Wade Davis Defends the Indigenous

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I’m a big fan of history, authentic history that’s unshackled from bias. I like knowing what really happened, when and how, and the lessons we can draw from history, lest we repeat its follies. Sometimes, though, history is like lining up for my morning cod liver oil as a child, good for me, but awful tasting stuff I want desperately to spit out, especially when learning of our continuing abuse of indigenous people, not only in America, but worldwide.

In North America, where I live, our crimes against native peoples comprise an unparalleled holocaust even by WWII’s blood-curdling horror show of 10 million Jews, Slavs, and Roma slaughtered in Nazi death camps. It began even before the notorious Indian Removal Act (1830), ordering Indians east of the Mississippi to move westward. Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence decries the Indians as “savages.”

Just how many indigenous people lived in North America, not including Mexico and Central America, prior to 1492, is a calculated estimate at best. The consensus, however, led by scholars Russell Thornton and David Stannard, poses a reasonable estimate of 7 million, with 75 million in the Western Hemisphere at large (see Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987; David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). 

Thornton thinks that of some 5 million indigenous peoples within today’s continental United States, the vast majority were decimated by disease, starvation, forced labor, relocation, alcoholism, declining birthrates, and genocide. By 1900, that number had dwindled to 250,000. Of the 75 million indigenous in the Western Hemisphere, an estimated 70 million have perished consequent with European colonization since 1492.

Anthropologist explorer and advocate of indigenous interests, Wade Davis, wrote a definitive account of their plight, worldwide, in his 2001 book, Light at the Edge of the World: a Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures. It navigates, in particular, the pressures of modern civilization on ancient ways of life, harboring unique wisdom acquired over thousands of years of living in close contact with the natural world.

Wade explores several cultures, among them, Borneo’s Penan, northern Kenya’s pastoral nomads, and, tragically, the fate of Tibet and the coerced extinction of an ancient way of life. His book concludes with a model of hope in Canada’s designated vast homeland for the Inuit, Nunavut.

Passionate and eloquent, Wade delivers a salient polemic for doing everything we can to preserve these ancient cultures with their unique ways of imagining the human experience.

In our ethnocentrism, we may dismiss these cultures devoid of modern amenities as anachronisms, their loss of no consequence, perhaps even desirable: cessation of inter-tribal violence, improved health, social equity, education and employment options, etc.

Wade argues persuasively that when these unique societies fade, their former constituents most frequently find themselves adrift, subject to discrimination and poverty. He gives many examples such as the sad aftermath of the 1956 evangelical missionary intrusion of the Waorani, or Auca, habitat in remote Ecuador, its culture vanquished and displaced tribespeople reduced to menial labor in a modern landscape.

Space is crucial in positing who we are. When lost or compromised, we become adrift, flotsam in a larger current, severed from what conferred identity. This has also been the fate of Native Americans at large.

Spatial encroachment seems everywhere now, accelerated by corporate interests, technology, and human indifference. 98.9% of historical indigenous lands in North America have been lost since 1492 (environment.yale.edu). It continues unabated worldwide: Central America, the Amazon forest, Africa, where logging, mining, dam construction, oil drilling, pipe line installation and agribusiness, the foremost instigator, exact their toll upon historically indigenous land.

An estimated 370 million indigenous live in 90 countries and are notoriously abused. They exist as 5,000 distinct peoples, speaking 4,000 languages. 70% percent of the indigenous live in Asia.

Did you know that indigenous life expectancy is 20 years less than the rest of us? Or that comprising five percent of the world’s population, they’re 15% of the world’s impoverished?

We do a lot of talking about climate change, but how many of us realize the environment’s greatest defenders are the indigenous?

Occupying 25% of the world’s surface, they are guardians of “80% of its remaining biodiversity and 40 per cent of all terrestrial protected areas and ecologically intact landscapes” (Amnesty International).

20% of the world’s tropical carbon forest is stored in indigenous lands: the Amazon, Central America, Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of Congo (worldbank.org).

What’s more, their demise poses a visceral loss to all of us in the forfeiture of a unique diversity, reducing the world to a “monochromatic world of monotony,” Wade writes.

