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Interview with Survival International – Fighting for the Rights of Tribal Peoples

By Frontiergap @FrontierGap

As you may know, this week the Frontier blog is all about indigenous tribes around the world. On Tuesday we looked into the iconic Maasai tribe in Kenya and Tanzania. Wednesday saw us focus on an example of the struggles faced by these groups by looking at the Dongria Kondh’s fight against a British mining company. Yesterday was devoted to those tribes which are uncontacted and the issues surrounding these groups. Today’s final chapter is extra special; we have been lucky enough to speak to our friends at Survival International. Editorial Consultant, Joanna Eede, told us about the organisation and the important work they do to defend the rights of tribal peoples all over the planet.

Interview with Survival International – Fighting for the Rights of Tribal Peoples

Frontier: Hello Joanna. Survival International is the only organisation working to protect the rights of tribal people around the world. Why does this issue receive such little attention?
Joanna: Hello Frontier. Thanks for your interest in tribal peoples and their rights - and for giving them more of the attention they deserve.
I think it’s important to think about this in a different way, because interest in and support of tribal peoples has actually grown hugely in the past 40 years, since the inception of Survival, and is growing all the time.  
One of our aims is to catalyze a growing alliance of people around the world who support tribal peoples and their rights, and turn it into effective action. Today there is an ever-growing movement.  Survival has 250,000 visitors to its website per month, hundreds of thousands of supporters from dozens of countries have helped us financially and millions of people routinely seek our information.
Many prominent people have also supported us and helped our work. For example, many prominent writers, artists and photographers contributed to Survival’s special anniversary book, We are One, including Colin Firth, Noam Chomsky, A.C. Grayling, Richard Gere, Jane Goodall, Germaine Greer, Damien Hirst, Sebastiao Salgado, Arundhati Roy and Desmond Tutu.
Over the course of the past 40 years, the issues surrounding tribal peoples and their ways of life have been pushed into mainstream political and cultural arenas – but we are always striving to raise yet more awareness.
Frontier: Exactly how do you go about protecting the rights of these groups?
Joanna: Survival’s fundamental mission is to help tribal peoples protect their lives, lands and human rights. We oppose the racist attitudes which underpin the way tribal peoples are viewed, and seek to stop the illegal and unjust way they are treated.
Our vision is to foster an understanding of, and respect for, tribal peoples and the choices they make about their futures.
Many tribespeople have told us that they would not have survived without Survival International.
In terms of process, Survival focuses on the most vulnerable tribal peoples, those who have the most to lose. These are usually those less able to articulate their own views, and the least contacted by, or ‘integrated’ into, wider society. They often face complete destruction from disease and land theft.
We choose specific cases according to defined criteria, such as the urgency of the situation. Other criteria include a serious threat to the people’s lives or livelihoods, and a small, more vulnerable, population. Cases lead to campaigns with clear objectives, such as securing communal land rights. Most campaigns last for decades.
We place the issue repeatedly in the widest possible media (newspapers/TV/radio/web etc.) exposing the violations, and asking people to voice their support.
We monitor the media and counter false and damaging stereotypes which portray tribes as ‘backward’ and ‘primitive’. We support legal work to ensure tribes are expertly represented.  We produce educational materials for schools and the public, showing who tribal peoples really are and how they live. We also fund medical and self-help projects directly with tribal people.
In terms of beliefs: we believe all countries must support and uphold, as minimum standards, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as ratify and apply the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention (ILO 169).
We also believe all companies and organizations operating in tribal areas must adopt, as a formal and binding policy, the commitment that they will take no action without the free, prior and informed consent of the tribal people. This also applies to conservation organizations.
Frontier: Survival International has been working to protect indigenous rights since 1969. Why was it started and how much has changed with regards to this issue since the organisation was first established?
Joanna: Survival was founded in 1969 by individuals appalled by the genocide of Amazon Indians. This followed a newspaper article by Norman Lewis in the Sunday Times Magazine.  
In 1969 it was a completely different situation; massacre and disease were commonplace. It was actually believed that there would be no Indians remaining in Brazil at all by the end of the 20th century.
In fact, I think there is a statistic that suggests one tribe was made extinct every year during the 20th century. Nowadays, tribal people’s rights have become enshrined in international law and in the constitution of many countries, particularly in South America. The rights of uncontacted tribes who are particularly threatened with extinction have become the focus of international attention for the first time.
Attitudes towards tribal peoples have changed and are still changing. They were once reviled as primitive and backward, or alternatively patronised as noble savages, which is equally as dangerous a label. Now tribal peoples are far better understood as being the vibrant and contemporary societies that they are.
Tribal peoples often possess invaluable and unique knowledge of their environment, plants and animals.   An ever-growing movement of people now recognize that the survival of tribal peoples is in the interest of all humanity; that their diversity shows us how alternative ways of living can be successful.
Frontier: What has been accomplished by Survival International in this time?
Joanna: As I’ve outlined, Survival has gone a long way in changing attitudes towards tribal peoples.  
There are also numerous ‘concrete’ successes.  As examples, Survival helped to establish the creation of the Yanomami park in Brazil in 1992.  A fifth of the Yanomami Indians had died in seven years after goldminers invaded their land, but since their territory was legally protected their numbers have recovered and are increasing.
Survival helped the Kalahari Bushmen achieve a landmark court victory in 2006. The Bushmen were evicted from the Central Kalahari in 2002 to make way for future diamond mining. With Survival’s support they fought and won a case in the Botswana High Court, which affirmed their right to live on their land. In September 2011 the Bushmen also celebrated drinking water from their borehole for the first time in 9 years. A scene that was unimaginable back in 2002, when it was capped.

