Asmat man, Papua.
Asmat man, Papua.
© Jeanne Herbert/Survival

An article by Survival International’s director, Stephen Corry, published in one of the UK’s leading newspapers, slams the use of terms like ‘primitive’ and ‘stone age’ to describe tribal peoples.

The article was published in The Independent in response to a remark made by a former BBC newsreader that tribes in New Guinea are ‘primitive’. ‘The only really primitive societies to survive into the modern age are the tribes in the remote parts of New Guinea, and whenever they come across a stranger they kill them,’ said Michael Buerk on BBC Radio’s ‘Moral Maze’ programme.

Corry’s article argues that governments regularly exploit the false idea that tribal peoples are ‘primitive’ in order to remove them from their land and open it up to outsiders, thereby freeing up access to its natural resources. Often this is done in the name of ‘development’, justified on the grounds that the supposedly primitive tribes are backward and need to ‘catch up’ with the rest of us. This is exactly the same, false argument once used to justify colonialism.

This is precisely what happened in Botswana where the government evicted Gana and Gwi Bushmen from their homes in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, claiming it was to ‘develop’ them. Yet following the evictions, the government granted more than a hundred contracts to companies to explore for diamonds and minerals on the Bushmen’s land. The Bushmen were forced to live in resettlement camps where they are still forbidden to hunt and now suffer from alcoholism and HIV-AIDS. They won the legal right to return to their land, but are still denied access to their water. Festus Mogae, Botswana’s president who ordered the evictions, asked, ‘How can you have a Stone Age creature continue to exist in the age of computers? If the Bushmen want to survive they must change or otherwise, like the dodo, they will perish.’

Buerk’s remark was also condemned by West Papua’s leading human rights organisation. Elsham said Buerk was ‘regurgitating racist stereotypes.’

For more information about terms like ‘primitive’ and ‘stone age’ see Survival’s ‘Stamp it Out’ campaign. Supporters of ‘Stamp it Out’ include many eminent journalists.