Wildfires, Indigenous People and Very Sad History

New York Wild fire Smoke

In recent years wildfires have spread uncontrollably over very vast areas in American and Australian continents, causing immense losses including loss of human and animal life and endangering environment in various ways. Their adverse impacts on pollution and health have travelled far and wide, creating health problems even in leading cities like New York.

In this context one question that is not being asked but should be asked is whether wildfires would have become such a serious threat if the native people had not been treated in such a cruel way as to either result in the death of vast numbers, or in the displacement of vast numbers and imposition of so many restrictions on them as to deny them their traditional way of life. This has been not only the loss of native people but also a bigger social loss too as the native or indigenous people had a much better understanding of nature, land and forests acquired from many centuries and generations of living close to nature. If the new settlers from Europe had tried to learn from them instead of killing them, driving them away or colonizing them, this would have been very beneficial for the entire society.

To give an example, over several generations the native people had learnt how to use controlled fires in such ways that the danger of bigger, destructive, uncontrolled fires could be avoided and at the same time they could get more food and some specific plants (such as those needed for making baskets or for some ceremonial purposes). If these native people had continued to live with their traditional wisdom over vast areas, they would have certainly used their great knowledge and experience to minimize the risk of huge out-of-control fires. The environmental risks would be reduced. As a native person told a US journalist, they used such methods to use controlled fire that carbon was stored in soil and not released in atmosphere.

This apart, the natives had a very holistic view of various phenomenon in which fire was not to be necessarily feared and dominated but instead to be understood and lived with as a part of life and such a view makes it possible to explore fire in a more friendly and creative way, instead of looking at the appearance of even a small non-threatening fire merely in terms of rushing to extinguish it. Such a view was moreover part of a wider understanding in which there is unity and continuity between nature, land, plants, forests, animals, fire and humanity—all are linked closely and part of a being. Such a view of view integrates respect of nature, respect of land with respect of oneself and one’s near and dear ones. With such a worldview, native communities scattered all over these continents would have been in the forefront of protecting forests, protecting nature, protecting rivers.

In fact time and again, despite all the injustice and deprivation they have suffered, they have been coming forward and making important contributions to several important environment protection efforts. However conservation efforts which entirely drive away human beings are not in keeping with their integrated views, and they would have contributed even more if the environment protection efforts had been based on a unity of nature and humanity instead of being isolationist. Even with all the problems of the present systems, they have come forward to make important contributions, often motivated by their desire to protect their sacred places, which are again a reflection of their integrated understanding.

If they had been allowed to live peacefully by the colonizers, the native people of the Australian and American continents would have contributed to the creation of a better society, more sustainable society in numerous ways. It is therefore one of the greatest regrets of history that they were treated in such cruel and insensitive ways that very small numbers survived over vast parts of these continents. During the last 550 years or so some of the worst injustices ever seen in human history have been inflicted on these indigenous people. Some were so destructive that perhaps no compensatory action can come even close to making up for what happened. Despite this, urgent efforts must nevertheless be made to achieve what can still be done in the interests of justice.

After Columbus opened up the new American world to Europeans in 1492, waves of settlers and traders started coming here with modern arms to plunder or drive away the native people.

Columbus forced the Taino ‘Indians’ in Hispaniaola to bring him an ounce of gold every three months. Those who did not, had their hands chopped off while escapees were hunted down with dogs.

A priest Bartoleme de Las Casas was very distressed by what he saw of the interactions of the newcomer ‘civilizers’ with indigenous people. He wrote, “For 40 years, they have done nothing but torture, murder, harass, afflict, torment and destroy them with extraordinary, incredible, ‘innovative’, and previously unheard of cruelty.”

Las Casas estimated that about 50 million Indians perished in Latin America and the Caribbean within 50 years of Columbus’ landing. ( Quoted in Third World Resurgence, No. 5—Genocide of the Indians).

The New Internationalist journal prepared a special issue (No. 226) on ‘Hidden History—Columbus and the Colonial Legacy). Here in the cover story Wayne Ellwood has written after examining the available historical evidence, “Scholars now reckon that 90 per cent of the indigenous population of the Americas was wiped out in a century and a half—the greatest demographic collapse in the history of the planet and the proportional equivalent of nearly half a billion people today.”

While in some places the native ‘Indian’ population recovered partially, in other places the recovery was almost non-existent.  The New Internationalist compared the population of these indigenous people over a period of 500 years from 1492 to 1992.

In Mexico there were 21.4 million Indians in 1492, 8 million in 1992. In the Caribbean there were were 5.85 million Indians in 1492, but only 0.001 million in 1992. In Lowland S. America there were 8.50 million Indians in 1492, but only 0.90 million in 1992. In North America there were 4.40 million Indians, but only 2.54 million in 1992.

A somewhat similar tragedy was later repeated later in Australia and its nearby areas. Robert Hughes writes in his book The Fatal Shore—“ It took less than 75 years of white settlement to wipe out most of the people who had occupied Tasmania for some 20,000 years.”

What is more, in some places some of the most terrible atrocities inflicted on the indigenous people continued right into the 20th century. For example let us compare more recent accounts from Guatemala with what was happening a few hundred years back.

First let us see Bob Carty’s account of the 16th century regarding a conqueror Pedro Alvarado’s atrocities in Guatemala—“He directed eight major massacres killing up to 3000 Indians at a time. Mayan chiefs were incinerated alive as Catholic priests burned Mayan historical records. Alvarado rewarded his soldiers with the right to enslave the survivors. Mayan lands were appropriated, the people herded into towns and forced to work the Spanish Estates.”

Now compare this with a more recent account from Guatemala in the 1980s—“In the early 1980s it was as if the new conquistador Pedro Alvarado was back in power. All Mayans were seen as supporters of the guerillas, the military set out to destroy the people as well as their culture. Mayans were burned alive, babies murdered and women raped. The dictator Rios Mantt wiped 440 Mayan villages off the face of the earth. Soldiers are so brutalized in their training that they follow orders to kill their people as enemies.” (New Internationalist)

This account indicates the shocking reality that terrible atrocities have continued against indigenous people till recent times in many countries. These are in fact aggravated whenever indigenous people offer resistance to injustice or demand justice and restoration/protection of land rights much beyond the small concessions the existing regimes are willing to offer.

While some sincere initiatives for their welfare have indeed been taken up in various parts of world, generally the human development indicators for them remain much lower. Their human rights violations and imprisonment rates are generally higher than those suffered by other communities. They often experience discrimination and loss of dignity. Appreciation of their different world view, which may be much, much better than those dominant views which have entangled our world in a web of environment ruin and wars and violence, is generally least appreciated, something which is not just their loss but the loss of the entire humanity. A much better appreciation of the thinking, culture and life-views of indigenous people as well as many-sided, overdue justice for them should be an essential part of the world’s future agenda.

 Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Man over Machine, Protecting Earth for Children, Earth without Borders and A Day in 2071.

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