Worlds In Collision
There is a moment of riveting poignancy in the Latin American film Bye, Bye, Brazil that speaks volumes about the wholesale destruction of indigenous minorities in the Third World. A track cuts through the towering Amazon rain forest like the single vapour trail of a jet in an empty sky. A troop of bumptious mountebanks resting by the roadside is interrupted by a bedraggled band of Indians: a wizened grandmother, scattered women and children, and the young chief, transistor radio firmly clamped to the side of his head, blasting disco music into the endless jungle. They are on their way to the busy frontier staging town, the chief explains. His grandmother want to ride on an airplane before she dies.
The ancient cultures of Brazil's isolated Amerindians are as delicate as the perfect gaudy orchids that bloom and die unseen in the silent Amazonian wilderness. There, as in northern Canada, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, India and dozens of other Third World countries, tribal peoples occupy large tracts of land now feverishly coveted by government treasuries and multinational mining corporations.
'The overall interests of the nation-state must come first' ministers say, 'there can be no economic development without sacrifice.' The Minority Rights Group, among others, maintains that such priorities are indefensible. But can Third World countries really afford to coddle ancient subsistence cultures sitting on a mountain of timber, a cache of copper or the hydroelectric potential of an untapped river?
The real question is who defines the 'national interest'. In most Third World countries, the path development should take is chosen by city-dwelling government ministers following Western industrial models of growth. Foreign corporations with the capital and technology for mining and forestry end up the biggest winners - along with local businessmen and government officials.
For the natives whose territory is invaded the costs are direct and catastrophic. Deprived of land where they have farmed, fished or hunted for generations, they must integrate somehow into the new cash economy, find other ways of survival - prostitution, begging, selling handicrafts - or gradually die. Ancient cultures built on natural rhythms and developed in relative isolation wither or disappear completely. Where the transition is most abrupt, the destruction is most complete.
When the process of change has been more gradual and the gap in technologies less dramatic, tribal minorities have fared better. In India, Adivasis (aboriginal people) make up nearly seven per cent of the population. Over the centuries their culture has been swamped by the Hindu majority, but they were able to retreat into jungle and hilly areas and develop outside the caste society.
During the British 'Raj' the Adivasis were edged out of their land by Hindu merchants in search of minerals and timber. Today, most are peasant sharecroppers, landless farm-workers or small craftspeople. Though victims of vicious discrimination some Adivasis maintain strong traditions of dance, song and religion. As in native communities in North America, there has been a resurgence of pride and interest in their cultural heritage. But most remain scattered among low and middle caste Hindus - a barely visible thread in the vast tapestry of Indian life. Some countries have set up reservations where native people are cordoned off on small parcels of land. Canada, the US, Australia, Brazil and South Africa have all followed this course. But reserves tend to be situated on the least productive land, usually only a tiny fraction of former homelands. And even then, promises can become elastic when uranium or some other mineral is discovered.
Indigenous peoples cannot remain isolated, hermetically sealed in the display cases of their reserves. Nor would most choose to be denied the benefits of science and technology that could improve their living standards. Change is inevitable. But it must be change that is controlled by those who are most vulnerable.
That is the ultimate test of development that claims to be democratic. Anything less amounts to a kind of internal colonialism: the dominant culture imposing its priorities on a fragile minority.
Self-determination has been the rallying cry of Third World independence movements for the last 50 years. But few have opted to apply the same standards to their own internal politics. Development that sacrifices the poor and the powerless in favour of ill-defined, vague, and destructive 'national interests' is not development. It is exploitation. And that is no less true in Canada or Australia than it is in Brazil or the Philippines.
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