IT IS OFTEN comfortable for ‘developed’ countries to compartmentalise other cultures, because it ensures that they are of no threat to our own. So ‘tribal people’ are sometimes relegated to the ‘primitive’ compartment and can be safely ignored as an anachronism which will last until they are absorbed into the dominant culture.

The arrogance of the dominant culture believes that it is just a matter of time until Indigenous peoples realise the benefits of ‘civilisation’ that we all take for granted: reading and writing, material comfort, equality, freedom, democracy, health and education.

We assume that reading and writing are essential for a successful life, and indeed they are –within our culture. But is it necessarily so? The Incas and the Aztecs built huge empires with no need for the written word. Were those empires inherently the poorer for the lack of writing – or just different?

The Indians of the Amazon, the Baka of the Congo, and the Austronesians of Papua New Guinea are under pressure to adopt the written word, encouraged by people with the best of intentions, bent on helping them resist the pressures from the encroaching dominant culture. But what are they giving up? What is the cost of adopting pen and paper? What damage can it do to the Indigenous culture?

The founder of Indigenous People’s Cultural Support Trust, Emily Burridge, took a Xavante Indian to a university course in Brazil when the community asked for her help to re-learn the use of medicinal plants. Their knowledge had been eroded by years of dependence on pharmaceutical medicines dispensed by missionaries. Sturridge took one of the Xavante to the Federal University of Ceará, where there was an expert on medicinal plants.

The course was practical, and involved hours spent in the medicinal plant garden, examining, picking and analysing the properties of the plants. The group included Brazilian university students who scribbled assiduously in their notebooks, recording the professor’s every word. A day or two later, when they returned to plants they had examined, the professor asked if anyone could tell him about them. The students ruffled through their notebooks, but the Xavante was immediately able to recall the professor’s words of wisdom. The Brazilians were dumbfounded, and began to show a little more respect.

Anthropologists researching family relationships in Indian communities with no written records ask people to tell them about their families. It is not uncommon for people to recall the names and familial relationships of over a thousand individuals. There are very few people in our society who can remember this amount of information. We have lost the ability.

Some of the things tribal communities adopt from the mainstream bring undeniable benefits. With their cultural self-confidence under constant attack from the undermining pressures of the outside world, they are turning to our technology to reinforce and record their traditions, and to protect themselves. For instance, the Kuikuro Indians of the Xingu Indigenous Park make videos, some of which have been shown at international film festivals. Throughout the region other tribes, many of whom speak entirely different languages, view these productions with relish. They help enormously to counterbalance the insidious and beguiling power of mainstream television.

The government’s enforcement policies in the Amazon are notoriously underfunded and ineffective, so it falls to the Indians to police their own areas. This is where modern technology can assist in protecting boundaries of reserves by, for instance, communicating over huge distances using short-wave radio. Moreover, in order to place invasions by ranchers and loggers accurately, the Indians are turning to the use of GPS satellite systems, so that they are able to give precise co-ordinates to the national environment agency and the Federal Police, who are then forced to take action.

In some areas the use of modern technology is inescapable. The villages of the Xingu Indigenous Park now rely entirely on wells for their water, because pollution from the farms and settlements on the headwaters has made the river water unsafe to drink. The government health department installs the wells, which use a pump powered by solar panels to fill a storage tank in each village.

There still remain a few so-called uncontacted groups of Indians in Brazil, but in general the tribal communities nowadays have embraced communication with other groups, and with the mainstream. It is vital for them to communicate efficiently so that they are in a stronger position to protect their interests. In the Xingu Indigenous Park, and in the neighbouring Kayapó area to the north, for instance, there are groups trying to set up Indigenous community radio stations.

These are just a few examples of the ways in which tribal cultures are evolving. These cultures are not anachronisms, fossilised in time. They are living, vibrant cultures, and like all such are subject to continuous change. They are societies made up of thinking, intelligent people, and therefore they have the same human rights that we take for granted, including the right to self-determination.

MANY TRIBAL groups have experienced the big problems that can arise from a skewed exposure to an alien society. For example, during the 1990s some tribes along the Xingu were approached by loggers who were keen to log the valuable trees in their reserves. They ‘paid’ the Indians for access: they built them houses and they gave them crates of Coca-Cola and boxes of biscuits for their celebrations. But they didn’t explain that living in a house of bricks and tiles is different from living in a house of thatch with an earth floor. They didn’t explain the need to clean and maintain the structure, and they didn’t explain that concrete floors hold the dirt while earth floors absorb it. They didn’t tell the Indians about the sugar in the biscuits and the Coca-Cola, and they didn’t give them toothbrushes.

Ten years later the Indians had become dependent on the money from the loggers; they were overweight, with rotten teeth and a rising level of infections related to poor hygiene in their new, unfamiliar domestic environment. They had high blood pressure and rising levels of diabetes. By the time the Brazilian authorities acted – too late – to stop the logging, the Indians were left with nothing. Their brick houses were crumbling, their health had deteriorated, and they had lost the will to hunt and grow food.

They are now in the process of re-learning their old skills. Next to the abandoned brick structures they are building traditional houses, which are much better suited to the Amazon climate, being cool during the day and warm during the night. These houses are easier to maintain and cost only manual labour, since they are built entirely from local materials collected in the forest.

Because the Indians’ tastes, needs and desires have changed, they now need some income. They are looking for ways to earn it by growing produce and by sustainably extracting materials from the forest. Some of the people they sell their products to exploit them mercilessly, but there are several Brazilian non-governmental organisations and a few international partners who are introducing ideas such as organic certification, Forest Stewardship Council approval, and fair trade relationships. This ensures that the community derives the best possible benefit from their products, and that the income comes in a way that doesn’t undermine the nature of their culture, bringing benefits to the community as a whole as well as to the individuals preparing the product.

FIFTY YEARS AGO it was widely accepted that the best way to help tribal communities was to educate them in the ways of the mainstream so that they would not simply be dumped on the bottom rungs of society at large. It was assumed that they would eventually be absorbed into the surrounding culture.

Today some individuals from tribal societies do make the decision to join the mainstream, and it is their right to do so. But many of the 2,000 tribal people who have passed through Brazilian universities decide to return to their communities and help to reinforce their cultures, their traditions and their communal self-confidence. It is their right to make those decisions, and it is their right to reverse them later, if they realise that the glitz and materialism of mainstream culture offer less than the mutual support, structured society and cultural identity of their ancestral communities.

This recognition of a separate, parallel way of life gives great hope for the future. There are difficulties in finding the basis for peaceful co-existence, especially when national governments are under pressure to exploit the natural resources held in Indigenous reserves and territories. But at least today’s attitudes to Indigenous people are moving away from the arrogant politics of cultural annihilation.

As we become more aware of the multitude of reasons to maintain the standing forests, it becomes more pressing to support these tribal cultures. A casual glance at satellite photographs of the Amazon reveals a simple truth: where there are Indigenous people, there is forest; if the Indians leave or lose their culture, the chainsaws and bulldozers will move in and the forests will fall. •

Patrick and Sue Cunningham are trustees of Indigenous People’s Cultural Support Trust, which supports tribal people through small projects designed to strengthen their cultural integrity and their self-sufficiency.