Stop the Madness — Development Shouldn't Destroy Tribes

Governments and corporations want to take tribal land and resources for themselves.

Members of the Dassanech Tribe near the Omo River in Ethiopia.
Photo Credit: Rod Waddington/Wikimedia Commons

It’s crazy when these outsiders come and teach us development. Is development possible by destroying the environment that provides us food, water and dignity? You have to pay to take a bath, for food, and even to drink water. In our land, we don’t have to buy water like you, and we can eat anywhere for free.-Lodu Sikaka, Dogria Kondh, India

There’s no mystery about which development would benefit, rather than destroy, tribal peoples: it simply needs to follow the UN minimum standards, and stop violating international law. The key texts are the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labor Organization’s Convention 169, which amended an earlier version from 1957. This is the nearest thing to a relevant universal law, and its principles have been around for two generations, long enough – you might think – for them actually to be applied.

These texts recognize what is obvious in any measure of fairness and justice: tribal peoples’ lands, which they’ve lived on and from for generations, belong to them, and nothing should happen there without their proper agreement, or in UN-speak, their ‘free, prior and informed consent’.

However, it’s just not going to happen with ‘development’ projects from governments and corporations: both want to take tribal land and resources for themselves. The UK government won’t even investigate human rights violations in Ethiopia – which will eventually destroy the Omo river tribes – despite UK taxpayers’ money flooding the country. That’s not surprising, it’s geopolitics: the West is desperate to keep Ethiopia on a Western path. A blind eye is invariably turned on ‘friendly’ countries’ human rights abuses.

In the USA in the 1970s, I was naively perplexed by official pronouncements on human rights, until I realized that ