News from the frontier

“On colonial frontiers, where different and often rival ways of living meet, the underlying elements of our society become more clearly visible …  you can see certain kinds of economic exploitation, aggressive greed, missionary zeal, and racism. All these are disclosed at the edge. What they disclose, of course, is not the edge but the nature of the centre.”

From the Open Democracy interview with anthropologist Hugh Brody.

RainforestWhat do the latest developments at the margins of our society reveal about the nature of its centre?

The UN climate summit in Poznan, Poland has ended with small signs of progress but little genuine ambition for serious change. Its delegates could learn a thing or two from cultures that have been plugged in to natural cycles for thousands of years, who are still so connected that they can tell us what’s changing as fast as the science can, and who, because of where they live, are suffering the worst effects the earliest. Yet our own culture remains determined to treat them with disdain.

The US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand deleted all reference to the rights of indigenous peoples and local communities on the final day of negotiations over the text for a climate scheme that means rich countries pay less industrialised countries to keep their forests intact (the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation scheme, or REDD). This is despite evidence that one of the best ways to protect the rainforest is to protect the rights of the people living in it, and that without such protection, such schemes may cause disruption and suffering to native forest peoples. (You can call for this insanity to be reversed via the Minority Rights Group.)

This act of petulance occurred a day before the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, celebrated by mainstream media with little mention that only 20 countries have signed up to the international law on tribal peoples, whose rights are routinely violated. Survival International reminds us of this and the fact that the existence of many tribal peoples is under ever increasing threat. In Paraguay, the last uncontacted Ayoreo-Totobiegosode are running for their lives as bulldozers raze their forest. In Botswana, the Kalahari Bushmen are being destroyed by a government that denies them access to water but is forging ahead with plans to mine diamonds on their land.

In Australia, the new Rudd government has decided to continue with the controversial programme of ‘intervention’ in the Northern Territories. This is designed in principle to prevent sexual abuse of Aboriginal children and to implement strategies to improve their health and living standards. It is widely criticized, however, for failing to provide evidence for some of its claims, failing to deliver on its promises of treatment, counselling and facilities, using its claims to take back control of aboriginal lands with a view to their lucrative uranium mining potential, undermining cultural institutions and traditions, and deploying a draconian approach to ensuring acquiescence, which includes a major police presence and docking welfare from families who do not comply with conditions.

How ugly must our dead centre be, if it cannot help but express these levels of greed, arrogance, self-aggrandisement and heartlessness elsewhere? How riddled with fear and cowardice to invest so much effort into coercing those who live differently to conform to the ways of the colonizing culture? How narcissistic, to need so deeply to remould them in our image?

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