Stephen Corry: Don't call these people primitive

Michael Buerk's choice of words could not have been more unfortunate

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The fall-out from BBC broadcaster Michael Buerk's comments about New Guinea tribes has been quite something. Presenting Radio 4's Moral Maze, Buerk made his own moral howler by labelling New Guinea tribes "primitive" and accusing them of killing random strangers. "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," were his words.

The Papuan human rights organisation, Elsham, responded by accusing Buerk of "regurgitating racist stereotypes" and "being offensive and totally wrong". Others have weighed in. Here at Survival International, the NGO defending tribal peoples' rights around the world, we called Buerk "dangerously wrong".

What's all the fuss about? Does calling tribal people "primitive", or even "Stone Age" or "savage", really matter? Isn't this just another example of political correctness gone mad? In fact, it has nothing to do with political correctness at all. The reason the use of terms like "primitive" to describe tribal peoples is so important, and so dangerous, is because they lead directly to the destruction of tribal peoples.

Governments, corporations and assorted others regularly exploit the idea that tribal peoples are "primitive" in order to remove them from their land or open it up to outsiders, thereby freeing up access to the natural resources on or under their land. Often this is done in the name of "development", justified on the grounds that the so-called "primitive" tribes are backward and out-of-date and need to "catch up" with the rest of us. But what are the consequences? For the tribes, they are almost always catastrophic: cultural and spiritual alienation, poverty, alcoholism, disease and death.

Mr Buerk could not have chosen a more unfortunate example than the tribes of New Guinea – peoples so "primitive" that there is evidence they were practising agriculture thousands of years before anyone in what became the British Isles.

The Indonesian government's "transmigration" policy, which has brought millions of Indonesian colonists into West Papua, was, according to one government minister, "probably the only way of getting Stone Age, primitive and backward people into the mainstream of Indonesian development". What this has actually meant for local Papuans is the loss of their land and economic marginalisation – to say nothing of the imposition of brutal military and police regimes that together has intimidated, tortured, and killed about 100,000 Papuan adults and children.

Paradoxically given Mr Buerk's view, one thing tribal peoples do possess which we seem to be losing is a strong sense of how to live in a community and how to treat people appropriately. They do not live in paradise: barbaric practices can unfortunately be found in all societies, including ours. Even worse, wanton, casual and gross inhumanity towards defenceless people is more evident much closer to home than New Guinea. Calling tribes "primitive" ignores all this and plays into the hands of the powers that be who are destroying them.

Stephen Corry is the Director of Survival International

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