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Dongria-Kondh-Protest-2Dongria Kondh Tribe, India, Protest to Save Sacred Mountain - threatened byBritish Mining Company, Vedanta Resources. Photo: Sacredsites.org

By Courtenay Forbes. November 2012.

Courtenay Forbes talks to Chloe Corbin of Survival International

Uncontacted Tribes:  The Last Free People on Earth?

Indigenous and tribal people are perhaps a group of people that command little attention in the western world.  Such people seem to be so far removed from the world we inhabit as to take on an almost mythical image. 

However, there are possibly up to one hundred tribes living on the planet today who have no contact with what could be seen as ‘civilisation’.  These groups have often lived in their land for centuries, and share a deep connection with their ancestral home, which often are in rainforests and sparsely populated areas.  The difference in their ways of life and traditions seem so alien to many in the modern world as to be deemed backwards.  This, however, is an extremely naïve and uninformed view. 

Indigenous and tribal people have a sense of stewardship towards the land they inhabit, and take many measures to ensure the preservation of these natural habitats, an idea that is low on the list of priorities for many ‘developed’ nations.  The lack of political and legal infrastructure of such communities, however, leaves them vulnerable to human rights abuses.  Governments of the countries that contain indigenous people have a sense of right to use the land, and homes, of tribal peoples as they see fit.

Creating a Culture of Dependency

The problem of government interference in the lives and rights of indigenous peoples is one that goes largely dismissed in the global community, despite its wide-reaching implications.  Nations who give permissions to large corporations to carry out deforestation and mining, for example, are responsible not only for their repercussions this has on endangered environments, but also for destroying the homes of indigenous communities.  In the United States, for example, Native Americans are frequently removed from their ancestral homes and placed into reservations, which are poorly-equipped and a fraction of the size of the land they inhabited before. 

The lives that these people are used to, and the lives they have lived and loved for generations, are turned upside down in an instant.  Hunters who were used to gathering their own food become dependent on the state, children are placed in alien school environments where the disparities between their world and the world of other children makes life extremely difficult.  Unsurprisingly, the economic, physical, social and emotional impact of such upheavals is a primary cause of a spreading tradition of depression and alcoholism amongst up-rooted indigenous cultures.

Suicide, Domestic Violence and Substance Abuse

It is these disturbing occurrences within indigenous communities that have been removed from their native land that has brought such cases to wider international attentions.  Statistics indicate a growing trend toward youth suicide, domestic violence and substance abuse within these communities.  The emotional trauma of being ripped from the land they see as the homes creates a sense of self-destruction within indigenous reservations.  Traditional social structures are inversed, causing loss of identity and purpose. 

Community elders, for example, once the sages of a group who provided wisdom and guidance, become reliant on younger people to provide for them.  There are many examples of this.  In 1956, the Canadian government removed the Safesi Dene tribe from their home without warning, and put them in a reservation.  These once free and independent people became dependent on the generosity of charities, and event took to scavenging in the near-by town of Churchill, causing tensions between them and the inhabitants of the town.  Their dogs were shot, their traditional hunting methods banned, and they were forcibly settled against their will. 

In 1960, the sale of alcohol to Native Americans was legalised, facilitating the use of alcohol among native communities as a coping mechanism.  The skills that are honed during the lifetime of a Native American were rendered futile, and children were resorted to providing for their parents.

The Children of Tiwi Island

Child suicide amongst displaced indigenous people is perhaps the most shocking consequence of state interference.  One in four children indigenous to the Tiwi Island in Australia have attempted suicide following removal from their ancestral home. 

Other tribes that are particularly affected by this worrying trend are the Guarani tribe in Brazil, where three hundred people committed suicide in the years 1985-2000, the Inuits of north Canada and Greenland, and the Khaty herders of Siberia.

Infection and Food Scarcity

Tragically, in 2006, the leader of the Nuwark tribe, Mao-Be committed suicide by drinking poison.  His death signalled a great personal loss to his loved ones, but also for his tribe as a whole: his presence as leader was vital in the campaign to return the tribe back to their home in the rainforest.  The tribe, forced to settle as a consequence of the Colombia drug war, first came into contact with outsiders in 1988.  As a result of this unexpected, undesired contact, approximately half of the tribe’s population was wiped out through exposure to malaria and flu.  The land they were subsequently moved to was a mere 2 percent of the size of their home, and as a result food was also in short supply.  The resulting suicide was one more disaster in the recent history of this tribe.

Tribes that face a particular threat from deforestation and displacement in this point of time include the eight varieties of Omo valley tribe in Ethiopia, who are currently affected by the building of a hydro-electric dam, and the Awa in Brazil.

Survival International - interview with Chloe Corbin

The charity Survival International does much to raise awareness of the status and problems faced by indigenous tribes, and campaigns to bring such issues to the forefront of international politics. 

I asked Chloe Corbin, Press Officer of Survival International, about the main issues faced by tribes in today’s world:

“The main dangers are the invasion, theft and occupation of tribal and indigenous land. This is fuelled by a growing desire to profit, often illegally, from the globe's natural resources, the wealth of which invariably lie within the territories of indigenous people. 