Tragically, in the last fifty years we have witnessed not only the loss of 1 million species of inestimable value to the biosphere upon which our existence depends, but the uniqueness and wisdom of cultures from which we can learn much to ameliorate our own. The parallel fate of these cultures, despite the UN’s passage of the Indigenous Bill of Rights, poses one of the urgent issues of our time.

Worldwide, some 300 million people, roughly 5 per cent of the global population, still retain a strong identity as members of an indigenous culture, rooted in history and language, attached by myth an memory to a particular place on the planet. Though their populations are small, these cultures account for 60 per cent of the world’s languages and collectively represent over half of the intellectual legacy of humanity. Yet, increasingly, their voices are being silenced, their unique visions of life itself lost in a whirlwind of change and conflict.

Wade argues that the loss of language diversity, in particular, underscores the accelerating demise of ethnosphere diversity through loss of habitat, acculturation and assimilation:

Of the more than two thousand languages in New Guinea, five hundred are each spoken by fewer than five hundred people. Of the 175 Native languages still alive in the United States, 55 are spoken by fewer than ten individuals.

….each language is, in itself, an entire ecosystem of ideas. and intuitions, a watershed of thought, an old-growth forest of the mind. Each is a window into a world, a monument to the culture that gave it birth, and whose spirit it expresses.

I’m very receptive to Wade. I’ve long been a student of culture. Wade’s book continues that interest and I recommend it, and all his books, as a collective, informed defense of the right of indigenous communities to a way of life, often superior to our own; the interplay of gathered insight through intimacy with Nature in its many vicissitudes.

I believe strongly in the gifts diversity confers, every culture a contributing chapter in the human narrative. Any diminishment of the ethnosphere consequent with cultural leveling alarms me. I believe it constitutes cultural genocide, whether by intent or omission.

Climate change is today’s most ardent threat to indigenous peoples, their ecosystems, upon which they depend for subsistence, vanishing rapidly as increasing temperatures; a greater suspectability to illness via vector borne and water borne diseases; drought; forest fires; and desertification exponentially occur.

In Northern climes, the Inuit, for example, are now facing a potential hunger crisis consequent with melting glaciers, rising seas, and diminished wildlife; on tropical islands, storms of increasing velocity occurrence and rising seas menace as never before.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees informs us that there presently exist 37 million climate refugees, a disproportionate 15% of whom are indigenous peoples.

I find this an unfolding tragedy. Indigenous tribes have been stalwart stewards of the biosphere from whom we can learn, but conversely set upon by agriculture expansion, logging, and mining interests. Activists have been murdered, most recently, journalist Dom Philips and indigenous advocate, Bruno Pereira in Brazil. Pereira had been investigating criminal activity within the Amazonian indigenous reserve of the Javari Valley. Philips was there to document.

In 2020, Frontline Defenders reported that at least 331 human rights activists, mostly in Central and South America were murdered, 69% of whom were defending indigenous lands. Between 2017 and 2020, 25% of those murdered were indigenous, who comprise only 5% of the world’s population. In 2021, a known 33 indigenous people were killed.

As I write, photos of many of indigenous victims lie before me, a good number of them women along with their children. I can give you country by country analysis of the continuing bloodbath, with governments such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro indifferent to the crisis and the perpetrators remaining free.

Unfortunately, the indigenous often live in areas most vulnerable to climate change: the Arctic’s Inuit, Scandinavia’s Swami, the Amazon’s Yanomami, for example. Thus, their ardent defense of their diminishing environment made worse by exploiters.

Their demise poses an incalculable loss for all of us. Wade, with his typical acuity, summarizes its meaning well:

The ultimate tragedy is not that archaic societies are disappearing but rather that vibrant, dynamic, living cultures and languages are being forced out of existence. At risk is a vast archive of knowledge and expertise, a catalogue of the imagination, an oral and written literature composed of the memories of countless elders and healers, warriors, farmers, fishermen, midwives, poets and saints. In short, the artistic, intellectual and spiritual expression of the full complexity and diversity of the human experience.

