The Human Zoo

Tourists are becoming involved in slavery

By George Monbiot. Published in The Guardian 12th December 1998.

Britain’s involvement in the slave trade officially came to an end one hundred and sixty years ago. Unofficially, it has started all over again.

Last month, the owners of a tourist attraction in north-west Thailand appeared in court on charges of running a “human zoo”. Twelve adults and 21 children of the Padaung tribe had been discovered by a British journalist and a Thai human rights campaigner in a compound near the Burmese border. They had been tricked into leaving a refugee camp, then displayed to tourists who came to see their famously elongated necks. They were forced to dance, sing and sell artefacts to the visitors, and those who tried to escape were beaten up. By the time the slaves were discovered, one woman had died, due, her husband said, to a “broken heart”.

These were the lucky ones. Their human zoo was closed down when exposure forced the reluctant authorities to open an investigation. But in many parts of South-East Asia, slavery is either ignored or promoted by the state. As both tourists and Thai men demand HIV-free prostitutes in Bangkok, brokers and bawds scour the Thai hill tribes for girls to trick or kidnap. Across the border in Burma, the entire tourist industry has been built on slave labour, as hundreds of thousands of men and women have been forced, on pain of death, to construct the roads, airstrips, hotels and golf courses demanded by an industry that neither sees nor cares. Thousands have died of beatings, malnutrition and exhaustion. Yet still the vampire tourists come, purchasing a pound of human flesh with every kyat they spend.

But while in Burma the manacles of the tourist industry are applied more or less indiscriminately, in many parts of the world it is tribal people who are most likely to be imprisoned for our entertainment.

These are the people whom travellers want to see, often for precisely the same reason as they visit London Zoo. While some tourists travel with genuine hopes of enlightenment, in many parts of the world, tourism among tribal peoples is little more than a freak show. Tourists will pay handsomely to see people whose appearance and behaviour diverges from their own, and many tribal people, for whom the mainstream economy may be opaque, are easy to exploit. Too lazy to travel to the human safari parks that some indigenous reserves have become, tourists demand the more convenient entertainment of a human zoo. Unsurprisingly, many tribal people don’t want to be confined to fake villages and hotel foyers, so tour operators, like the zoologists of the 19th Century, organise collecting expeditions to capture them.

In the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon, for example, companies found that taking the tourists to the natives was expensive, time-consuming and hazardous. It was far easier to bring the natives to the tourists. Survival International has shown how members of the Yagua tribe have been cajoled or coerced into relocating to camps close to the hotels and tourist lodges. Far from home, they become wholly dependent on the tour operators for food, money and transport, and forced to perform, often several times a day, a cruel parody of their sacred ceremonies. “The tourist hotels are no different from jails in the way we are controlled,” one Yagua man told investigators.

In Indonesia, the coercion is even cruder. Until 1991, the Asmat people of Irian Jaya were beaten or imprisoned whenever they were imprudent enough to be caught performing a traditional ceremony. Then, as Visit Indonesia Year began, officials suddenly recognised the value of their prohibited rites. Tourists were brought to their longhouses and the Asmat were told to perform, or get beaten and imprisoned. Foolishly, the Asmat assumed that this meant they could resume their real ceremonies: they did so, with predictable results.

Of course, it’s not the tourists who are imprisoning people, forcing them to work and beating or killing them if they refuse. Our ignorance is exploited, our perception of where we should and shouldn’t tread is complicated by the knowledge that some indigenous tourism – especially when it’s run by the people themselves – can do more good than harm. But we are the ones who buy these slaves: ours, as William Wilberforce first pointed out nearly two centuries ago, is therefore the primary responsibility. It is up to us to discover whether or not our money will ruin or enhance people’s lives. Today, you don’t have to be evil to be a slave-driver, only unthinking.