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South America: the natives are friendly!

Indigenous Peoples

The bus has disgorged its load of tourists, who wait with cameras at the ready. The dancers shuffle into place, adjusting their costumes. After the performance, it is announced, visitors may pose for photographs with the dancers. There will be a small extra charge for this privilege.

The scene is a Guaraní Indian village 30 kilometres outside Asunción, capital of Paraguay. The dancers are dressed in a caricatured approximation of the costume their ancestors would have worn when the dance was not a show but the centre of an intense religious life. As the visitors focus their cameras on their friends, spouses or children standing awkwardly with the dancers, what do they see? A rare and potent encounter between civilization’s representatives and the noble savage? The degraded and degrading spectacle of a dying culture preserved for its curiosity value by those who have destroyed it? Or simply a nice picture to go in the album next to the one of the family at the Iguaçu Falls?

‘The trouble is, the Indians have become mercenary, changing their traditional dances for the tourists’ benefit,’ says Marcos Chavez, Paraguayan vice-consul in São Paulo. ‘The trouble with the Indians is that they don’t do any work, they don’t produce any wealth, they bring backwardness,’ says Bartolomé Quiñónez, former director of Paraguay’s international airline LAP. These declarations come from two of the people most responsible for promoting the tourist trade of a country unique in South America for institutionalizing its indigenous heritage. The Paraguayan currency is the Guaraní; Guaraní is taught in schools and, alongside Spanish, constitutes the second national language.

Their statements expose an essential ambiguity. The fact is that South American governments exhort visitors to discover their countries’ picturesque Indian villages and unspoilt jungles, while doing everything in their power to dispossess their indigenous peoples and destroy their forests. Themselves thoroughly colonized by Northern values, and with an instinctive belief that ‘if the gringos are prepared to pay to see it, it must be good’, South America’s urban elites pay lip service to the need to preserve the ‘purity’ of the noble savage’s culture to the point where many of them actually start to believe it. Their traditional attitude to Indians as an irritating obstacle to ‘development’, however, remains essentially unchanged.

Vice-consul Chavez insists that there is an ‘enormous potential market’ for tourism based on ‘getting close to indigenous culture’ in his country. The official tourist board’s brochure Paraguay, land of sunshine is careful to include a picture of a smiling Indian girl. It describes the monumental Jesuit mission ruins in southern Paraguay as ‘witnesses of the civilizing, spiritual and cultural legacy of Paraguay from the nineteenth century’. This version of the country’s history is based not on ‘getting close to indigenous culture’, but on forcing the Indians to ‘get close’ to European culture.

The brochure is silent on the continuing presence of this legacy in the Chaco scrublands of western Paraguay. The Chaco is ‘a vast plain crossed by numerous non-navigable rivers... the habitat of an abundant fauna’. The accompanying photograph shows a flock of jaboru storks; there is no mention of the indigenous Chamococo and Maskoi people who still die from unfamiliar diseases, shock and despair in the ‘catechism camps’ to which they have been brought for ‘civilizing’ by the Florida-based New Tribes Mission.

Selling natural resources for ‘ecotourism’ in South America often requires the exclusion of indigenous people. Their presence calls into question the ‘untouched’ or ‘pristine’ nature of the wilderness, so essential in attracting jaded city-dwellers. In Bolivia Indians have been expelled from their traditional territories when these have been redesignated as national parks. Most commonly, however, exclusion takes subtler forms, and its effects are not limited to ecotourism or ‘indigenous’ peoples.

The most familiar example is Carnival. In Bolivia the devil-dancing of Oruro has drawn the participation of so many tourists and members of the urban middle classes that the cost of the fantastically elaborate ‘authentic’ costumes has been inflated beyond the reach of the traditional indigenous dancers. The parade, in which participation was traditionally limited to men, now includes pretty girls in short-skirted imitations of traditional costume, wearing cutely stylized versions of the bowler hats of indigenous Andean women.

