Ross was born and grew up in Edinburgh. Her interest in tribal
peoples was sparked by spending a year working in Brazil at the age of
eighteen, and she became a supporter of Survival International soon
after. Miriam has worked in Survival’s research and campaigns
department since 2001. Aside from running Survival’s press office, she
has spent most of her time working on Survival’s campaigns in support
of the Gana and Gwi Bushmen in Botswana, and the Jarawa of the Andaman
Islands, India. She visited the Bushmen just a few months after the
Botswana government evicted them from their land. In 2004, she visited
the Andaman Islands to research the situation of the Jarawa and the
other tribes of the islands, and met with government officials. She
has also spent time with the Wanniyala-Aetto people in Sri Lanka.
www.survival-international.org ) is the only international
organisation supporting tribal peoples worldwide. It was founded in
1969 after an article by Norman Lewis in the UK's Sunday Times
reported the ‘massacres, land thefts and genocide’ taking place in
Brazilian Amazonia in the name of 'economic growth'. Today, Survival
has supporters in 82 countries. It works for tribal peoples' rights in
three complementary ways: education, advocacy and campaigns, while it
offers tribal people themselves a platform to address the world.
Survival works closely with local indigenous organisations, and
focuses on tribal peoples who have the most to lose, usually those
most recently in contact with the outside world.
(The Interview follows:)
Who and what prompted the creation of Survival International and what
do you consider to be your major achievements?
Miriam Ross: Survival was founded in 1969 in response to an
article by travel writer Norman Lewis in the UK newspaper the Sunday
Times, about the genocide of Brazilian Indians. We now work with
tribal peoples all over the world, helping them to make their voices
heard and to defend their rights.
Survival’s campaigns in support of particular tribal peoples have seen
a great deal of success. Perhaps one of the highest profile examples
is that of the Yanomami in the Brazilian Amazon. They lost one fifth
of their population between 1987 and 1992, mainly due to disease,
especially malaria, which was introduced by goldminers invading their
land. Some were also killed by miners. Survival campaigned for twenty
years to persuade the Brazilian government to recognise and protect
the Yanomami’s land. The Yanomami Park was finally set up in 1992 and
the miners expelled. The Yanomami’s problems are not over, but they’re
living on their land and running their own health and education
projects, and their numbers are increasing.
are countless other cases where Survival’s campaigns have had a
significant impact. For example, the campaign led by Survival
persuaded the oil company Mobil to withdraw from the land of the Yora
Indians in Peru in 1998, and the government to create a reserve. And
our campaign with local organisations in support of the Jarawa tribe
has led the authorities on the Andaman Islands to abandon their plans
to forcibly resettle the Jarawa in villages in order to ‘civilise’
general terms, however, I think Survival’s greatest achievement is its
contribution to the growing international recognition of tribal
peoples’ rights to their land and to make their own decisions about
how they want to live. This is enshrined in international law, and is
also part of national law in many countries, though there are many
others who do not yet recognise tribal peoples. It’s also becoming
more difficult for companies to exploit tribal peoples’ lands without
their consent. Mining company Rio Tinto, for example, recently
promised not to mine on the land of the Mirrar Aborigines in Australia
without their consent.
A central, protracted and sometimes controversial campaign of Survival
International is your 'Bushmen' campaign in Botswana dealing with the
eviction of tribal people from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. You
have a first-hand experience of this campaign, having visited the Gana
and Gwi Bushmen in Botswana in 2002, just a few months after they were
evicted. Irrespective of the eventual outcome of this campaign, what
are relevant lessons you have learned that can be applied, or errors
that can be avoided, in other campaigns?
the first time Survival has devoted so many resources to one campaign
over a sustained period, and we feel it has been very successful. The
eviction and persecution of the Gana and Gwi Bushmen has received more
media attention that any other case of a violation of tribal peoples’
rights, ever. It has made the question of Bushman rights, not just
those from the Central Kalahari but also elsewhere in Botswana and
southern Africa, a big issue. Because this campaign has been so
intensive, we have tried out lots of new ways of working. For example,
we have focussed on getting lots of coverage in the Botswana media,
and we’ve helped enable the Bushmen’s own organisation to get their
voices heard in the national and international media themselves.
right in saying that the campaign for the Bushmen has caused
controversy - if it had not, we would not be doing our job properly!
Some organisations and individuals have criticised the campaign, but
the Gana and Gwi Bushmen themselves have consistently and repeatedly
asked us to keep going. That has really reconfirmed our belief that if
you want to know what tribal peoples want, you have to listen to them.
