Are indigenous people backwards? Do they really need to be ‘rescued’ from their primitive way of life and introduced to this wonder of human civilization? Or is this a racist simplification?
In this piece Chris challenges the notion that civilization is the ultimate way of life — a notion that has been used to justify genocide against indigenous people for a long time.
By Chris Straquez
The Woe-nders of Civilization
Civilization: the pinnacle of human progress and ingenuity, a myriad of machines and buildings transforming landscapes as proof of MANkind superiority.
Do you need water, food, energy? We got it! For a price, a modest price, these are accessible for everyone (restrictions will apply). You know you want to be here with us—and who wouldn’t? Just ignore the trail of blood and corpses that lie behind of it all and you can reap the benefits of the civilized; everything will be fine and dandy.
We, the civilized humans, are being honest here, no exaggeration, just facts, alternative yet still facts: we are so great, even people from the countryside and indigenous reserves dream of living in our super modern skyscrapers, our theme parks, and especially our humongous and incredible malls.
Are you looking for sneakers with heel lights, fake dog vomit, or a hundred different flavors of whatever shit you want to inhale, inject, eat or consume in whatever fashion you feel like… Guess what? We’ve got it!
Are you lost? Do you feel lonely? An impending feeling of being misunderstood drowns your existence? Are you worried about your physical appearance? Does your skin color have a pesky pigmentation? Should I go on or do you know what we are talking about? You do not have to be particularly smart to understand; as the great poet Axl Rose said: “if you got the money, honey, we got your disease.”
Tell your local shaman or whoever prepares those funky herbs to stop using mumbo-jumbo whatchamacallits because civilized humans have the meds backed up by science done scientifically by scientists who do scientific and technological stuff. We can bring this to you, you can be civilized, just like us, and I do hate being repetitive but are we not great, unique, awesome?
Now, stand-up comedy aside (along with credits to the late, great George Carlin), let me ask you: how many times as a city-dweller have you seen or heard advertisements, politicians or even neighbors not only expressing but embodying such ideas? This is a long-standing, well-oiled propaganda machine to makes us constantly think that being civilized is the best of the best and any other lifestyle is a mistake that must and will be rectified right away. Using force if needed, no hesitation whatsoever.
Are Indigenous People Backwards?
Over generations, tribal peoples have developed complex systems to live well, together, on their land. They may be poor in monetary terms but tribal people living on their own lands are rich in other ways. They have good reason to be proud of their communities and their way of life. Such is the case of the Dongria Kondh tribe whose homeland is in the Niyamgiri hill range in Odisha state, India.
Niyamgiri is an area of densely forested hills, deep gorges and cascading streams. To be a Dongria Kondh is to farm the hill’s fertile slopes, harvest their produce, and worship the mountain god Niyam Raja and the hills he presides over, including the 4,000 metres Mountain of the Law, Niyam Dongar.
On 19 March 2003 Vedanta Alumina Limited applied for environmental clearance from the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) to construct an alumina refinery project in the eastern Indian state of Orissa.
Vedanta Resources is a London-listed, former FTSE 100 mining company founded by Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal, who remains its Chairman and owns more than 50% of the shares. Had the mine gone ahead, the Dongria would have suffered immeasurable loss; their present good health, self-sufficiency and, identity as a people would have been damaged. The detailed knowledge of their environment would have been destroyed. A large proportion of the benefits would have gone to one man: Anil Agarwal.
For a decade, the 8,000-plus Dongria Kondh lived under the threat of mining by Vedanta Resources, which hoped to extract the estimated $2 billion-worth of bauxite that lies under the surface of the hills. The company planned to create an open-cast mine that would have violated Niyam Dongar, disrupted its rivers and spelt the end of the Dongria Kondh as a distinct people.
All the above in the name of ‘progress and evolution.’ However, whose progress and evolution is seldom directly addressed. I notice it is easy to understand that anything that deviates from this direction tends to be labeled as ‘backwards’ a word we tend to use to disqualify and minimize subjects and matters. One of the meanings of such words implies something ‘towards the direction that is opposite to the one in which you are facing or opposite to the usual direction.’ Do you oppose companies and governments that exploit your land? That is certainly not in the direction we are going so we might as well force our way through.
