In June I wrote a post questioning Brazil’s ‘no contact’ policy towards uncontacted Amazonian tribes. A version of that blog post was published as an essay in Göteborgs-Posten. The essay (like my post) attracted a lot of critical comment. It led to a short debate last week on the pages of the newspaper between myself and Dan Rosengren, associate professor of social anthropology at the Institute for Global Studies at Göteborgs University. The Swedish version of the debate is not available online, but here is an English translation.


Dan Rosengren

Kenan Malik recently wrote about the immorality in denying ‘unknown tribes people’ the progress of civilization, and in doing so expresses antiquated notions belonging to the 19th century. His premise is that modern society is superior to indigenous people. If Malik had bothered to study the matter he would have realized that the isolation of these groups is a result of their previous contacts with the industrialized society. A contact which, in the early 20th century, led to the extinction of nearly 80 percent of the indigenous people in the western part of the Amazon forest in order to provide rubber for car wheels to the industrialized society. This is normally called genocide, but in this case it is tantamount to ‘the progress of industrialization’.

In the Amazon region, these peoples are not referred to as ‘uncontacted’, but as ‘peoples in voluntary isolation’. Unlike Malik, who believes that these backward people are incapable of taking initiatives and acting on their own behalf, it is well known in the Amazon region that they are not unaware of the progress of industrialization. On the contrary – Amazonian peoples and their organizations are highly aware of the consequences of this ‘progress’ as well as the fact that there are groups that have chosen to remain in isolation. What Malik has completely misunderstood is that the Brazilian authorities do not stop ‘uncontacted peoples’ from making contact with anyone they want; instead FUNAI (the Brazilian government agency in charge of matters relating to indigenous peoples) wants to let these peoples make their own choices as to whom they want to contact, and to avoid that they, once again, become victims of the ruthless exploitation of industrialism.

Today, there are groups in the Amazon forest who have until recently lived in contact with modern society, but who now choose to distance themselves from it in order to live their own lives, as a consequence of their knowledge and experience of the industrialized society. The fact that a majority of the Amazonian indigenous peoples have, after all, chosen to maintain contact with modern society does not contradict the rationality in the strategy chosen by the minority. To a great extent modern technology is undoubtedly more efficient than the domestic variety, and there is probably no one who would rather use a stone axe than an axe made of steel. This also applies to these ‘unknown tribes people’, who through their neighbouring tribes have channels for obtaining such better tools without necessarily getting all of modern civilization thrown into the bargain.

On one point I totally agree with Kenan Malik: these are not bug-eyed aliens we are talking about, but fellow human beings, people that are not that different from you and me. But, unlike Malik, I am convinced that these people, too, should have the obvious right to decide about their own future. Thus, our moral duty is to make that possible and to stay away from the patronizing superiority that western men in modern times have used to politically reduce ‘tribes people’ to irresponsible children.


Kenan Malik

My thanks to Dan Rosengren for responding to my essay. I am puzzled, however, about what he thinks he is responding to. ‘Unlike Malik’, Rosengren writes, ‘I am convinced that these people too should have the obvious right to decide about their own future.’ It is a bizarre criticism. Not only did I argue that people should have the right to decide about their own future but this was the central theme of my essay.  It is difficult to see how anyone could have read my original essay without having understood that my whole criticism of Brazil’s policy is based on the insistence that Amazonian groups should be able to make their own choices, not have them imposed.

Rosengren claims that I have ‘completely misunderstood that the Brazilian authorities do not stop “uncontacted peoples” from making contact with anyone they want… [but] let these peoples make their own choices’. Sydney Possuelo, the most famous of the sertanistas, the men whose job it is to protect Amazonian tribes, sees it differently. He helped transform FUNAI policy insisting, as he put it in an interview, that ‘We should avoid contact by all means’. He objects even to ‘peaceful contact with such groups’ because any contact ‘destroyed their native culture and self-sufficiency’.

