 years, demonstrates quite staggering contempt for the people they are supposed to be helping.

With outside contact, Survival apparently worries that tribal people might get used to clean water on tap and regular meals: the Amazonians might eat too much salt and junk food and become obese. They might take a liking to booze, fags and sugary drinks and will get cavities – they might even end up wearing hoodies!

It is true that many of the interactions between ‘hidden tribes’ and the outside world have ended disastrously – although most of Survival’s examples are from centuries or decades ago. Encroachment on tribal peoples by missionaries, miners and loggers can end in massacres, disease and rapid destruction of the indigenous peoples. But it need not be so. There are alternatives to the patronising imprisonment in poverty offered by Survival.

Survival International estimates that just under half of the world’s ‘undiscovered tribes’ can be found in the isolated valleys at the heart of the island of New Guinea. Although by no means perfect, the Papua New Guinea experience demonstrates that ‘first contact’ and its aftermath need not be characterised by massacres and epidemics.


Author with Chuave tribesman
at the annual ‘Sing-Sing’
(tribal gathering), 1966

I grew up in Papua New Guinea (PNG), the eastern half of the island (the western half is occupied brutally by Indonesia). After the Second World War, Australian administered PNG as a United Nations Trust Territory and prepared it for independence. In the 1960s, the PNG highlands still contained tribes who remembered their first contact with white men. Perhaps fortunately, the initial oil exploration that opened up the interior was largely unproductive and it proved uneconomic to exploit the gas reserves that were discovered under the rain forest.

In previous decades, particularly 1900-1920, there had been several encounters between white men and the tribes of the interior. The parade of missionaries, explorers and miners had been met with great violence from the tribesmen – and it took many years of ‘peaceful penetration’ before suspicion was overcome.

The Australian government followed a sensible, enlightened policy that allowed the indigenous people to develop at their own pace. They stopped encroachment by missionaries and miners, set up regular trading posts in the interior, and simply waited for the native people to approach. Contrary to the view of groups like Survival, native peoples are not stupid. They have always heard a great deal about the white men from contact with other tribes. They know that ‘white man’s medicine’ offers better treatment for many conditions than the tribal shaman. They know the value of metal tools and matches – simple implements that can mean the difference between starvation and survival. They know their lives are hard and not as full of ‘social and leisure activities’ as Survival’s ‘experts’ believe.


Author and sister with highland
‘Mud Man’, ‘Sing-Sing’, 1966

They would prefer not to have to lose their wives during childbirth, that half their children would not die within the first two years of their lives, and for outsiders to stop the brutal retaliatory wars between tribes that often start as an accident but must then escalate as ‘payback’. They quickly understand the value of disease-prevention (by vaccination or malaria eradication).

Provided contact is sensitively initiated, tribal people can and will benefit greatly from the outside world. My parents worked all over PNG in Australian-sponsored projects to set up schools and clinics and teach native people to grow cash crops with which to buy what they needed from the outside world. The indigenous people enthusiastically embraced the better ways of growing crops and new sources of income. Like parents everywhere, they want a better life for their children and they welcome education (even for girls, since an educated girl will fetch more pigs from a prospective husband).


Author with two Chimbu warriors
at ‘Sing-Sing’, 1966

An example of at least one indigenous man who knew about what the white man could offer is contained within the photograph on the right. A few hours before it was taken, the warrior in the middle had been given a supply of bully beef and a can opener by a well-meaning government official. With a cry of delight, he opened the can and gave the disgusting slop to his dog, tore off its label and attached both the can-opener and shiny empty can to his lap-lap (grass skirt). It was of no interest to him as food, but as decoration the can was ideal.

Just like ‘real people’, not exotic zoological specimens, indigenous people realise the advantages of the outside world but must be allowed to adapt in their own time. Enforced isolation – only to be photographed from the air by patronising Western eco-activists – is as unwelcome as forced assimilation.

Rob Johnston is a freelance writer on the environment, health and science.

Previously on spiked

Lee Jones attacked the eco-colonisation of West Papua. Rob Harris argued it was time to ditch our ‘nostalgia for mud’. De Roy Kwesi Andrew asked why so many Britons are down on development and, in an interview with Brendan O’Neill, told Bob Geldof ‘You are not our messiah’. Or read more at spiked issue Latin America.

(1) Survival of a lost rainforest tribe, Sun, 31 May 2008

(2) Progress Can Kill, Survival International, 2007

(3) Progress Can Kill, Survival International, 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World

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