Another meaning goes like this: ‘returning to older and less effective ways.’ What calls my attention is not returning to older, say, traditional ways, but rather calling it ‘less effective.’ Effective at what? According to who? Looking through the lens of Industrial Civilization means that mountains cannot be exploited fast enough. This is what Civilization has done for most of its existence: perfecting exploitation for the benefit of an elite group of people.
Deviate and We Retaliate
The Dongria Kondh tribe inspired millions when they won a ‘David and Goliath’ battle against mining giant Vedanta Resources. The tribe vowed to save their Niyamgiri Hills and their self-sufficient way of life.
They believe that their right to cultivate Niyamgiri’s slopes has been conferred on them by Niyam Raja, and that they are his royal descendants. They have expert knowledge of their forests and the plants and wildlife they hold. From the forests they gather wild foods such as wild mango, pineapple, jackfruit, and honey. Rare medicinal herbs are also found in abundance, which the Dongria use to treat a range of ailments including arthritis, dysentery, bone fractures, malaria and snake bites.
These people have detailed knowledge of the land they are deeply connected to, like many other indigenous people, such as the Jarawa who have detailed knowledge of plants to eat and use for medicinal properties. However, Jarawa’s neighbors, the Great Andamanese, were brought into the ‘mainstream’ by the British and robbed of their land. They were decimated by disease and are now completely dependent on the government. Alcoholism and diseases such as tuberculosis are rife. These are illnesses that come from a civilized setting not from indigenous ways of life. Go figure!
Are these people “backwards”?
Now the Dongri Kondh lands and lives are under threat again. Their leaders are being harassed by police and imprisoned under false charges. The Dongria feel the government is trying to destroy their community in order to allow mining.
We don’t want to go to the city and we don’t want to buy food. We get it free here. – Malari Pusaka, Dongria Kondh
The Dongria Kondh grow over 100 crops and harvest almost 200 different wild foods, which provide them with year-round, rich nutrition even in times of drought. Life expectancy now is around 60 to 65 years.
Before it was 80 to 90 years. It’s because before [our access to our forest was restricted] we ate tubers, fruits, and other forest products, whereas now the Soliga diet is bad. –Madegowda, Soliga
The Soliga people are another ethnic group of India. Its members inhabit the Biligiriranga Hills and associated ranges in southern Karnataka, mostly in the Chamarajanagar and Erode districts of Tamil Nadu. Many are also concentrated in and around the BR Hills in Yelandur and Kollegal Taluks of Chamarajanagar District, Karnataka.
The Soliga people are one among the few remaining forest-dwelling tribal people in and around the forests in southern India. The forests of BR Hills have held people for time immemorial. Burial sites excavated from several areas nearby date back to 3000 years ago to the Megalithic period. These sites characteristically consist of Dolmens, a circular arrangement of large stones with a central pit, walled off by granite slabs. Although, it is not known if these belong to the ancestors of the present Soliga tribe, having lived here for generations, the Soliga people have an intricate understanding of the flora and fauna.
“You keep talking about this primitive people but I see no development, progress or superiority whatsoever. They think an invisible being gave them the right to rule over land. Isn’t that just backwards?” I’m glad you ask yourself that. It is not like the civilized worship Gods… Well, we do, but it is usually the imported kind because we do love foreign products like that.
No techno? No bueno!
Tribal people’s lives are not static or ‘stuck in the past’ – they adopt new ideas and adapt to new situations just as we all do. It is prejudice to think some peoples are ‘modern’ whilst others are ‘backwards’. This prejudice is used to justify displacing indigenous peoples and push them into the ‘mainstream’ – on the assumption that ‘experts’ know what is best for them.
