Locke and Rousseau: A Debate on Uncontacted Tribes
I clutched my binoculars tightly, surveying the Peruvian river bed as the tour boat chugged along the Amazon. It was hot and obscenely bright creating a mirage, and through the mirage a group of stout figures wavered through. They looked fierce and noble standing at the riverbed holding their spears and bow-and-arrows. The tour guide elaborated on the uncontacted tribe. “There are many, not just here.” He said. “But these tribes, they’re no good. They kill man because of no reason. He was their friend. He was helping them against the loggers trying to cut through the rainforest, but now they might be lost.” Baffled, I turned to my fellow scholars, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They were huddled together and were in a heated debate. Each referenced back to their own published works “Two Treatises of Government” and a “Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men” respectively. Taking a pen and paper, I recorded their debate, eventually coming to my own conclusion that the government should be there to protect the rights of all the people of their land, including that right of property.
Locke believed life, liberty and property were the natural rights he attached to those living in the State of Nature, or perfect freedom and equality. It was to my surprise, then that he suggested that the government should not support the tribes, but the loggers. Locke states “the measure of property nature has well set by the extent of men’s labour and the conveniences of life: no man’s labour could subdue, or appropriate all; nor could his enjoyment consume more than a small part; so that it was impossible for any man, this way, to entrench upon the right of another, or acquire to himself a property, to the prejudice of his neighbor, who would still have room for as good, an as large a possession (after the other had taken out his) as before it was appropriated.”(22) If the loggers came in and cut down all the trees, there would only be one use of the land and in doing so, they kill the trees, the animals, and potentially the tribes that dwell there. Locke suggests that since men undeniably own their right to their own body, then any product of their labor should also belong to them. The rule of taking property, according to Locke, is that God’s intention was to have the children of his earth be happy. If a man, in the act of taking possession of land harms or leaves another unhappy, then that man will not receive that property. If God’s intention was truly to have his children be happy, then is it not safe to say, that by taking away the tribe’s land and possibly killing them off with disease will leave them unhappy. That was how Locke said humans could lose property, by wasting labor and not leaving enough for others. Locke, however, pulled in the effects of money on property, saying that since the loggers were not just using all those trees for themselves, but making a profit from them, then what they were doing was justified.
In response to Locke, Rousseau stated that the tribes were “noble savages” who will be corrupted if they get into contact with civilization. His views on property were quite different than Locke’s as he began to tell an anecdote about “the first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say, ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him, was the true founders of civil society.”(69) Rousseau then went on to claim there should really be no property and that “Man’s first sentiment was that of his own existence.”(69) After lamenting on how corrupt the civilized man was, he then discussed that property and the individual right accompanied to it are combined to invent a community. This community he said was Peru, or any country in which the tribes lie in. It then surprised me that Rousseau and Locke found common ground, agreeing that “it is impossible to conceive of the idea of property arising from anything but manual labor….it is labor alone that, in giving the cultivator a right to the product or the soil he has tilled, consequently gives him a right…and thus from year to year…[and] is transformed into property.”(76) Even though Rousseau despised the idea of property, he at least found that the labor that the tribes put into their villages accounted for something. However, Rousseau seems to think that the tribes’ labor is insubordinate to the idea of property only being acknowledgeable if there is a lawful state so that it can protect their rights. Rousseau sees the loggers negatively as they are competing with the tribes and results in "rivalry and competition together with a secret desire on both of profiting at the expense of others. "(96) Rousseau ultimately believed in integrating the tribes into the civilized society so that they and the rest of the country could learn to live harmoniously under a democracy. Also the fact that he believed all those of a direct democracy should be forced to obey the laws in order to still reside in the state suggests that he’d like the tribes to conform to the rest of the society.
These tribes are the government's people too and just because they don’t partake in the developing society, it shouldn’t give anyone the right to wipe them out for no other reason but money. There is no doubt that the land is theirs. As of now, the only international law that can secure tribal peoples’ land rights is the International Labour Organization Convention 169. It recognizes and protects tribal peoples’ land ownership rights, and sets a series of minimum UN standards regarding consultation and consent. In short, contact should not be initiated by us. The tribes should come forward themselves, if they ever feel the need or desire to. It is not our choice but theirs as they have more to lose. If Brazil’s government is what Locke and Rousseau deem so civilized then why is it these uncontacted tribes pursue more loyalty and strength than the society does? In the end,my favor goes neither to Locke nor Rousseau.