Coupled with this is a commonly held assumption that tribal and indigenous people are in some way different and not part of the 21st century. This is entrenched by language such as 'primitive', 'Stone Age', 'backward', or 'living like our ancestors' - terms often ascribed to tribal people.”

A recent Unicef report indicates that the displacement of indigenous tribes worldwide creates social breakdown, low self-esteem and depression.  The loss of land leaves tribes with no choice but to move, and this causes problems of integration with other communities, combined with lack of opportunities for jobs, as positions are given to the people of the towns rather than indigenous people.

Governments in Denial

It is estimated that there are 100 tribes worldwide that remain uncontacted, many of whose existence has only been acknowledged recently, with some governments still denying the existence of such groups.  The denial of their existence removes the responsibility of governments towards not only the natural climates they are damaging, but also the repercussions on human life. 

Although little is known about these communities, one thing is clear: there is an onus on governments to protect the land that houses these tribes; it is vital that those in power recognise the importance of specific areas of habitat to particular indigenous groups.  10.4 hectares of forest has been destroyed permanently, and continues to be damaged as the increasing demand for goods such as palm oil attract large companies, largely unregulated by the state in many countries.  The destruction of forests has an impact on communities aside from indigenous tribes.  In Borneo, for example, deforestation changes the source of income for many families, thus affecting the economic climate for the whole country.  Therefore, the need for government intervention for the protection of all its people is of utmost importance, but is as of yet still largely ignored.

80 percent of ‘ecoregions’ worldwide are home to indigenous people, and therefore the destruction of areas such as forests is tantamount to a company bulldozing down the homes of an entire town. 

The fate of indigenous people is bound up with government compliance with corporate aims and allowing the destruction of various eco-systems.  These habitats being home to indigenous people means that they have no choice but to carefully preserve their delicate environment.  They employ crop rotations, seasonal hunting bans and the idea of sacred land to ensure minimal human impact.  This responsibility is taken very seriously by tribes who see stewardship of the land as their duty:  The Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria tribe, for example, protect the mountain that is home to them and is valued as sacred.

United Kingdom Complicit

The ILO (International Labour Organisation) convention 169 is the Indigenous/Tribal people’s convention that was first established in 1989.  It is the only piece of international legislation that protects the rights of indigenous people, involves them in consultations over various development projects, and respects their right to land and self-determination.  There is also the UN Declaration on Rights of Indigenous People, but crucially this, unlike the ILO 169, is NOT legally binding. 

The ILO 169 has recently been brought to media attention, as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, has refused to ratify it.  He claims that the UK is home to no indigenous people to whom the convention would be applicable, despite tribal leaders having appealed directly to the UK for support.  Futhermore, Spain agreed to support the law, despite being in a similar position to the UK.  Cameron’s decision has caused debate amongst British politicians: MP Martin Horwood has publically criticised Cameron’s decision. 

The coalition’s decision has also highlighted the broken promise of the Liberal Democrat party, who in 2009 pledged to support the convention.  Adding to these inconsistencies, the British company Vedanta Resources currently wants to mine the land home to India’s Dongria Kondh tribe for valuable bauxite, so that Cameron’s argument is infinitely flawed: despite the lack of indigenous people in the UK, the decisions of the British government have a direct impact on tribal communities.

Twenty-two countries currently support the ILO 169, but the impact UK support would have on the credibility of the convention must not be underestimated.  Chloe talked about the importance of supporting the convention:

“Very recently, the UK refused to ratify ILO 169. This was a huge disappointment, as whilst the UK has no indigenous people, it's businesses often work on indigenous land and it should set an example by aspiring to the highest standard and respecting all human rights. It is no coincidence that so much of the world’s remaining rainforests and biodiversity are on tribal peoples’ lands. ILO 169 is not just a law for tribal peoples; it is a law for everyone. It plays a key role in saving the world’s rainforests, by putting control of the land back in the hands of the people who have looked after it for generations. Britain’s refusal to ratify the law is shameful, particularly given the terrible impact its colonial past has had on so many tribal peoples around the world.”

However, in the meantime, while indigenous people must wait for the international community to realise the importance of their plight, there are things that can be done.  According to Chloe:

“Individuals can support indigenous people by writing to their MPs to insist on the ratification of ILO 169 in their respective countries. By supporting Survival, they can also keep up with news and developments from different parts of the globe. Survival regularly directs its supporters via its ACT NOW pages, on how to press for change by lobbying individual governments. You can also donate to Survival International, to invest in campaigns that help change attitudes.” 

With high profile supporters such as British actor, Colin Firth, supporting these initiatives, combined with increasing pressure from individuals calling out for recognition of these issues, it surely can only be a short, hopefully, period of time before the fate of indigenous people is improved.

Survival International and Colin Firth - video appeal on behalf of the Awá people of the Brazilian Amazon. According to Survival International, they are the world's most threatened tribe, with their homes being destroyed by logging and industrial projects

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Courtenay-ForbesCourtenay Forbes is studying Ancient History and History.

"Once completing my degree, I hope to study law, and ultimately, my main goal is to work as a human rights barrister.

I would love to be involved in legal cases that breach the fundamental idea of gender equality, as I feel that this issue is a large source of human rights abuses in today’s society."

Follow Courtenay on Twitter: @CourtenayForbes