Saving threatened habitats worldwide

The demise of the last noble savages

24 April, 2014 - 10:11 -- John Burton
View of forested hillside.

Bethan John’s article about the threats faced by the Ayoreo community in Paraguay’s Gran Chaco (Defending the Chaco: what’s at stake?) touches on some tricky questions about the rights of indigenous people.

Once upon a time, most of the world was very sparsely populated and hunter-gatherers could roam the wilderness relatively freely. But now, the few remaining groups of hunter-gatherers are squeezed into smaller and smaller areas. These marginalised communities are almost invariably looked down on by their neighbours, and while the international community may see it as right and fair to respect the territorial claims of these peoples, their immediate neighbours only rarely share those sentiments.

A further complication is that in the past, just as with all other territorial mammals with large ranges, the territories of the various groups (tribes) often overlapped, they were often fighting, and rarely agreed who ‘owned’ what territory. This of course allowed the intruders to take advantage of them, and further marginalise the indigenes.

Meanwhile, most international agreements relating to property are drawn up by people based in the so-called developed world where there are widely accepted systems of land ownership, with title to lands firmly entrenched in the legal system. However, such concepts are far from universal, with numerous different systems of land ownership, particularly in Africa, while in socialist countries land is often almost entirely owned by the state. Even in the USA, by far the largest single landowner is the state (or states).

Land rights

Dealing with the issues surrounding indigenous peoples and their rights is a political minefield. This is partly because those rights sometimes appear to be greater than other claims to the territory – and very often the territories over which indigenous rights are claimed, are also subject to other claims. And while indigenous peoples’ rights may be enshrined in various United Nations resolutions and international treaties, on the ground and in national legislation the situation is often very different.

All these contradictions can be seen very clearly in Paraguay. In the Gran Chaco, some of the world’s last remaining groups of uncontacted peoples, numbering perhaps less than 150 people, roam over an area of some three million hectares, moving largely undetected between Paraguay and Bolivia. Their range overlaps that of national parks, as well as privately owned estancias, land set aside for indigenous peoples, and government owned ‘fiscal’ lands. Until recently there was little interest from anyone else in living there. A couple of thousand other indigenous inhabitants, mostly the descendants of those rounded up by the missionaries in the second half of the 20th century, live in near poverty in scattered settlements, still relying on subsistence hunting and limited agriculture.

But in the past few years there has been a dramatic change, with huge areas of the Chaco being opened up for agriculture and livestock ranching. The development of drought resistant varieties of soya and other plants, combined with an excess of wealth in nearby Brazil and Uruguay has led to huge land purchases of Paraguay’s relatively cheap land.

Capitalism at its worst

Anyone flying over Paraguay on a clear day will see vast swathes of the forest clearly marked out for clearance, alongside huge areas are already cleared. In 2013, more than a million acres (half a million hectares) of forest was cleared, and the destruction continues. Meanwhile, land cleared a few years earlier is already showing signs of desertification.

It is a familiar, capitalist economic model. Capital is employed to exploit a resource until it becomes so depleted that is no longer viable; the quicker this takes place the more profit can be made, then that profit can be redeployed to exploit another resource. There is absolutely no reason to conserve the resource if the motive is to maximise financial return in the short term.

In the case of the Chaco the process is as follows: buy cheap land, buy or hire expensive machinery to clear the forest as quickly as possible, stock it with as many cattle as possible, make as much profit as quickly as possible, sell the going concern and move on. Meanwhile all the profits are exported to Brazil and other countries, leaving Paraguay stripped of its assets.

And the greatest losers of all are going to be not only the indigenous people, but all Paraguayans. Their patrimony is being sold overseas.

Indigenous and local

And this raises another interesting issue. What is the difference between the indigenous people living in the Chaco, and the rest of the Paraguayan population? The answer is often relatively little, genetically. The Paraguayan nation is more intermarried with the indigenous communities than almost any other country in South America. This is partly a result of two major bottlenecks in the population when the male population was dramatically reduced in wars.

An overwhelming majority of Paraguayans have native genes in their ancestry. If we were to use the sort of definitions of ‘indigenous’ or ‘native’ as are applied to north American native groups (first nations), then the overwhelming majority of Paraguayans could probably claim native ‘rights’. Which makes it all rather complicated.

And, as already mentioned, the idea of indigenous rights derives from the legal concepts of developed nations. But underneath all these complex arguments there is one simple fact, which is the way I prefer to look at the issue: local people – ie those living locally, rather than those that are necessarily indigenous - are those who should have some sort of stake in the ownership and management of land.

How that ownership occurs needs to be addressed on a case by case basis. The broad sweeping judgements offered by those who advocate ‘indigenous rights’ are not a solution; they are actually likely to worsen the problem in a large number of cases.

Integration versus marginalisation

Having spent a lot of time studying indigenous rights, and how these should be implemented, and what the implications are, I have come to the conclusion that they do not actually exist.

Indigenous rights are a construct of guilt laden developed-world lawyers, who are often using these concepts to further their own careers. Indigenous peoples are almost invariably marginalised, and those apparently standing up for them frequently, though probably unwittingly increase the marginalisation. The reality is that without some degree of integration with the rest of the world, these marginalised groups have absolutely no future, other than that of ‘zoo’ groups, that is, preserved groups of indigenes for the rest of the world to gawp at.

At a personal level, I would love to preserve the Gran Chaco not only for wildlife, but also for the groups of indigenes to live in, but this is clearly unrealistic. One has to ask “Why are these indigenous groups living there in the first place?” And the answer is simple: there was nowhere else for them to go. They are marginalised, and on the edge of society. In the past they would have been subject to tribal warfare, and many would have been eliminated. So is there anything different now? The answer is probably no. But this is rather sad; in the 21st century can we not make room for fringe societies?

So, despite a very strong empathy for the hunter-gatherers living on the fringes of society, I don’t actually see any future for them. Integration is the only answer, but integration without Christian evangelicals preferably. My only concern is that social anthropologists may be almost as evangelical in their own way, as right wing Christian fundamentalists.

Claiming land rights for societies that never understood such concepts is the first step towards an inevitable deculturalisation. And by ‘protecting’ these societies from the outside world, is it really what they want? Are they actually being offered realistic alternatives? When I visited some of the squalid ‘concentration camps’ that the missionaries had created to settle the Chaco Indians, they wanted satellite TV, they wanted their kids to go to school and they wanted health care.

Much as we may despise many facets of our ‘civilisation’, other aspects - the much longer life expectancy, the freedom from hunger, and so on - all have their appeal if you are a marginalised hunter-gatherer. Who are we to exclude them? But then again, if they are given land rights, who is to say they won’t simply sell the land (as other communities have done)? Or build casinos and brothels (which other communities have done)?

I certainly do not know the right answer, but I do know that the politically correct answers are not right either.

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