Alberto Gomes suggests that new images of social and economic relations are needed, ones which abandon human-centered paradigms and focus, instead, on the interdependence of people with the natural environment. Equality, sustainability, and peacefulness, in the new model proposed by Gomes, are intertwined. He demonstrates his arguments with numerous examples from the Orang Asli (“Original People”), and particularly the Semai, of Peninsular Malaysia.
The paper by Gomes, who is from La Trobe University in Australia, explored those ideas at the panel session “Challenging the Legacy of Innate Depravity: The New Tidemark of the Nonkilling Paradigm,” which was part of the American Anthropological Association’s annual convention in Montreal last month. The paper session was sponsored by the Center for Global Nonkilling.
Gomes opened his paper, “Alter-Native ‘Development’: Indigenous Forms of Social Ecology,” by explaining that numerous alternatives to the exploitative capitalist model have been developed over the years, most recently a de-growth theory from several European economists. What is needed, those economists have suggested, is not more proposals for utopian systems.
Instead, they ask for practical examples of existing societies that will offer clues about modifying prevailing systems. Gomes sets out to offer such practical examples from his Orang Asli research, in hopes of promoting economic, social, and environmental justice.
He does not seek a return to some Arcadian past, but he does argue that the indigenous peoples in Peninsular Malaysia do provide a useful contrast with capitalist societies. The Orang Asli offer “a critique of modes of living that bring about and reproduce poverty, inequality, violence and ecological degradation.” Gomes says the prevailing state societies, infused with their capitalist ethics, exemplify the 4-Gs—growth, glut, greed and grievance.
Regarding equality, the first leg of his model, he points out that the Orang Asli villages do typically have leaders, but everyone has more or less equal access to power. Most village decisions are made through consensus. People maintain their interdependence through their firm beliefs in sharing. The speaker observed that during his field work among the Orang Asli, he frequently witnessed people sharing things.
People would not necessarily reciprocate such gifts, relying instead on the certainty that almost everyone readily gives to others. Thus, ones individual gift would be repaid by another, from someone else, in time. Anthropologists refer to this process as “generalized reciprocity.” Children are socialized to share their things with others, and people who do not share properly feel the scorn of the entire community.
Equality is enhanced in Semai society by the fact that the people all have equal ownership of the land, and equal access to its resources. They fish and hunt, cultivate crops and gather forest products, all within a village territory called a ngrii’, which is demarcated by natural features such as ridges and streams. The only exclusive ownership of products within the territory is of crops that individuals have cultivated. But even then, ownership is not really a human-centered conception. Instead, the supernaturals own the land and its resources. People only have the right to use the products from the earth and do not have absolute control over any portion of it.
Leading into the second phase of his model, sustainability, Gomes points out that before the Semai cultivate any land, they will clear a tiny area, perhaps one square meter. They will then announce loudly to the nearby ground spirits (nyani kawul) their intention to grow something. The requestors will then learn, in their dreams, the responses of the spirits to their requests. Good omens, picked up in the dreams, suggest that the requests have been granted, and the farmers can then go ahead with the cultivation, though of course proceeding with considerable care and respect for the land.
The implication is that any destruction of the land could anger the spirits, who might visit their wrath on the people. Gomes does not argue that this kind of belief system would work in many other societies, of course, but the message—basing a human need for food on an underlying respect for the earth—is powerful.
Gomes points out that Orang Asli people such as the Semai, who have an abiding respect for nature, are more likely to live in harmony with it. Many perceive the forest as a benevolent parent. Furthermore, the Semai and the other Orang Asli peoples are not alienated from nature, even though many of them now work at wage jobs and live only on the fringes of natural forest ecosystems. They persist in engaging in their traditional, forest-based, subsistence activities, though sporadically.
Semai religious beliefs help cement their ties to nature. They believe that the human soul, the kenah senlook, is both an integral part of a hunter and is an essential aspect of nature and its laws. Those laws require the human to take only what is needed, and to respect all animals, spirits, and anything else connected with the natural environment. Breaking such laws, like acting disrespectfully toward an animal, or killing more than is needed at the moment, could drive away the kenah senlook. That would lead to bad luck and misfortunes.
The peacefulness of the Orang Asli, the third phase of the model, is fostered by factors the author had already discussed, such as their generalized reciprocity and their egalitarian ethics. He goes on to point out how the Semai effectively settle their disputes through conflict resolution meetings known as bicharaas’. At a bicharaa’, many people from villages affected by a dispute will gather to discuss the problem at hand. The point of the meeting is for the parties to talk out the contentious issue and restore the harmony of the society. Adjudicators will summarize the resolution that appears to have been agreed upon, and perhaps assess small fines.
The Orang Asli are able to generally maintain peaceful relations with outsiders through caution, by keeping a distance, and by flight when necessary. Gomes discusses how they sometimes use what he calls “sly civility”—processes employed by people with unequal access to power. The less powerful Orang Asli will dissemble, feign ignorance, or banter effectively in order to disarm potentially threatening strangers.
Gomes closes by suggesting ways that the anthropocentric view of the world held by neoliberal capitalism can be modified into a more ecocentric approach, as exemplified by the Orang Asli societies. His penetrating paper has been accepted for publication in the journal Third World Quarterly.
This is the third of a series of five articles about the Center for Global Nonkilling, an organization that holds very similar views to this website, though it is focused more on the quantifiable goals of killing and nonkilling, compared to this website which takes the broader, but less measurable, perspective of violence versus peacefulness. The other four articles in this series include: first, a review of the book Nonkilling Societies issued by the CGNK; second, a review of Kirk Endicott’s paper on the Batek; fourth, a discussion of Douglas Fry’s summary of the Panel Session of Wednesday evening, November 16, at the AAA convention; and fifth, a review of the CGNK Anthropology Research Committee meeting on Nov. 17.