Posted on April 4, 2012
After 150,000 years of human history, roughly 10,000 generations of human beings — and the miraculous diaspora of people from what is now the African continent to all of the inhabitable regions of the planet — there are only a few tribes left that remain almost completely isolated from the rest of the human population on earth. There are an estimated 50 of these groups, mainly family units, living in the Amazon rainforest, primarily in headwater regions in the wilds around the Peruvian and Brazilian border. These tribes are known as “uncontacted tribes” or “indigenous people living in voluntary isolation.” They all are aware of the outside world. For hundreds of years they have witnessed and been subject to terrible abuses, violence and destruction, especially during the era of the rubber boom in the early 20th century. As a result, many of these groups have fled deeper into the forest, actively shunning contact with outsiders. Living with the historical memory of violence, attempted enslavement, and epidemics of disease, these groups continue to flee further into the forest away from encroaching frontiersmen, loggers, drug-traffickers and crews of oil and mining workers, whose operations now circumscribe their territory.
Some of these tribes methodically hide traces of their own existence (erasing their footprints on beaches, covering the wood ash of their fires with leaves); other tribes have given messages and warnings to encroaching outsiders (crossed spears near seismic crew encampments or on hunting trails); and others have raided encampments or colonists’ homes for food, metal tools and other useful items of the “modern” world.
As the quest for timber, oil and minerals drives governments, industry and bootleggers deeper into the heart of the Amazon, what will be the fate of these “uncontacted” tribes? And what will be the role of states and peoples from industrialized societies, if any, in determining that fate?
Out of Contact
In a recently published review of Scott Wallace’s The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes, John Terborgh (a conservation biologist by training, who has lived and worked for years in the Amazon rainforest) raises and attempts to answer these questions.
In his essay, published in the April 5th issue of The New York Review of Books, Terborgh demonstrates an extensive knowledge of history, politics and indigenous culture in the Amazon rainforest, sketching out for us the brutal violence enacted against indigenous tribes at the hands of rubber barons and frontiersmen over the last century.
He begins: “Uncontacted. What does the term mean?…it refers to human societies that have no regular intercourse with the modern world, though they might have second- or third-degree contact through trading partners or colinguists. They live with few or no manufactured implements other than perhaps the odd machete or ax acquired through trade. Most speak languages not understood by anyone else. Hence they are isolated by linguistic barriers as well as the physical barrier of remoteness. In the Amazon, remaining uncontacted groups are isolated by a third barrier, that of abject fear stemming from the horrendous atrocities of the rubber boom. Those events of a hundred years ago remain very much a living memory that is indelibly inscribed into the consciousness of every child living in isolation. Uncontacted Amazonians live a fugitive existence in the farthest headwaters of tributary streams, often above cataracts and beyond where even a small dugout canoe can pass. Here they live in perpetual fear of being detected and enslaved or killed by the white man.”
He dedicates most of his essay to detailing the “generations” of the Brazilian government’s policies towards uncontacted tribes, concluding that the first and second generation policies of forced acculturation and pacification resulted in disaster. The former is a deliberate and bureaucratic kind of conquest, involving government programs that aim to dismantle the culture of indigenous tribes in order to “integrate” them into the dominant culture. In the case of Brazil in the early 20th century, this “first generation” policy forced indigenous tribes into a state of debilitating dependency, sickness, demoralization and poverty. The latter, “pacification”, is a twisted way of describing the straight forward policy of forced contact and forced relocation. In Brazil of the 1970s, this devious and brutal “second generation” policy, which involved luring and forcing distinct indigenous tribes into a huge reservation along the Xingu River in order to allow for the construction of the Transamazon Highway, caused epidemics of mortal disease, conditions of exploitation, and almost total cultural disintegration.
Terborgh is aware of what happens when isolated tribes are contacted by the outside world: “Isolated people have no resistance to such diseases (measles, influenza, dysentery, malaria) and first contact with Europeans frequently results in demographic losses in excess of 80 percent. After demographic collapse, many tribes simply ceased to exist as organized entities.” Though Terborgh’s phrases – “demographic losses” and “demographic collapse” – seem to be employed here in order to make the brutal reality of their meaning – “genocide” and “annihilation” – more easy to stomach, Terborgh does recognize the devastation that comes with forced contact.
He concludes the main body of his essay with a grim assessment of the potential threats to the Brazilian Government’s current “third-generation” policy of creating isolated people’s protected areas — off limits to industry and frontiersmen. “With development pressures mounting by the year and rampant lawlessness on the frontier, exclusion zones can be regarded at best as a temporary expedient. In time, they are certain to be breached by resource seekers with all the adverse consequences the exclusion zones were created to avoid.”
