Saturday, January 19, 2008

Do Gooders in the Amazon

A friend of mine recently brought up the issue of do-gooders in the Third World. I forget exactly what she said but I responded--and it's not my line--that do-gooders have done more harm in the Third World than all the bad men combined. She sort of asked me to explain myself. I'm not qualified to speak about the whole world, but I have spend time in India, north Africa, Mexico, Central America and lots of time in South America, particularly Peru. So my response is only from my experience but I think it's worth noting. Here was my response:
Girl, you killing me. This is a serious question/series of questions that man has spent thousands of years trying to answer. And I am nowhere near capable.
So here goes. When I say the do-gooders have done more harm than all the bad men combined, it's because the bad men are identifiable. A thief takes what he wants. If he comes back you kill him or try to kill him. A catholic missionary comes and explains to you that having four wives is bad, you believe them and lose three wives, and then those three wives die without the protection of a man in the jungle, and all their children suffer and your children with your first wife suffer because she cannot help hunt and take care of children and go to the fields and clean the camp at the same time. Do the missionaries know that? Maybe yes, maybe no. But there is a reason that men in the jungle have multiple wives: In the region of Iquitos women are born at a rate of more than 6 to one female to male. Up until 30 years ago, male mortality was 40% for men before 40, because of war/snakebite, and so forth. So with so few men, the women invited their sisters to join them. One sister might be first wife: She went hunting with the husband and controlled the camp. Second wife breast fed all the children, hers or otherwise. Third wife went to the fields to collect food. Fourth wife kept the camp clean. So missionaries coming in, thinking they had or have a corner on decency, tell the women they are being used/abused and convince the women to object to their positions and the man finally gives up the three extra wives, but then what? Who hunts for them? They can't hunt and take care of children and tend fields and protect the village. So they wind up hurt by the whole deal.
That's just an example and I know you already thought about that. But what about do-gooders who come in and tell the indigenous in the Third World not to kill a big cat because jaguars are precious. And then they don't and the big cat kills all the wild boars in the region and the indigenous have no more meat? What about the do-gooders who tell the indigenous that they should only harvest trees at certain times of the year but those times don't coincide with when the indigenous have traditionally harvested, leaving them to harvest trees during the same time it is time to hunt?
What about do-gooders who bring clothes to the indigenous? They might mean well but they don't understand that when the indigenous are naked they each pick at each other's skin to eliminate any bug/infection/larvae that's been laid on their skin that day. When people wear clothes they don't do that. And when people wear shirts in the jungle the mosquito bites infect from human sweat through shirts rubbing against them. So the do gooders kill them all by giving them clothes, which prevents the natural "monkey-clean" instinct.
Here in the US, Chepa, my wife/ex-wife, still comes over to clean me whenever I return from the jungle. She removes anything she doesn't like. She doesn't like me but knows that if I have an infection from a mite or a spider I might die and then the kids have no father. So that remains her job: Clean Peter, head to toe. And she's just like a monkey. And I have learned to do that to my kids and they do it to each other. And when do gooders come into a camp and explain that you shouldn't do that, people believe them and then it doesn't happen and then people die.
Those do-gooders are maybe not living in the swamps of the Amazon where there are 1,000 bugs that lay their eggs on you and which will eat through your skin, ears, eyes, hair, head, feet, and so forth if not taken care of.
So they don't mean badly. They simply don't understand the reality of the place. A large caiman may kill you in a moment. A boa can kill you in a minute. But there are thousands of species of insects that lay larvae under you skin that won't even leave the egg for years. So once you've been there you need looking after for years.
And those are just a couple of examples of the most apparent harm good people do.


Jin said...

Peter, Thanks for this post. I never had eye problems before but recently I am having blurry vision in my right eye. I went to my eye doctor who sent me to a retina specialist. Now I am wondering if it could be because I went to Iquitos this past summer.

Peter Gorman said...

Heck, I don't know. Certainly could be, but you'd have to spend a few bucks and get in touch with a tropical disease specialist for that. And even they don't always know what's what.
Years ago, maybe 20, I came back with several botfly infestations. I'd seen the little critters leave my skin and knew it was botfly. I still had a Cornell University Hospital tropical disease specialist tell me: "Botfly are extremely rare, so rare as to not even be real. They are made up by most people to pretend they've had something exotic..." So he took biopsy's and two weeks later comes back to say: "You're the first patient I've ever seen who's really got botflies."
So if you're thinking it might be something from the jungle, go to a tropical disease person, but remember that they don't always know everything.
Whatever it is, I hope you get it corrected. Sight is a beautiful thing to have.

Hummingbird said...

Very educational. Thank you.

John said...

Um.. er... g r e a t !

I'm so neeeeeding this trip. See you at the airport. no worries. :0)

suesun said...

You are with my friends in the jungle now, and I am left wondering..... who will pick them clean upon their return?

This was a great post. But aren't there some "do-gooders" who actually do take native cultures into account?

And I've often thought it would be nice to have more "wives" in my household- why should one woman have to do all the work?

clown princess said...

This was a great post..something we all need to consider. Thanks for enlightening us.

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