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.
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.
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.