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Worlds In Collision

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CULTURE [image, unknown] Casualties of development

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Worlds in collision
Wayne Ellwood asks how much a country should sacrifice in the name of development.

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.

Voyeurs in Eden

We are a group of tourists who have paid a substantial sum of money to 'see the Amazon jungle', including some Yagua Indians. The tourist leaflet advertises a visit to a group of head-hunting Jibaros as well, but the Jibaros are no longer there. They just left one day without explanation and vanished into the forest.

As we approach the Yagua settlement - a few houses built on stilts in a little clearing - a few of the Indians come out to watch us advance. But instead of greeting us, they turn back to tell the others to get ready.

We look very big, soft and pink beside the lithe, olive skinned Indians as we march into the clearing pointing and gawking. 'Look, she is taking lice from her hair and eating them' says the guide. When no-one comments he repats his sentence in case we haven't heard.

Climbing a short ladder into a house, we peer at people and objects with equal curiosity. The guide leads us around the house and out again as if he were conducting a museum tour. Outside the Yaguas are all carefully placed performing a variety of tasks. One woman is weaving a basket. Another pulls fluff from the seed pod of a balsa tree for use as pillow stuffing. Some young women are offering necklaces they have made out of seeds, porcupine quills, feathers, beetle wings and bones.

A beautiful girl asks if I have any cosmetics, such as lipstick, to trade with her for a necklace. I say no, I am sorry. Seeing that I am friendly, she touches the bracelet on my arm. Her touch is gentle, yearning. But I am fond of that bracelet, so I say I will come back tomorrow if I can find a tube of lipstick.

Yagua woman - forever on display. Photo: Ellen Drake
Yagua woman - forever on display.
Photo: Ellen Drake

'Do these people get paid something every time tourists come to look at them?' I ask the guide. He says no. The land is owned by the touring company. The Indians are only there on sufferance. They get free medical attention, food and other assistance when they need it. But they would be evicted if they decided they no longer cared to have their privacy invaded by large pink strangers.

Behind them, the forest, representing their old way of life, stands tall and majestic. It looks as though it has been unchanged for millenia. But in recent years lumber companies have been plundering the jungle and cutting down trees that are centuries old. Oil has been discovered too, bringing its heavy influx of people and technology. Men with guns have depleted the animals the Indians once hunted with blow guns and darts. And new diseases have come with the new people: many Indians with no resistance died The forest still stands, but changes have altered its character irrevocably. For the Yagua it seems the choice is to be on perpetual display- or forever in oblivion.

Ellen Drake



From Cowrie to Cadillac

Nauru is a treasure island in the western Pacific - with hordes of the world's finest phosphate of lime buried in an area just 21 kilometres square.

As early as 1910 the island was being heavily mined. Its people stood by bemused, with no idea that large chunks of their homeland were being taken away to fertilize the grain fields of the western world. By 1980 Nauruans found themselves materially clothed, but culturally naked.

The traders who came to sell arms and ammunition changed relatively harmless intertribal rivalry into deadly guerilla war. American whalers brought syphilis, a Gilbertest teacher brought yaws, and a missionary missed out on a stack of converts by killing them with his own influenza. A tradition of nude beach dancing at the onset of menstruation was ended by shocked Christian missionaries and age-old moonlight singing became a thing of the past. By the time the phosphate miners hit Nauru, the people were already culturally ragged.

After a visit to Nauru in 1936, anthropologist Camilla Wedgwood observed that 'many of the young men and women know little or nothing of the life of their great grandfathers. . . all too many assume that European customs are superior . . . it is predominantly the material side of European culture in which the young Nauruans are interested.'

While British Phosphate Commissioners' (BPC) machinery chewed on through the phosphate-rich central plateau - leaving a soil-less, craggy, 'lunarscape' behind it - down on the more fertile coastal strip, Nauruans got to thinking. Following the lead of people like Chief Hammer DeRoburt, Nauruans decided to make their bid for independence from Australia in 1968. Within two years they had control of phosphate operations.

Racing into the 80s with a $4 million jet. Photo: Camera Press
Racing into the 80s with a $4 million jet.
Photo: Camera Press 

Since then Nauruans have invested their profits for the time - 12 years hence - when all the phosphates will be gone. Nauru is now collecting at the rate of $40 million a year. And its people have raced, dollars in pockets, into the 80s - starting an airline, a shipping line, buying hotels overseas and building one of Melbourne's tallest skyscrapers.

Until the 1800s Nauruans were probably as pure, complete and self-sufficient as any race ever has been. They still firmly believe they are aboriginal. But pre-contact ways have faded in the minds of the people, and there is little in anthropological writings to jog their memories.

Life on Nauru today is expensive cars, nightclubs, alcohol, imported food, video, hi-fi gadgetry - and the Nauru Phosphate Corporation scratching its way through a last dozen years of phosphate wealth.

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