Last week, the president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, criticised what he saw as the failed attempts to assimilate tribal communities into mainstream society. The self-appointed global representative of indigenous populations, Survival International (SI), was quick to seize upon Mukherjee’s speech. This was a chance, as SI saw it, to promote its ‘proud not primitive’ campaign. SI asserted that tribal peoples, including the specific object of Mukherjee’s speech, the Jarawa community of the Andaman and Nicobar islands, should be viewed not as backward but as exemplary.
SI professes to support tribal peoples’ right to live on their own terms, but that’s not what’s really going on. Instead, SI is treating tribal people as mere props in its own crusade against modern life. It is projecting its own present-day anxieties about obesity, consumption, wealth and the environment on to tribal peoples.
SI’s ‘proud not primitive’ campaign was launched in India late last year to challenge prejudice against tribal peoples and their way of life. According to the campaign, ‘tribal peoples are not stuck in the past but have every reason to be proud of the self-sufficient and sustainable ways of life they have developed over generations’. The aim of the campaign is to ‘change the way tribal people are viewed’ as backward or needing development. ‘Is development possible by destroying the environment that provides us with food, water and dignity?’, a tribal man is cited as saying. According to SI, ‘studies have shown that tribal people on their own land are some of the happiest in the world’.
Despite making such claims, SI doesn’t really tell us anything about tribal peoples. Rather, what the ‘proud not primitive’ campaign really showcases are the prejudices and preoccupations that underpin the work of various Western and Indian do-gooders, activists, advocacy groups and NGOs. SI is effectively peddling all the ideas that have become so fashionable in the past two decades: small-scale subsistence living, organic food, basic-needs thinking… It’s all there, topped off, of course, by the ‘poor but happy’ argument that justifies keeping tribes in their impoverished place.
These ideas are now also enshrined in international development policy and practice – as one look at the websites and projects of the UK government’s Department for International Development or charities such as Oxfam and Action Aid will tell you. So when SI uses terms such as ‘sustainable’ and ‘self-sufficient’ to describe tribal life, it is really attributing its own ideas of development to groups that happen to depend on nature for mere survival. For instance, tribal people living in forests directly depend on leaves, fruit and herbs to survive. It is not a conscious lifestyle choice arising from a desire to be healthy, or to live sustainably. Yet what is probably a boring and hard life for these groups is dressed up as ‘healthy living’ by SI. It even warns that a change in lifestyles and diet could cause obesity. Imagine the horror of switching from roots and berries to evil processed food!