January 30, 2007

A Note on the Second Conquest of the Amazon

The Amazon Basin

In considering the oppressed indigenous peoples of the Amazon, David Maybury-Lewis recommends a macroscopic approach and he notes that this method, ‘is the only way in which one can set about examining what is happening to the peoples of Amazonia—or indeed, to minority peoples anywhere in the world today’ (127). Maybury-Lewis notes that some see the Amazonians in terms of neo-Darwinism believing that it is simply the fate of indigenous peoples to die out. Some Marxists see the Amazonians as, ‘out of step historically’, according to Maybury-Lewis, but to be in step dictates that, ‘their way of life is doomed’ (128). Maybury-Lewis disagrees with both of these views and he is adamant that the Amazonians are rather, ‘suffering from the simple ability of stronger peoples, nations, institutions to overpower weaker ones’ (128).

Differing views on indigenous peoples can be typified, says Maybuy Lewis, by the dialogue between Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda and Bartolomé de Las Casas. In a junta ordered by Charles V of Spain, Las Casas argued against Sepúlveda that Indians had souls. Maybury-Lewis notes that for men like Sepúlveda, indigenous peoples, ‘were cannibals and therefore not deserving of human compassion’ and he notes that because indigenous peoples, ‘abused the weak in their society’, their government had to be replaced by Spanish rule which supposedly did not exploit the weak in the same fashion (128). Maybury Lewis describes such excuses as ‘self-serving’ and he presents an argument against the need for an imposed Spanish rule (128).

Even if they were [cannibals], it is not obvious why the ritual eating of people should be any worse than flaying them alive, or enslaving them, or torturing them judicially, which was customary procedure in the seventeenth century. Nor is it clear why it should justify any peculiarly draconian actions against them on the part of Europeans. (128)

Similar flawed arguments supporting the usurpation of indigenous government still prevail, yet now as Maybury-Lewis notes, the desire is to ‘civilise’ Indians. Nineteenth century anthropologists used ‘the backwards peoples of the world’ as a lever for their own ‘higher rationality’ (129). Now indigenous people must make way not for rationality, but development. Maybury-Lewis argues that a second conquest is now taking place in the heart of Amazonia, its goal being Indian land. The argument for such a conquest is utilitarian and it assumes that the Indian cannot adapt and that the extraction of wealth from the land will be worth it. According to Maybury-Lewis, the Indian is often seen as, ‘a threat to nation-building’, ‘an ideological challenge’ and ‘a challenge to [a nation’s] mainstream values’ (132).

Maybury-Lewis, David. ‘Demystifying the Second Conquest’. Frontier Expansion in Amazonia. Ed. Marianne Schmink and Charles H. Wood. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1984. 127-134.

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