The ‘sex factor’ has come to dominate Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, with white models and soap-opera stars imported to ensure that the flesh on display in the parades meets the taste of their increasingly middle-class audience. The predominantly Afro-Brazilian residents of Rio’s favela shanty towns were gradually being priced out of participation in the parades. It was the violence of the economically excluded, however, which brought about the beginning of a reversal in this cultural exclusion. This year, Rio’s worsening reputation frightened many tourists away, and the favelados started to claim Carnival back as a truly popular festival.

At the same time, the appropriation of ‘noble savage’ imagery by the Green movement has had the opposite effect to exclusion: indigenous peoples become indispensable accessories in marketing to environmentally-conscious visitors. Nowhere is this more clearly exposed than in Amazônia.

The Kayapó Indians of the eastern Amazon – championed by media-friendly partners such as the rock star Sting and Anita Roddick of the Body Shop – became fixed as the main symbol of the ecological cause in the minds of thousands of tourists arriving to see Amazônia ‘before it’s too late’.

Chief Payakan, the most internationally respected of the Kayapó chiefs, was later vilified for having betrayed the ideal of the noble savage by acquiring a car and a house in town on the proceeds of a sawmill operating within the Kayapó’s territory. The complexity of his true role as a skilful negotiator who saw the inevitability of the onslaught of exploitation and manoeuvred to limit its impact, securing a material return for his people while keeping the logging and mining as distant from the village as possible, was ignored.

Despite the damage to their image, the Kayapó evidently remain a good bet for tourism; in September this year Payakan will be the guest speaker at the World Congress on Adventure Travel and Ecotourism. The Congress – a joint production of the US-based Adventure Travel Society, the Brazilian and Amazonas State tourist boards and the UN Environment Programme – will be held in Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas. It could hardly have chosen a more ironic setting: a city whose mayor likes to distribute chainsaws to settlers, in a state whose Governor has declared that giving land to Indians is a waste of time and that the rainforest should be chopped down and replaced with ‘rational’ plantations. The local tourist board’s blurb on the back cover of the event’s brochure is a fine example of the Brazilian sense of humour, referring to the forest as a ‘reserve of living things... under the protection of the State of Amazonas’, and to Manaus as surrounded by ‘practically untouched plant life’.

Hitching a lift on the UN’s ‘Year for Indigenous People’ bandwagon, the Congress’ ‘Global Objectives’ include discussion of the ‘opportunities’ and ‘challenge to protect’ indigenous peoples that tourism brings. The idea that cultures need protecting is a curious one; they are a by-product of human societies, and it is these societies that need protection – or simply respect. To respect a society is to respect its right to undergo change.

In western Amazônia’s Juruá Valley, most of whose tribes have had decades of contact with non-indigenous society, the Ashaninka people of the River Amônia have been so besieged by visitors and journalists that they have resorted to virtually closing their reserve to visitors. The reason for the Ashaninka’s attraction is the photogenic ‘authenticity’ of their material culture; as opposed to neighbouring groups who have abandoned nudity for shorts and T-shirts, they still wear their distinctive kitarentsi robes. Few visitors are aware that these robes themselves represent a ‘foreign’ cultural influence; the Ashaninka copied them from the Incas, whose forest stronghold of Vilcabamba they helped defend against the invading Spanish.

The World Congress on Adventure Travel and Ecotourism guarantees in its brochure that ‘tourism is the web that connects the global community... a positive, acceptable and co-operative system to bring the world together’. Bringing the world together, however, requires a good deal more understanding of the complex realities of other people’s cultures than a few half-digested clichés can provide. As long as we demand to have our preconceived ideas of indigenous societies reflected back at us we will remain thousands of miles from the Guaraní dancer even when we are standing next to him for a photograph.

Alex Shankland lives in São Paulo, Brazil, and is active in environmental and development projects in western Amazônia. With special thanks to Peter Musson.

New Internationalist issue 245 magazine cover This article is from the July 1993 issue of New Internationalist.
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