Indigenous People’s Day will be observed October 10, 2022 in the U.S. in 26 states as part of a growing movement to replace the traditional Columbus Day.  For me, it’s everyday I remember them, Earth’s guardians, beleaguered and increasingly vanishing along with their sacred habitat. They need your help.

—rj

Review: Paul Collier, Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World

Not long ago, Hillary Clinton controversially summed up Britain’s Brexit morass as essentially about immigration: “Europe needs to get a handle on migration because that is what lit the flame.” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/nov/22/hillary-clinton-europe-must-curb-immigration-stop-populists-trump-brexit

A way of saying that only then can Europe tame the groundswell of white, nativist resentment that has given rise to Donald Trump and Britain’s now confirmed exit from the European Union, January 31, 2020.

Surprisingly, you would think the port city of Dover, robust shipping hub just twenty miles across the Channel from France, would smell a threat to what’s generated its prosperity but, no, it wanted Brexit, voting 62% in favor in 2016’s national referendum.

Except for Britain’s urban centers with their strong diaspora presence, Northern and rural Britain voted decisively in December’s parliamentary election for Boris Johnson’s Tories.

Before the referendum, Britain had seen its Eastern European born population increase four fold between 2004 and 2016. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the number of migrants born in Eastern Europe employed in Britain rose by 49,000 between July and September, 2016, to 1,077,000.

Immigration continues as well from former Commonwealth nations in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. East Asian immigrants alone constituted nearly 4 million in the 2011 census. That same census showed a Black population of 1.9 million.

Some younger movie-goers of Dunkirk ludicrously complained of the film’s lack of diversity, having grown-up in today’s Britain. Britain has vastly changed in its demographics. Like its American cousin, it’s now multicultural.

Obviously, this isn’t without its consequences, the immigration surge sparking widespread indigenous resentment as newcomers, not all of them legal, compete for jobs, housing, and social services. Along with the Netherlands, Britain is already the most densely populated nation in Europe.

Against this backdrop comes Sir Paul Collier’s Exodus: How Migration is Changing Our World (2013). Collier is a well-seasoned, highly regarded Oxford development economist, who has written a number of influential books, including his recent The Future of Capitalism (2018), which Bill Gates included among his five recommended summer reads (2019). Collier, a former World Bank economist, frequently advises government leaders.

This past year, Collier’s book was one of several I pursued on immigration, which Collier argues is analogous to climate change in its centrality and effects, demanding scrupulous and immediate reappraisal.

What’s refreshing is his painstaking, fair-minded, low-key analysis, employing a wide-ranging empirical modality that includes graphs and salient research sources applied to a complex, often emotionally charged issue. He’s unafraid to confront both conservatives and progressives when facts merit frankness or confessing limitation when knowledge forbears on solutions. Migration has both pluses and minuses. Collier appraises both.

For the positive, immigration ameliorates poverty in third world countries, allowing for a diaspora abroad that sends back remittances averaging $1000 annually to families in their former countries.

It rewards young people for their education and skills that contribute to their new homelands.

Host societies garner a steady revenue flow in taxes in a return on education it didn’t have to pay for. (Collier suggests host countries pay back the countries of origin.)

Nationalism needn’t be made synonymous with racism. As Collier sees it, “identifying with a nation has proved to be an extremely powerful way in which people bond.” You might think of it as the family writ large.

This becomes nearly a refrain in the book, the assertion that without the goodwill of the host society, immigration can flounder. Multiculturalism, while conferring stimulating variation, can foster resentment of the outsider who prefers not to assimilate while competing for employment, housing, and social benefits. On the other hand, seeing others as members of the same community fosters acceptance of social and economic equality.

Ironically, it’s the failure of clans in many African nations to integrate into the national fabric that’s played havoc with social stability and economic progress, with local loyalty prioritized over national welfare:

A standard characterization of African political economy is that each clan regards the public purse as a common pool resource to be looted on behalf of the clan.

Migrants from developing nations are largely escaping from dysfunctional social models. That they are poor countries is the net result of that dysfunction:

Functional social models are decisive, but they do not just happen: they are built as a result of decades, and sometimes centuries, of social progress.