I did not claim, as Rosengren suggests, that ‘modern society is superior to indigenous people’. ‘Societies’ and ‘people’ are not comparable categories, so that would have been an absurd claim.  What one can legitimately compare are different social forms, or different cultural mores, or different institutions or different technologies. And if one does that, then, yes, one discovers that certain social forms, cultural mores, institutions and technologies are superior to others.  Societies that are more equal, democratic and open are superior to those that enforce inequality and are authoritarian and closed. Technologies, such as vaccinations or modern surgical techniques are superior to premodern medical interventions.  The insistence that it should be up to people to choose their way of life is not incompatible with the acceptance that certain forms of life are better than others.

The idea of social progress, the insistence that certain social and cultural forms better than others, the belief that all peoples best flourish under certain social conditions – these are not ‘antiquated notions belonging to the 19th century’, as Rosengren suggests, but lie at the heart of all progressive politics. That they should be seen as antiquated ideas tells us much about the degradation of what passes today for ‘progressive’ politics.

The people of Britain or Sweden are not ‘superior’ to those of the Amazon rainforest. But it is no more racist to suggest that many of the social forms and technologies that Britons and Swedes possess are superior to those with which Amazonian groups live than it is racist to suggest that many of Sweden’s social arrangements (such as its childcare policies or attitudes to paternity leave) are superior to those found in Britain.


  1. Mark

    I think it is racist of Rosengren to assume that science or technology are exclusively “white” or “western” in nature. Science belongs to all, regardless of race. Electrons, Protons, Carbon atoms or Dendritic cells don’t have a “race”. Pythagoras’s theorem works well for Asians, Caucasians, Arabs or Africans equally well.
    Yes, it is true that the West made great strides in science. But that doesn’t mean it is exclusively the property of the West. In any lab I’ve ever worked in, at least half the students have been from East Asian societies. Indian students are becoming more and more common every single year and contribute enormously to scientific progress. Hell, the lead research for IBM’s new chip which is supposed to mimic the human brain is Indian! The man who invented USB is Indian! The discoverers of Green Fluorescent Protein are Japanese! Science is now a global effort with participates of every race working to help all of humanity. Why would Rosengren deny Amazonian tribes the right to participate in this endeavour?
    This idea that industrialisation and science are “white” things, is racist. The idea that technology or science somehow it is incompatible or irreversibly harmful to Amazonian Indians is racist in and of itself, and it severely under-estimates the capabilities Amazon tribes to integrate science beneficially into their culture, as so many other ethnic groups have managed.
    As for the argument that these tribes avoid us because they are somehow knowledgeable about the negative aspects of a technological/industrialized society – I don’t buy it. Modern technology and society are complex, and by virtue of the fact that these tribes are mostly isolated, they don’t have the knowledge to make a proper judgement. They aren’t stupid, not by any means, but they are ignorant by the very fact that they are so isolated. I don’t think they avoid mainstream society because they somehow know it’s bad, but because they are afraid of it. And they have good reason to be afraid – because in the past, foreign cultures and invaders have caused endless grief to Amazonian tribes. But that’s POLITICS, not science. A PCR machine cannot commit genocide, nor can a light-bulb. It’s humans, not technology or science that are to blame for the atrocities of the past.
    As for the debate into which civilization or culture is better: clearly you cannot have a superior language or festival or religion or cultural festival. I mean, who is to say that Moon-cake festival is better or worse than Christmas? Any debate as to whether Japanese is superior to Greek or inferior to Mandarin is meaningless, because those things are based on taste and preference and history and they can all co-exist quite peacefully.
    But you can have superior medicine, superior education, superior infrastructure and superior technology. The effectiveness of medicine can be CLEARLY measured empirically, as can infrastructure and farming techniques. All languages might be equal, but all medicines are surely not.
    Rosengren is the worst kind of “Friend” of the indigenous people – the type who value Political Correctness and “good vibes” over actual progress and hard work and making a real difference. He’s the type who want to “preserve” the Amazon tribes in order to feel less “white guilt” – keep em’ isolated, like a museum exhibit in a glass jar so that they can be “admired” like an interesting specimen. But all he’s doing is keeping them weak, keeping them ignorant, keeping them from really making an informed decision, and keeping the children of these Amazon tribes in seclusion and away from opportunity. He might be claiming to “empower them”, but all he’s doing is leaving them at the mercy of a world that will not go away. He is advocating stagnation, and during a time when nothing short of radical adaptation is necessary to safeguard your people or culture.
    I strongly suspect he just wants to feel “lefty” and “hip” and “PC”. It’s a fundamentally selfish motive born out of the desire to feel more smug and “culturally sensitive”, at the expense of providing real help and opportunity.
    Let me ask Rosengren this: would he like to go in to the Amazon and live that sort of life? Would he like to see his children live in a society where there are no hospitals or MRI machines or good schools? We on the left are naturally outraged when politicians and conservatives cut access to schools and hospitals and government welfare – yet Rosengren, a supposed leftist would deny the Amazonian tribes all of that! That’s a huge disconnect in his thinking! If I were a conservative who wanted to cut welfare or schooling or the UK’s public health care system, I would use Rosengren’s argument and say “But who’s to say schools are good!? Who’s to say we need medicine?! The Amazonian tribes don’t need any of that stuff!”
    Science is wondeful. I don’t know if Rosengren is a scientist, but anyone who has studied Science knows how wonderful it is. Knowing how stars fuse hydrogen to form the higher elements, or how genes mutate and transfer between species or how large the universe is, is a wonderful thing. An empowering, enlightening thing that has never harmed a single person. Rosengren would deny those insights, which belong to every single human being as well all live in the same world, he would deny that to the Amazonian tribes. All because he wants to feel smug sipping his free-trade coffee while wearing his beret at a jaunty angle.
    I am Half-Chinese. I know a LOT about Chinese history and culture. You cannot say to me that China has not benefitted, enormously, from industrialization and the introduction of the scientific method. They are more powerful and more well-fed than at any other time in their history. The Chinese people were willing to adapt, to explore and to embrace the world, and although China still suffers from enormous problems, I think we can all agree that the China of today is far better than the China of the past. Why isn’t Rosengren screaming on about how the West is “supposedly” destroying Chinese culture, hm? Maybe it’s because the benefits are so apparent that he cannot possibly argue against it.
    If Rosengren had his way, the Amazon Tribes would be kept in the dark. Kept in ignorance. Kept away from every single scrap of knowledge the modern world has produced. Kept weak, and small and kept away from the world. To be left in fear of the rest of us, as permanent children so Rosengren can feel smugly satisfied about how “Lefty” he is.
    He is no real friend of indigenous people. He looks down upon them in the worst way possible – he thinks they can’t adapt, that they can’t integrate science or the outside world in any positive way. And he wants to hide them from a world that will not go away. It’s like sticking your head in the sand. One day, these tribes WILL have to integrate into the world as we know it. It’s better for all of us that we contact them as soon as possible in order to allow them to transition into the world in a way that will not destroy their culture or their people – because if Rosengren’s “plan” for them is to hide forever….. he’s a fool. A damn big fool. As big a fool as there ever was.
    Sorry for the rant, Mr. Malik.