Interview with Survival International – Fighting for the Rights of Tribal Peoples

In 2010, Survival also helped the Dongria Kondh people of Orissa in India achieve an historic battle to save their lands and forests from an open-pit bauxite mine that was being planned on one of their sacred mountains in the Niyamgiri Hills by Vedanta Resources, a British mining company.  It would have destroyed the forests on which they depend, meant displacement for the tribe and the loss of their identity as people. 

Yet tragically we continue to see the extinction of entire tribes. Tribal people are still disregarded, thrown off their land, and in too many cases, killed by those who want their land or the resources that lie underneath it.
For the majority of tribal peoples, their lives and lands are inextricably linked.   The late Guarani leader Marcus Veron said, ‘This here is my life, my soul.  If you take this land away from me, you take my life’.  The loss and destruction of their lands are very often at the root of the appalling suffering they face.
Frontier: How do you monitor progress/projects? Do you have representatives in the field constantly?
Joanna: We do send our own researchers into the field. Such field visits have helped to foster contacts with hundreds of tribal communities, individuals (such as doctors, journalists, travellers, missionaries or anthropologists) and organizations who give us information.
Frontier: How do you monitor the state of uncontacted tribes?
Joanna: No one should go to tribes which aren’t in regular contact with outsiders. It’s dangerous for everyone. We only publicize their rough location when it’s needed to protect their lands.  Over-flights are sometimes necessary to check whether they have moved elsewhere, and whether their lands are being invaded. It can be important to draw attention to their existence, and even to prove it.
One of the biggest threats to the lives of uncontacted peoples is their lack of immunity to diseases brought in by outsiders. Following first contact, it is common for more than 50% of a tribe to die.
There are about 100 uncontacted tribes in the world.
Frontier: How many indigenous groups are likely to be lost this year, if any?
Joanna: It’s a difficult question to answer. There are small tribal groups around the world – sometimes numbering even just one person - who are disappearing without anyone really knowing. For example, there was a woman named Boa Snr who was the last member of the Bo tribe in the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. She died in February 2010.  With her death a unique part of human society became a mere memory, after approximately 65,000 years of living on the Andaman Islands.
Frontier: How do you choose which projects to pursue?
Joanna: As I mentioned earlier, the projects we choose to pursue are those groups and communities who have pretty much everything to lose.
Those people who are seriously threatened by external forces, be that from damming, mining, logging or even conservation parks; whatever threatens their lives and their lands. We work mostly with small tribal groups who have followed their way of life for many generations, who are largely self-sufficient and live apart from mainstream society. And those who, without Survival, would have no voice in the world.  Through the voice and reach of Survival, tribal peoples can tell the world about the threats to their lives and lands.
Frontier: What are the main issues with indigenous groups today?
Joanna: Tribal people are still violently attacked, and sometimes killed, particularly in parts of South & Central America, Africa and Asia.  Violence, often self-inflicted, is also a big problem in wealthy countries, which have largely dispossessed their indigenous peoples (such as Canada and the USA, Australia and New Zealand).
In some areas, tribal people are still held in a form of slavery, called ‘debt-bondage’, where they are forced to produce raw materials to pay a supposed debt to an outsider.
The view that tribal people are ‘primitive’ and not able to make rational choices about their own future derives from a colonialist, racist ideology. It is still used to justify their dispossession.
As I’ve mentioned before, their lands are stolen for ‘development’, such as mining, dam-building, farming, etc., as well as for ‘conservation’ projects.  Even where the land itself isn’t taken, its resources often are. These can be timber or minerals.
Finally, forced change in the name of ‘progress’ is disastrous for tribal peoples. All peoples are changing all the time, but changes forced on tribal peoples in the name of ‘progress’ result in a far lower quality of life than before, with increased illness, suicide, imprisonment, substance abuse and dependence etc. Changes should be under the control of the people themselves.
Find out more about Survival International by visiting their website.

By Alex Prior

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