Collier cautions that immigration requires continual monitoring. If a diaspora grows disproportionately large, it can deter integration and exacerbate public sentiment.

Large diasporas can even offset point admission criteria in countries like Canada and Australia by way of chain immigration, ultimately leading to less educated and skilled immigrants that may become public charges and increase crime.

While Collier doesn’t advocate discriminatory immigration on the basis of race, he notes that the more culturally distant the immigrants are from the host population, the less likely assimilation will occur. Some may even bring with them the dysfunction of their homeland. Conversely, America’s large Latinx influx has assimilated fairly well, perhaps largely as a result of cultural similarity.

Point systems, in any event, accelerate the flight of those vitally needed to build capital investment and stability that can potentially help developing nations achieve a reasonable prosperity for their people. When the educated and skilled emigrants leave, pervasive incompetence, disregard for rules, and corruption occur, setting in motion imitative behavior.

Nations like Haiti can never catch up. With a 10 million population, it has lost 85% of its educated people. While taking-in large numbers of a poor nation’s intelligentsia may benefit prosperous nations, it has tragic fallout for nations like Haiti.

Meanwhile, many in the West fear not only competition from immigrants, but replacement. As Hillary Clinton astutely observed, “I admire the very generous and compassionate approaches that were taken particularly by leaders like Angela Merkel, but I think it is fair to say Europe has done its part, and must send a very clear message – ‘we are not going to be able to continue provide refuge and support’ – because if we don’t deal with the migration issue it will continue to roil the body politic.”

Collier’s answer is that “for assimilation and fusion to work, there is a need for controls on the rate of migration that are fine-tuned to take into account its composition.” Government policy needs to assess both domestic and homeland impact.

Without monitoring, immigration is likely to rapidly increase with potentially harmful results for both host nations and those left behind in impoverished countries. (In the U. S., low wage undocumented immigrants compete with unskilled indigenous workers, frequently people of color.)

Not everyone will find Collier’s conclusions palatable; for example, his view that educated immigrants might possibly be granted guest worker status, then returned to their homeland as nation builders.

As for “brain drain,” they may argue that Collier exaggerates, with Haiti an isolated example. According to The Guardian, two thirds of government officials in developing countries have studied abroad. Still, how many others leave, never to return? Critics seem to forget that Collier knows his turf as a World Bank economist with expertise in development economics and lived several years in Africa.

Enthusiasts for immigration may find Collier’s analysis rather pessimistic. But this isn’t really the narrative Collier delivers. He attempts a balanced assessment of immigration’s effects on migrants, their host nation, and on those left behind. Who does immigration help? Who does it hurt?

Critics alleging the success of immigrants in Britain curiously ignore Britain and the Continent’s growing unease and incipient popular front resistance to immigrants in France, Germany, Italy and, especially, Hungary and Poland, menacing the European Union. As I suggested at the outset, Brexit resonates Britain’s desire to recover its identity and control its destiny.

I’ve learned so much from Collier’s painstaking analysis of a controversial issue, likely to accelerate like climate change in its immediacy, the latter propelling mind-boggling numbers of climate refugees, particularly from Africa, by century end.

Presently, the U. S. takes-in more than two million immigrants annually, not including millions more through chain immigration and asylum seekers. And then there are the undocumented, now grown to 12 million.

The U. S. also conducts an annual lottery for 55,000 immigrant visas for applicants from countries with low immigration rates to assure diversity. In 2018, 23 million applied.

None of this occurs in a vacuum. Immigration is a complicated issue and done a grave disservice by xenophobic, even racist, conservatives and naive progressives advocating virtually open borders and tax payer supported social benefits for the undocumented.

Collier doesn’t propose he has all the answers and often tells readers when the evidence proves lacking or ambiguous. But I respect his acumen and, even more, his honesty.

As Collier rightly puts it, “The angry debate between xenophobes and “progressives” addresses the wrong question: is migration good or bad? The relevant question for policy is not whether migration has been good or bad overall. Rather, it is the likely effects at the margin should migration continue to accelerate.”
–rj

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