Brazil's National Indian Policy

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Imagine for
a moment that, hovering just off of planet earth, there is a fleet
of alien spacecraft. The ships are stocked with all of the fantasies
of science fiction: cures for every disease encountered on earth,
nano-robots that can maintain our bodies and allow individuals to
live for millennia, production technology that makes toil a thing
of the past, and replication machines that turn refuse into food.
Yet, for now, the aliens do not allow humans to know of their presence
— and thus, we remain in (what would be to them) extreme poverty.

Something like
this was proposed in the science fiction film Star
Trek VIII: First Contact
. Aliens close to Earth withhold
contact because, in the Star Trek universe, the federation of advanced
races function under the principle of "non-interference."
Space travel at faster-than-light speeds is considered a major evolutionary
breakthrough — something very few species achieve. To ensure that
only civilizations worthy of intergalactic secrets are given the
federation’s technology, they wait until after a race accomplishes
this feat before making first contact. Thus goes the fantasy world
of Star Trek, where alien government is given a God’s-eye view of
evolution and acts with a purpose far greater than anything an inferior
race could comprehend.

Let’s return
to the spaceships sitting a few thousand miles from Earth’s surface,
and suppose that they have no such epic mission, and that they do
not abide by the principle of "non-interference." Instead,
it is merely their preference to sit in the security of their ships
while observing and documenting our struggles. Their rationale?
To "protect" us from technology that might ruin our antiquated
way of life. Out of scientific curiosity — and perhaps with some
nostalgia for the "old way" of rampant famine, pestilence,
and war — they allow us to continue life as we know it on this world
while they enjoy the greatest of comforts technology affords.

Could anyone
conclude that such a race has truly acted in humanity’s best interests?
Of course, it would be within the aliens’ rights to do what they
wished with their property, but could anyone accept the arrogant
claim that they knew what was best for humans and acted only for
our betterment?

One
doesn’t need to imagine stingy aliens in order to observe this kind
of hubris. Brazil’s National Indian Foundation recently released
photographs (taken by a fly-over plane) of uncontacted, isolated
Indian tribes. The man who released the photos initially claimed
that it was a previously undiscovered, or "lost," tribe.
He later admitted that he had lied about the "undiscovered"
part, using the photos as a publicity
stunt
.

The dishonest
campaign raises interesting questions about how the Brazilian government
is handling its Indian population. Although anthropologists have
known about these tribes for decades — and in this case since 1910
— the Brazilian government has actively worked to isolate the Indians
from the outside world rather than make contact or allow others
to do so. For what purpose and by what authority they do this is
a concern that few question, but that everyone should.

Perhaps the
Brazilian government believes that, like the federation in Star
Trek, theirs is the power over determining when and where people
may be exposed to the benefits of modern tools, medicine, or technology.
It’s too late to stop ordinary people from having access to these
things, but these Indians are in the unique position of not knowing
what is just beyond their borders. Thus the National Indian Foundation,
seeing the natives more as subjects in a sociological experiment
than as people, may posture themselves as benevolent protectors
of a way of life — surrogate tribe leaders, as is it were.

We must remember
that, to millions of people in the developed world, including many
anthropologists, Indians living deep in the Amazonian rain forest
are seen as living the high life. They are emblematic of better
times: heroic torch-bearers of a lifestyle and tradition long-lost
in the white, Western world. And, like any relic of the past, their
primitive culture has an intrinsic value that is worth preserving
and protecting, especially from the overwhelmingly commercial (that
is, capitalist) impulses of Western society. It is only an arrogant,
uninformed Westerner who would seek to trade or donate clothes,
medicines, or metal tools to these people. (Much different than
Africa, of course, where no amount of government tax revenue and
no degree of intervention is too great to send as aid.)

So many have
this remarkably romantic picture of the Indians’ lives, and the
very thought of initiating contact makes their blood boil. We need
hardly address this sentiment as though it constitutes an argument,
however. Implicit in the romanticizing is the notion that the Indians
themselves would share this view if they were given the choice.
Should we conclude that it is only a coincidence that every society
on the face of the planet with the freedom to improve their material
well-being has chosen to do so?

Yet these apologists
for the primitive life are so confident in their judgment that the
thought of forcefully isolating thousands of people under such conditions
seems perfectly rational and fine. One must wonder just why those
who find the simple life so captivating nevertheless pursue decidedly
modern lives, while insisting that the Indians remain in their native
condition.

Nostalgia aside,
those who defend the Brazilian government’s actions typically present
two further arguments against allowing contact and exchange. The
first objection raised is the vile history of Western-Indian interaction
in the last six centuries, and the inference that further contact
will only produce the same. Second, they point to the Indians’ own
behavior as evidence that they wouldn’t want outside contact, even
if it were allowed.

