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Ann Bradley

Why envy Yanomami Indians?

Compared to the life of a regular commuter on the Victoria Line, it seems Amazonian Indians have a pretty good time. Not for them endless delays on a decrepit transport system, choking pollution and worries about inflation and unemployment. According to the literature of Survival, a campaign for the rights of tribal peoples, the Amazonian Indians enjoy a balanced, ecologically sound existence. The implication is that we should be so lucky.

The Yanomami of Brazil have no equivalent to the stresses, strains and deprivations of inner-city life. According to Survival they 'live well in comfortable dwellings; warm at night and cool in the day. They have a varied and healthy diet. They live in a close community where loneliness is unknown. And they do it all on three or four hours work a day and have plenty of time for their children, philosophy and religion'.

It sounds great, and from the pictures in the Survival campaign brochure, not only do they live an idyllic existence but they look idyllic too. The pictures of honey-skinned beautiful people playing with their bright-eyed children are enough to prompt even the most hardened Eurocentric to draw a deep breath and exclaim 'ahhhh wouldn't it be lovely to live like that?'

And, of course, in one sense it would. If the Indian peoples' lot was as shown in the Survival campaign literature - an island of self-sufficiency and natural harmony in the middle of a cold cruel sea of progress, civilisation and domination - life would be sweet. But the reality for most tribal people is rather more bitter.

As tribal life goes the Yanomami have struck lucky. Their way of life hasn't developed or progressed, because they've been able to get by as they are. They live in a fertile area which is naturally rich in wildlife. Until recently there has not been a 'struggle' for survival nor a problem of scarce resources.

Anthropologists marvel at the lack of selfishness and the communal spirit of the Yanomami, but in truth, if resources are plentiful, generosity doesn't represent a sacrifice. Circumstances allow the Yanomami to be 'good-natured', 'welcoming' and 'selfless'. Life for most tribal people is rather different - a constant battle against starvation and deprivation.

But even the supposed benefits of Yanomami life over our own technological rat race depend on your point of view. When you're stuck on the tube between Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Circus in the rush hour, Yanomami life seems good. If you need your appendix whipped out, or your dental cavities filled, I'd lay money that a Brazilian rainforest would not be your chosen place of residence.

Survival claim that 'there is nothing superior about our way of life. Tribal people have their own technology, their own medical systems...and they work well. If they didn't they would change them'. I doubt if a Yanomami woman with an ectopic pregnancy would hold to that.

It's fashionable these days to stand in awe of the 'natural way of life'. The Survival literature wonders at the fact that tribal peoples 'get all their food, medicines, building materials and spiritual meaning from what is around them'. The truth is that they don't have any choice! Trendy Europeans and Americans may choose to reject the material way of life and 'turn to nature', but these people have never had a choice. And while rich Westerners can go back to the Hilton even if they choose not to, the tribal peoples have no means to opt into another way of life.

I think Fiona Watson, Survival's Brazil campaign officer, has got one hell of a cheek to write disapprovingly that 'sadly not all Yanomami groups have been able to resist encroaching white society'. Why exactly is she so horrified that in one area 'some of the Yanomami have slung their hammocks around the stilts supporting the abandoned [government agency] post'? Perhaps it makes it harder for her to get picturesque photos. Fiona believes we should protect the Yanomami from the advances of civilisation by declaring their lands a national park where their culture could be preserved. It sounds like a human zoo to me.

The hard truth is that, whether we value them or not, you can't preserve cultures in the way that you can preserve jam. The Yanomami, even if they wish to, cannot remain isolated from the world system. Even if they have no interest in going into the developed world, the developed world will come to them.

Already capitalist development is having its effect on tribal people. Over the last 20 years an increasing number of gold and tin miners have moved into Yanomami's lands bringing diseases and infections to which they have no immunity. Waste from the mining processes have poisoned the water supplies and the noise and disruption of the mining itself has scared away the animals which the tribal peoples hunt.

Contact with other cultures necessarily challenges the views of primitive peoples. As they face new problems to which tradition has no answer, so the tradition is itself discredited. Change is inevitable, and I think desirable. Why should we keep the benefits of penicillin and antibiotics to ourselves?

My argument with the current method of industrialisation of the third world is that it fails to bring about civilisation or progress. The industrialised world uses countries like Brazil as a source of raw materials and cheap labour. What the Western nations call development has in fact been the systematic denial of any pattern of development that could benefit the indigenous populations of third world countries.

Survival's literature calls on us to 'stop civilisation and progress'. I'd say that capitalism is doing a pretty good job of stopping civilisation and progress all by itself.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 42, April 1992

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