ISSN 1108-8931


Year 7 - Issue 84 - Sep 06

Sponsored by: Hana Maui Botanical Gardens, Jorth Consult Limited, Pacuare Lodge,
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"Some tribes do welcome the economic benefits of community-based tourism." - Survival International’s MIRIAM ROSS

The ECOCLUB Interview with Miriam Ross
Press Officer, Survival International
Index of Interviews

Miriam Ross, Surival InternationalMiriam 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.

Survival International
(Web: ) 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.

There 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’ them.

In more 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?

This is 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.

You’re 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 development (Web: 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?

Tribal 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 its direction. 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?

Tourism 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.

In the 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 community-based tourism. 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?

One of 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 progress?

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.

The 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 consent. 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 world?

I think 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 So do you primarily respond to requests for assistance, or pro-actively seek abused or threatened indigenous communities?

Both. 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?

We have 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 interests. 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' they make?

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 informed choices. 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?

Tribal 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 or stability. 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 pressure?

It’s 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?

There 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


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