The Fate of “Others”: An Argument
And so again, what will be the fate of these people? And what will be the role of states and peoples from industrialized societies in determing that fate?
Terborgh dedicates the last four paragraphs of his essay to these questions. His answers and the process he employs to arrive at his answers are deeply troubling. It is as if there are two Terborghs, actually: the anthropologist-Terborgh who details the historical devastation wrought upon isolated peoples through forced contact, and then the colonialist-Terborgh, who appears at the end of the essay, shrugs at his anthropologist twin, and advocates for assimilation, a notorious euphemism for the destruction of the culture of a people.
Terborgh’s conclusion is a remarkable example of colonial thinking, and so I’d like to dedicate some time to walking through his argument, step by step.
He begins with a rhetorical question: “On a more philosophical level, do we want to keep people in a “cultural museum,” a time warp as it were? Putting aside the practical questions of how this would be accomplished, is it morally the right thing to do?”
His question is deeply problematic. Who is this “we” first of all, and in what way can this “we” be understood as morally entitled to make decisions for people whom they have never met, much less spoken with? Here morality becomes an instrument of power. It is already assumed that this “we” is the legitimate decider of the destiny of others, and so what is left now is to determine what is best for others. To save or to destroy, that is the question. I am reminded of the kind of questions that Rudyard Kipling would have asked himself as he was writing The White Man’s Burden.
Terborgh seems unaware, though, of the waters he treads, and so he continues in this vein: “Once upon a time, the ancestors of each and every one of us lived in a pre-modern culture. Those cultural origins have now been completely erased from our collective memory. Do any of us regret the loss of this memory? Would any of us prefer to return to our ancestral condition, rather than to live in the modern world? Few, if any, would say yes. To live in isolation is to live a short, hard life in the absence of modern medicine and in complete ignorance of history, geography, science, and art.”
Whose history are these people ignorant of? What geography, what science, what art? Surely these tribes have their own history; they know the geography of their forest; and as to science, medicine and art, well, “we” are equally ignorant of what they know as they are of what “we” know. Terborgh assumes that what “we” know is better than what they know. This is the result of a deeply entrenched euro-centric world view, in which history becomes the great moral success story of the “west”, an epic tale of “our” greatness, a linear story of “our” progress.
Terborgh seems unaware of the importance of these questions, but even more, he seems unaware of where his ideas fall in the history of European thought about “the other”? When Europeans set out to conquer the earth, an imperial-religious discourse was deployed to morally justify the most brutal and heinous of endeavors. As described in Eric Wolf’s, Europe and the People Without History, the idea of the naked savage – the miserable people without history, culture, God, ruled only by their animal appetites – was used by the conquistadors (both nobles and commoners, alike) to justify the brutal system of murder, domination, and exploitation set up in the newly “discovered” lands. Turning “the other” into a subcategory of human, an inferior “race”, is, arguably, a psychological precondition to conquest and colonialism. How can you become master of an equal?
Terborgh doesn’t argue that these tribes are subhuman. His method is slightly softer. He argues that they are deprived of a better culture, “our” culture. And, for Terborgh, this is enough to justify deciding the fate of these people for them. The spirit of his thinking is rooted in the colonial mindset; but touched also with a particular caste of American naivete and optimism.
His bizzarre and misplaced hypothetical question about whether or not “we” would like to return to our premodern past is a good example of this. To reformulate his question: Would “we,” as upper middle class Americans (mainly white?) reading the New York Review of Books like to return to our premodern past? Terborgh responds: No! Of course not! Preposterous!
The reasoning behind his answer involves a short ode to the supremacy of “modern” culture: “To my admittedly biased way of thinking, the modern world offers a vastly richer existence – intellectually, culturally, physically. Not only do we live nearly twice as long on average, but we are able to travel, to experience the accomplishments of a cultural history that goes back three thousand years, and to savor the best creations of a highly diverse global cuisine.”
What is the value of Roman history or pan-asian food to isolated peoples living in the headwaters of the Brazilian Amazon?! Terborgh’s cultural sentiments are quite irrelevant to the ostensible purpose of his essay: the well-being and livelihood of uncontacted tribes. It is highly improbable that uncontacted tribes are realistically going to be able to (or are interested in) making the leap to this new Terborghian reality of museums and Parisian cafes. It is more probable (and indeed Terborgh affirms this earlier in his essay) that the surviving members of these tribes would suffer the deaths (murders?) of nearly everyone they know—recall, 80% – if contacted by the outside world rather than “benefit” from this bizarre culinary picture that Terborgh paints.
