In 2002, the extremely popular
American television program Survivor! staged a
season on a remote jungle island in southern Thailand. Survivor!--for
those not familiar with the show--is a reality television program in
which a group of contestants are relocated to a remote area of the
world and instructed to fend for themselves. Organized into two
"tribes", they must provide their own food and shelter from the jungle
while also competing against one another and against members of the
tribe. During each episode, the tribes vie in a competition of
teamwork, with the losing tribe forced to vote one of their members out
of the tribe and, consequently, out of the game. The last person
remaining in the game--often not the person most suited to surviving in
the wilderness--is known as the Ultimate Survivor and wins $1 million.
works as entertainment precisely because Americans are so ill-suited to
teamwork and existing without the framework of American society, that
is, they have never known a true struggle for survival. Viewers are
entertained by watching the contestants struggle to survive in natural
surroundings and manipulate each other to ensure that they will not be
the one voted off, the latter a strange manifestation of the selfish
office politics that seems to permeate today's American culture.
While watching the show, I
entertained myself by imagining what would be the outcome of Survivor!
Thailand if a randomly selected "tribe" of Akhas, Lahus or
Miens was pitted against a tribe of Americans. The issue of acclimation
to a jungle environment is so one-sidedly comical that it serves no
purpose besides amusement. Within the first day, the true tribal people
would have constructed shelter for themselves (possibly multiple
structures) from bamboo and banana tree leaves. They would have dug up
some bamboo shoots and probably caught some fish barehanded. They would
have had to do without rice, of course, but in comparison to the
Americans ridiculous flailings, they would have been living in the lap
A Westerner never appreciates how
specifically tailored to his society his survival skills are until well
removed from that infrastructure. Volunteers for the United States
Peace Corps, an organization which places its workers in some of the
most remote areas of developing countries, often go through a phase of
depression upon realizing how society-dependent their skills are.
Skills that Peace Corps volunteers bring to rural communities in
developing nations, computer knowledge, for example, are learned for
success, not survival. Survival is a service that most Westerners
purchase from someone else.
The feeling can be seen clearly
in the confession of one Peace Corps Volunteer while visiting a Lahu
village: "I am an idiot. I don't know anything about anything,
but these people who I am supposed to be teaching know everything about
everything." Furthermore, an embarrassing
truth is that Western skills seem easier to learn. In my time in
Thailand, I have taught a number of tribal people how to use a computer
(one with all the menus written in English, an inaccessible language to
them), yet I have serious doubts that I could find for myself a single
bamboo shoot if pressed to do so.
Even more interesting and
illustrative than environmental adaptation is the tribal people's
understanding that teamwork is necessary to survival. There are, to be
sure, personal differences (both ideological and petty) between
hilltribe people of the same tribe--even within the same village--but
tribal people are much more able to fall into a suitable hierarchy to
function as a unit in order to survive.
Watching the contestants of Survivor!
competing in one of their tests of teamwork known as "tribal
challenges", I thought about the time when I stood watching nine small
men carry sixteen concrete cylinders, each weighing hundreds of
kilograms, up a hill so slick that I could barely walk up it
unencumbered. They reminded me of ants with their teamwork and
efficiency of action. Unlike with the American contestants, there was
no argument about who had the better way, they just did what they
needed to get the job done. It took less than an hour for them to carry
the cylinders up the hill and stack them to make new water tanks.
I moved enough couches during college to be certain that the American
tendency against cooperation--or towards having
differing ideas of the "best" way to do even the most straightforward
task--is not limited to telegenic reality show contestants. Americans
are always searching for a better way to do something and each American
tends to think his way is the best. It is part of the American culture
that comes with independence and innovation, but at the cost of mutual
Mutual cooperation, however, has been the very thing
that has allowed the hilltribe people to exist in the jungle wilderness
for centuries. It is a fact pointed up all the more clearly in the
transition of tribal people from a subsistence economy to the
each-man-for-himself market economy in which they now find themselves.
Restrictions on land ownership rights have left many villagers without
any land to farm and forced them to leave the village to find work as
day laborers, often competing with fellow villagers for the substandard
wages they receive. Moreover, villagers not producing their own food
necessarily become consumers of the produce of others. The transition
to dependency on the market economy is astonishingly rapid. Land
restrictions can force a village to change from complete subsistence
(purchasing only steel and salt) to complete dependence (purchasing up
to 80% of their food) in as little as two years.
Such abrupt social change has the disastrous results one
would imagine. Villages are fragmented, individuals are primed for
exploitation and age-old wisdom of the jungle becomes instantly
endangered. Hilltribe people are abandoning their beautiful and
intricate way of life to become the least enfranchised consumer level
in the Thai market economy.
Indeed, Survivor! Thailand might
more aptly describe the non-televised struggle playing out in the
mountains of the north. Moreover, as in the televised version, survival
of ones lifestyle is also a game of politics, meaning those who are
most suited to survival in the wilderness often do not win.