Saving threatened habitats worldwide

The Noble Savage myth lives on

22 September, 2010 - 09:25 -- John Burton

Over the last few decades I have travelled extensively and, as a conservationist, I am often told that the indigenous peoples of the world are the guardians of nature, they live in harmony with nature, they have incredible knowledge of botany and a myriad other things.

It is all part of the myth of the Noble Savage going right back in history into the 18th century and even earlier. Unfortunately the facts often have as much similarity with reality as do the stories of Black Cats on Bodmin Moor. Undoubtedly some indigenous communities do have some knowledge of botany. They also have a lot of bunkum, just as western 'alternative' medicine does. Some communities do live in a vague sort of harmony -- that is until they get hold of chainsaws and guns. And some do have very sincere concerns about the future of the environment they live in.

Indigenous Community in the Chaco

Indigenous Community in the Chaco

Unfortunately almost all that is known about indigenous communities comes via interpreters -- either social anthropologists or evangelical missionaries -- both of which have their own agendas.

The agendas of the Missionaries are fairly obvious and transparent -- if you don't know what they are I suggest you visit the New Tribes Mission website , and there you will see a pretty extreme version -- their ambition is to wipe out all cultures and replace it with an American capitalist view of the world, based on fundamentalist Christian 'ethics' with a vengeful god at its centre.

The social anthropologists are a very different, much more complex group. Individually, I have huge respect for almost all of them that I have met. The problem is that almost inevitably, however good their intentions are, they end up isolating indigenous communities from the outside world.  But they are not actually offering these communities real choices, they are in effect dooming them to being stuck in a time warp, with the worst of both worlds -- the huntergathers they were, and the westernised communities they might become.

Of course the anthropologists  will all rise up and scream at me, that this is totally untrue, and not their intention. But the fact remains that, based on my personal observations of indigenous communities in South America (and other parts of the world), once they have had any contact at all, they all live in varying degrees of squalor, usually dependent on food and medical aid, and have almost all adopted varying degrees of westernisation. The latter ranges from cast-off clothing and shoes, to satellite dishes and TV.

I wonder if the supporters of indigenous rights based in Europe and North America would be so keen on supporting the NGOs who keep these people living in such conditions, would be very happy if they had seen any of the villages that I have seen. This all sounds very simplistic, and I am also the first to recognise that what I have just written is very negative, and possibly not even very helpful. The problem is that these communities would not be easily integrated into society at large, even if they wanted to; in many of the places where they exist there is significant overt racism when they do try integration, and even where racism is not overt there is signifiant discrimination in a wide range of ways.

It is, to me very depressing, as I do not see any easy solutions.  It is a situation where we are damned if we do anything, and we are damned if we don't do anything. Even raising these issues, bringing them into the open is likely to bring down a hail of criticism on me.  But if me writing about it was to bring forth any sensible suggestions for ways forward, then it will have achieved something that has not happened in many places ever before. We need to find a way where indigenous communities can live with dignity in the modern world and make  informed choices about their future.

If we have never managed to deal with the Gypsy or Roma issues in Europe -- where they are a similarly marginalised group of people --- are European and American NGOs the best to advise other indigenous and marginalised groups?

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