It sounds obvious, but all too often developments are imposed on
tribal peoples without their consent because other people think they
know what is best for them.
You have recently produced an intelligent comic book entitled “There
you Go!”, a delightfully cruel critique of how the remaining tribal
peoples are being attacked from the Trojan horse of sustainable
http://www.survival-international.org/campaigns/thereyougo). Humour tends to
exaggerate so as to make a point, but do you really feel that in the
absence of all those offering at least 'sustainable' development,
things would be better, or would tribal people would be left entirely
unprotected to what has been called 'cowboy capitalism'? And do tribal
peoples invariably want to remain in their current state?
peoples are constantly developing and changing, like all societies.
The essential points of our cartoon book “There you go!” are that
development which is forced upon people rarely improves their lives,
it can in fact make them much worse, and is often just an excuse for
others to expropriate their land. What is crucial is that tribal
peoples should be able to control their own development and determine
What about Tourism. How important a threat or a solution, based on
your personal experience in both the Andaman Islands and Botswana, is
Tourism for tribal people, compared to interests such as mining,
refining, plantations, intensive agriculture?
can be a threat, or it can be something positive for tribal peoples.
Again, it depends whether the people themselves are in control. There
are places where tribes have been dispossessed of their lands in the
name of tourism - often where tourism is big business. And tribal
tourism in places like the Andaman Islands, where the tribes have
little or no contact with outsiders and are vulnerable to introduced
diseases and to exploitation, is obviously very dangerous. On the
Andaman Islands it is poaching by local settlers which poses the main
threat to the Jarawa tribe, rather than tourism. However, tourism to
the islands looks likely to increase, which is even more reason for
the Indian government to protect the Jarawa’s land.
case of the Gana and Gwi Bushmen, they have called for tourists not to
visit the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, and indeed to boycott
Botswana completely, as long as they themselves are not allowed to
live on their land. But some Bushmen say that when they are allowed to
return to their land, they would like to run their own tourism
projects. Some tribes do welcome the economic benefits of
Beyond (or usually before) developers that go after their land, tribal
people have also always been at the mercy of religious and political
zealots who go after their minds, wanting to 'enlighten' them and
convert them, with an otherwise educated UK MP recently stating that a
tribal people were relics of the Stone Age. How does your organisation
counter such bigotry in terms of informing the public and dispelling
prejudice. Can perhaps carefully monitored tourism with such opinion
makers help at all or will it only reinforce prejudice?
the biggest obstacles Survival faces is the perception that tribal
peoples are ‘primitive’, ‘Stone Age’, and ultimately doomed to die
out. We launched our “Stamp It Out” campaign this year, aimed at
persuading journalists to stop using the same racist language that is
so often used to justify the violation of tribal peoples’ rights.
We’re asking people to send emails and postcards to the editors of
papers, magazines and programmes which use terms like “Stone Age”. The
campaign webpage is:
The UN Day for the world's indigenous peoples was celebrated on 9th of
August, as every year. Two months earlier, the "UN Declaration on the
Rights of Indigenous Peoples" was adopted by the new Human Rights
Council at its inaugural session in Geneva, with the General Assembly
also expected to adopt the Declaration by the end of 2006. One more
declaration, one more set of guidelines, or do you see this as real
Survival welcomes the vote by the UN Human Rights Council, and we very
much hope the General Assembly will approve the declaration. Although
it is not legally binding, the declaration sets a standard against
which countries’ treatment of tribal peoples can be judged.
declaration recognizes the rights of indigenous peoples to their land
and to live as they wish. It also affirms that, for example, they
should not be moved from their lands without their free and informed
Some in the north blame NGOs for 'unaccountability' and 'opacity',
while ironically, some people in the south may blame the same NGOs
being too accountable to northern agendas, trying to become crusaders
or ethical neo-imperialists. Do you buy these arguments at all? Is
there perhaps an optimum level of transparency, internal democracy and
even local consultations beyond which things get problematic if an
organisation has made powerful enemies in its quest for changing the
it’s very important that NGOs are, and are seen to be, transparent and
open in their work. Survival and ten other leading charities have
launched a new code of conduct which aims to set standards of openness
and ethical behaviour in reporting, fundraising and campaigning. You
can download a copy of the charter at http://www.survival-international.org/related_material.php?id=432
So do you primarily respond to requests for assistance, or
pro-actively seek abused or threatened indigenous communities?