It’s crazy when these outsiders come and teach us development. Is development possible by destroying the environment that provides us food, water and dignity? You have to pay to take a bath, for food, and even to drink water. In our land, we don’t have to buy water like you, and we can eat anywhere for free. –Lodu Sikaka, Dongria Kondh
Different paths of “development”
One of the wonders of North-East India is an innovative technique developed by villagers to construct bridges and other useful structures out of living aerial roots of rubber (Ficus Elastica) trees. For dozens of years, they train and manipulate the growth of aerial roots, such that with time, they thicken and stiffen and become structural members. Most bridges and structures can be found in Meghalaya state, and lately root bridges were discovered in Nagaland state as well.
In summary, labelling people ‘backward’ or ‘primitive’ is a propaganda strategy. A striking example of this was the argument that mining company Vedanta Resources used to defend the impact that their mine would have on the lives of the Dongria Kondh. The Dongria are united against the mine, they distrust and reject Vedanta’s claim that the company will bring development. Instead the Dongria choose to live their own way of life on their land.
A Vedanta spokesperson said:
‘As enlightened and privileged human beings, we should not try to keep the tribal and other backward people in a primitive, uncared-and-unprovided-for socio-economic environment.’
“In (theft) exchange of their resources we will install our marvelous industrialized food system that provides everyone products with (few) nutrients and (poor) ingredients our body does (not) need?” Sound market logic.
Indigenous peoples’ lands are still being stolen, their rights violated and their futures destroyed. Vital laws protecting their land rights are in constant threat under the flag of progress, the mark of Civilization. Only indigenous people should decide and control what, if any, changes they want in their lives. If living in harmony with the land is ‘backwards’ or ‘primitive’ then perhaps we should step back, listen and observe what is happening around us. We might be surprised what we will find when we look back on the destruction left behind by the “progress of civilization.”
“””Conservation””” by ecofascist organizations such as the WWF is also a recurring pretext to displace local/indigenous peoples in the global south. One of their “projects” just had its EU funding cut off because of this.
Saying that indigenous people are “backward” or need to be rescued is not necessarily racist, though it might be that also. It’s ethnocentric. The reason that this difference is important is that if the only complaint against civilized people for saying those things about indigenous people is that the civilized people are racist and the civilized people can show that they’re not, they win the argument. Being ethnocentric in this regard has much greater negative implications for the Earth than merely being racist, not that racism is at all OK. And it’s actually the opposite of what civilized people claim: many if not most hunter-gatherers are the most mentally and spiritually advanced people on Earth by far. Modern humans are DEvolved in those ways, and we’re the ones who are backward and need to be rescued, though more accurately and more important, the Earth and everything on it need to be rescued from us.
This essay is spot on as far as it goes, but it’s totally anthropocentric and doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. With 8,000 people, the Dongri Kondh are clearly overpopulated, and overpopulation is India’s biggest problem by far. Any discussion of environmental/ecological issues in India must address overpopulation in order to have any legitimacy, as that is by far the overriding environmental/ecological issue in that country.
Biocentric concerns are for wildlife and ecosystems, and human concerns are totally secondary. In India we should be primarily concerned with tigers, forests, and elephants, for example. So while the Dongri Kondh don’t do near as much harm as industrial civilization, they’re still overpopulated agriculturalists taking up far too much land, killing native plants in order to plant their crops, etc. Holding the Dongri Kondh up as an example of what is good & right is like doing so for Democrats because they’re supposedly not as bad as Republicans. If you want to hold up people as shining examples of what we should be striving for, use hunter-gatherers as that example, not overpopulated agriculturalists.
@Jeff Which leads us to one of the most pressing and controversial questions of the last few centuries: how do we reduce our population in a humane and democratic way with everyone having an equal say in the matter? China’s example is one of how not to do it. I’ve yet to hear of route out of our growing overpopulation which doesn’t involve a few white, wealthy people telling the rest of the world to stop having the sizes of family it wants to. Perhaps you could outline your plan.
You didn’t ask me, but here’s the only thing capable of reducing human population in a humane and democratic way: give women full and absolute reproductive autonomy. Whenever women do have the choice, they tend to choose fewer children.