Colonialism By Another Name

A response to Charles Kenny from Survival International.

BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images
BIJU BORO/AFP/Getty Images

Charles Kenny’s argument that "modernity" has brought "huge benefits" to 99.99 percent of humankind, and that little-contacted tribal peoples stand to benefit from more "engagement" with the outside world ("Out of Eden," Foreign Policy, April 26), is the same as that used by governments and corporations that want to take away those peoples’ tribal lands and resources. In fact, it’s pretty similar to the arguments once used to justify the colonial era and even slavery (which was supposed to benefit slaves, as well as slave owners).

The "data" presented to shore up this case are at best highly questionable, at at worst plain wrong. For example, Kenny refers to the horror of tribal infanticide, inaccurately claiming it was "common" in Papua, while ignoring the fact that this is a far bigger problem in non-tribal societies (e.g. China and India) than in tribal ones.

Kenny is entitled to his opinions, of course, but the real problem is that he perpetuates a view of the world in which everyone is marching toward some kind of secure, middle-class, Westernized lifestyle, and that the best — or only — solution to the world’s ills is to hasten this as much as possible.

This is a commonly held and wonderfully straightforward idea; it would probably be wonderful if it were true.  Unfortunately, the real world is very different. If their lands are not protected, what awaits little-contacted Brazilian Indians is not good hospitals and schools, but the slums of 21st-century cities like Rio de Janeiro, where two to six children are killed — by very modern weapons — every single day. In the United States, it’s thought that nearly a million babies are mistreated annually, and that no less than 20 percent die as a result. The Lakota people from Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota today have one of the lowest life expectancies in the world, bar some African countries and Afghanistan. The experience of indigenous peoples in some of the world’s richest nations — the United States, Canada, and Australia — is surely irrefutable proof that Kenny’s ideas are simply out of date.

Survival International does not advocate that everyone "returns" to a tribal lifestyle, nor do we "glorify" tribal ways of life. We do indeed advocate for tribes to be given the opportunity to make their own choices about their own futures. This means secure and respected land rights. Kenny says he supports this, but, unlike him, we don’t think they’re "backward" or "Stone Age," or that any of this has much to do with "modernity."

Why is it "romantic" to oppose tribal peoples’ rights being violated? No one thought it was romantic to oppose slavery or apartheid. If romantic means the upholding of fundamental human rights, then bring it on! Or, to quote Gandhi’s opinion of Western civilization, "It would be a marvellous idea."

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