OK, and how do you communicate with tribal people? Does one of their
representatives sort of emerges from the forest and talks to one of
your local representatives? And then how are important decisions
reached in your organisation, locally or centrally? Do you adopt or
adapt the opinions of tribal people, and what measures are in place so
that you never patronise tribal people?
an extensive network of contacts with tribal communities and
organisations worldwide who keep us informed. Our researchers also
make extended visits to regions where tribal peoples live, and we stay
in their communities to consult at the grassroots level. The exception
to this is where a tribe is uncontacted: there we have to rely on
local information on their existence, their whereabouts and the
threats facing them.
Some argue that the call for corporations and governments in the
‘developing’ world to respect human rights and the environment is a
'barrier to entry' placed by their more affluent, western
counterparts. Is there a danger that the west is once more imposing
its own value system, for the 'good' of local people?
Survival campaigns at the request of those affected by human rights
abuses; to ignore their request for help would not be in their
They say charity begins at home. There are obviously no tribal people
left in the United Kingdom, but how effective have you been in
formulating UK policy (and blocking development or other aid) towards
countries that in your view abuse their tribal people?
Survival is lobbying the UK government over the issue of tribal
peoples’ collective rights. The UK, along with other governments, was
blocking the UN declaration on the rights of indigenous peoples
because it contains references to collective rights. Following
Survival’s campaign, the UK recently voted in favour of the
declaration at the UN Human Rights Council. However, the UK's
representative cautioned after the vote that the UK still does not
accept the concept of collective rights in international law.
Survival also persuaded the ODA, the precursor to DfID, to support an
NGO working with the Yanomami, and we have successfully lobbied
British companies. Currently, we are setting up an all-party
parliamentary group on tribal peoples in the UK parliament.
Most policy-makers would probably have no problem with tribal people
left in peace, uncontacted, living their traditional lifestyle, even
if some developers are upset. What would happen however in the
hypothetical (?) case where tribal people make (or are lured into
making) the 'wrong' choice, opt to cut down the forest, develop (say
Casinos as tribal people have done in Canada & US), file law suits to
claim back their ancestral resource-rich land for development (which
now seems too large compared to their depleted population) with the
friendly help of eager corporations, and this sudden wealth fuels
nationalistic, militaristic and pro-independence ambitions? Do you
have a fixed view on and how and why they should (not) 'develop', do
you believe tribal people are invariably benevolent, or would you
stand by them as their lawyers/advocates no matter how many 'errors'
Ultimately, it is up to tribal peoples how they lead their lives, and
what they do with their land. They should determine their own futures.
Survival’s role is to ensure that they are able to make free and
Is there perhaps a downside to supporting tribal rights? For example,
considering how many ethnic minorities live in each and every country,
and the precarious state of global peace, could not excessive
tribalism destabilise these countries, leading to civil strife?
Nations try to unite populations, by forming a common identity (or
national myth). Overstressing tribal issues may be damaging peace, no?
peoples want to defend their land and resources against those who are
oppressing or dispossessing them. They want to live independent lives.
They’re usually very small minorities, and pose no danger to security
Corporate human rights policies, including 'corporate social
responsibility' are seen by some as fine examples of “astroturfing”
(the practice of corporately-engineered ‘grassroots’ support) with
large corporations sometimes setting up their own philanthropic
foundations and forums - critics say - mainly to pre-empt government
regulation through self-regulation, and to defend against 'attacks' by
'uncooperative' NGOs and social movements who 'obstruct progress' and
wealth creation. So do you receive corporate support or corporate
extremely important to Survival that we maintain our independence.
Governments are the main targets of our campaigns, and for this reason
we accept no funds from national governments. We are rarely offered
funds from corporations, but we are careful to ensure that any that we
are associated with are not involved in any activity that is
detrimental to tribal peoples.
Besides donations, how can interested readers assist Survival
International in implementing its goals?
are all sorts of ways to get involved. People can write letters, which
do have a real impact. They can sign our petitions. They can organise
Survival stalls at festivals, fairs and other events in their area, or
just distribute Survival’s literature to their friends. Some people
fundraise for us by doing sponsored events. We also have a catalogue,
selling things like T-shirts, and really beautiful Christmas cards.
Survival believes that the force of public opinion is the only thing
that can stop the abuse of tribal people’s rights. Every single
person’s voice counts. For more information, see our website at
Thank you very much
Find the complete
list of ECOCLUB Interviews here