  2. Mark

    Sorry again Mr. Malik for ranting on, but another point about Rosengren’s article: it’s committing the logical fallacy of “False Dichotomy”. He’s saying “It must be one or the other: Either they stay as they are, or throw everything out of the window in order to change”. As if cultures were not adaptable! As if change is inherently bad or destructive! What a silly world view Mr. Rosengren has! As if it really was “This or that”, when there exists endless possibilities and outcomes!

    Who is to say that the Amazonian tribes would not integrate science and medicine right alongside traditional beliefs? Who is to say that EVERY SINGLE MEMBER OF THE TRIBE would INSTANTLY give up their lifestyle and move to the cities if given the choice! If Rosengren really thinks that even the slightest contact or out-reach to these tribes would instantly and irrecoverably collapse their traditional way of life, he obviously doesn’t think much of their way of life in the first place.

  3. Gabriel Andrade

    The great paradox here is that, if you want to embrace egalitarianism and accept that human beings are fundamentally equal, then you have to accept that cultures are NOT equal. For, in order to embrace egalitarianism, you have to accept that Swedish democracy is superior to, say, the Indian caste-system or South African apartheid.
    On the other hand, there have been a few anthropologists that claim that Paleolithic lifestyles are actually better off than most modern societies, in terms of economy and health. Jared Diamond and Marshall Sahlins come to mind. I seriously doubt this. I have personally been to Brazil, and I can assure you that yo are much better off in a favela in Rio, than living in the middle of the Amazon.

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