The first objection
bears with it a great deal of emotion and shame. The history of
Indian-European interaction is undeniably wretched, and no spin
on history can exonerate the grave injustices committed in the name
of God, government, and ideals. Exploitation is a serious problem
that has characterized contact with Native Americans since Columbus
first landed in the West Indies.

Yet one fact
we must never forget is that historical problems are descriptive,
not prescriptive. One of the chief aims in studying history is to
learn from past mistakes by changing future behavior. There is no
denying that many horrific things were done to unsuspecting and
innocent peoples. But any freedom-loving person should deny the
implicit claim that any further contact must also be that way. Interaction
can and should be different. It is entirely possible to make contact,
trade, and engage in cultural exchange without coercion and exploitation.

It must also
be noted here that most of the horrific Western-Indian interaction
in history has been at the hands of governments and their armies.
For example, the United States government is most responsible for
the ill-treatment of natives on the North American continent, with
the U.S. Army having annihilated most of every tribe west of the
Mississippi river.1 The worst of the conquistadors
who brutalized Central America were likewise sent on behalf of their
monarchs with a license to kill and plunder. Spain and Portugal
divided South America on a map — as if they had a right to do so!
— and then sent their armies to subdue their respective pieces of
the continent.

Those with
an historical perspective ought to be most skeptical when
a State volunteers to guide Western-Indian interaction, not
when missionaries or traders look to make contact. No government
apologist should get a free pass here: for what reason can the State
be trusted, especially if we are so adamant that history be our
guide? For what reason should we assume that Brazil truly has the
Indians’ interest at heart? Withholding all contact, including technology
sure to improve the quality of life, hardly seems like the only
obvious answer.

The second
objection that isolation-defenders raise is to point out that the
Indian tribes themselves are quite hostile to outsiders, including
many instances where unwelcome trespassers have been killed. The
argument is that the Indians have acted on their own and have made
their wishes clear: Stay away!

On the surface,
this argument appears to make use of principles acceptable to libertarians.
It is no business of mine whether an Indian living deep in Brazil’s
rain forests wishes to have nothing to do with me or my luxuries
and technology. If they wish to be left alone, it is their right
to be left alone.

However, it
is always grave mistake to equate public policy with choices made
by real human beings. Policies outlive people and their preferences.
The government has no legitimate gauge that can responsibly determine
the Indians’ preferences, and it does not actively seek their input.
Whatever data that first caused them to insulate the tribe now speaks
for them, regardless of how the people themselves might otherwise
respond.

Perhaps those
Indians photographed living deep in the rain forest would prefer
to remain isolated and alone if they knew what the outside world
contained. But perhaps not. It is possible that, after overcoming
initial suspicion, the natives would welcome medicines that could
cure simple (but deadly) diseases. Mothers might appreciate the
dramatic drop in infant mortality rates, as they find themselves
with healthier and stronger babies. Those producing tools might
find some benefit in having metal machetes or farming equipment.
Life expectancies could easily increase by years. More children
will know their fathers and even grandfathers, times of hunger become
largely a thing of the past, and disease could be nearly eradicated.

As it stands
we simply do not know what the people themselves prefer, but it
is perfectly reasonable to think that they might welcome and embrace
modern technology and the relief and luxury it can bring.

My point is
not that anyone must accept technological change, but only that
no one should be deprived of their freedom to pursue it. Those opposing
free markets have long complained that an evil rich man might buy
all of the land around your house and prevent you from going anywhere
or seeing anyone, but this is precisely what the Brazilian government
has done to the Indians. Brazil’s illegitimate land-grab has created
the illusion that they are justified in telling everyone to stay
away. All the more heroic, then, will be those anthropologists,
missionaries, or entrepreneurs who disobey the State’s decrees and
seek peaceful contact and exchange with the natives.

Those who are
in love with the primitive lifestyle need to realize how violent
their own fetishes are when applied to other people without their
consent. Basic human freedom and dignity dictates that we have the
right to free association, with all of its risks included. Anyone
who desires to live the primitive life has only to go live it. And
if the Indian tribes are as anxious to stay pre-industrialized as
their surrogate tribe leaders say they are, they have only to remain
that way. But it is only when we allow men their freedom and dignity
that they can make such a choice.

  1. For a well-written,
    if somewhat romantic, history of the West, see Dee Brown’s book
    Bury
    My Heart at Wounded Knee
    .
    Take special notice of the U.S. Army’s involvement in “keeping
    the peace.”

July
10, 2008

Daniel
Coleman [send him mail]
is a freelance editor who lives in Annapolis, Maryland. He spends
his free time conversing with friends about libertarianism and Thomist
philosophy.

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