It is fine to have opinions about culture; and many people across the world do honestly believe that their culture is vastly richer or better or more noble or more sacred than other cultures. This position implies nothing more than pride and limited perspective. And there is nothing really wrong with it. It is an opinion. But what is dangerous, and morally indefensible, is when opinions of cultural superiority are espoused within a dominant culture about other cultures, and then acted upon; this mix of arrogance and power are the essential ingredients of conquest, colonialism and imperialism.
Terborgh chooses to mince words, to create veils and shades, but his entire argument is all leading to his final proposal: assimilation of the remaining isolated tribes in the Amazon rainforest.
Now, I am convinced that Terborgh does not want to see the destruction of uncontacted tribes throughout the Amazon. He is very aware of the vulnerable state that many of these uncontacted tribes are living in. And he also is aware of the greater forces at play – the mounting “development pressures” – that threaten the very feasibility of the survival of these tribes. And he is also aware – as he states throughout his essay – that contact frequently leads to “demographic losses in excess of 80 percent”, as well as “social ostracism, demoralization, and alcoholism.” In short, the decimation of the tribe.
“Our” Own Fate: A Question
How then does Terborgh arrive at his concluding statement? “Yet in my view, assimilation offers the only moral and permanent option.” I think that he arrives at this conclusion for reasons that he is not quite aware of. He is conflating morality with dominance, and as a result putting morality at the service of the dominant culture. He knows full well the horrifying implications of his proposal. He has already described to us the awful realities that accompanied forced acculturation and pacification throughout the 20th century. Terborgh’s proposal is not concerned with “morality”; it is concerned with pragmatism from the perspective of the dominant society. Terborgh is afraid or unwilling to hold views that industrial civilization will see as “counterproductive” or “unreasonable” or “impractical”. How else can we understand the deeper motives of an essay which concludes with a policy recommendation that will likely engender many deaths (remember the 80%), and which has as its intended outcome the “permanent” end to the way of life of another culture? How else are we to understand a writer that chooses to praise the “modern world” while failing (intentionally or unintentionally?) to mention that it is this very world whose consumption patterns are driving the destruction of the rainforest and cultures that he ostensibly is advocating for?
The “modern” world likes the idea of morality, but is not interested in meeting its challenges or acting according to the rigors of its demands. Morality is a nice thing to talk about, but not something that should curtail “our” progress. Terborgh could have been more forthcoming. He could have simply said: look, there is no stopping the dominant culture, no stopping the relentless pursuit of resources at the expense of the planet or other “weaker” cultures; and all of this is reprehensible; and at this moment there is no viable morally correct outcome; but inaction is worse than action, and so “we” must assimilate these “weaker” cultures into our “dominant” culture in order to avoid the worst outcome. This still would have been an awful line of argumentation, but, at least, it would have been honest.
Terborgh made a choice just like industrial societies have made a choice. He chose to sideline morality. His question became how to assimilate them? How to mitigate “collateral damage”? But morality (and wisdom!) demands another question: how to control “ourselves?”
Yes, greed may be a universal human constant. Yes, power may be the ultimate driver of history. Yes, industrial civilization may have an insatiable appetite. Yes, the world is a brutal place. But morally justifying the brutality amounts only to a brutal form of dishonesty.
These are some of the last tribes living in isolation on the planet. They have their own history, their own dreams, their own religion, their own language, and they have life — and a right to it — just like anyone else.
And what will become of them? What will be “our” role, if any, in determining that fate?
“We” should approach these questions with more wisdom than Terborgh does. The answers are, of course, unknown and unknowable. Terborgh seems to think that the destruction of these tribes is inevitable; and in that inevitably he finds comfort in advocating for a repugnant plan and calls it the only “moral and permanent option.”
Terborgh is right though that the situation is grim. But in terms of morality, the only “moral option” is for “us” to have the wisdom and restraint to allow these tribes to decide their fate for themselves. The current policy of the Brazilian Government to create “exclusion zones” which prohibits industrial expansion and frontier activity in the territory of the uncontacted tribes is not a systemic solution, but it is a buffer against the insatiable appetite of the outside world, a buffer that should be strengthened.
For now it is the only way for these tribes to continue living in their own territory and in their own way. And if one day these tribes decide, for whatever reason, to establish contact with the outside world, it will at least be their decision, done on their own terms.
If “we” can’t respect the right of the last tribes living in isolation on the planet to decide their own fate, then how are we different from the conquistadors of 500 years ago, whom we so roundly condemn for their violence and greed?
If “we” can’t do even this, then the question for “us” is: what is the fate of states and people from industrialized society? And what, if any, is our role in determining that fate?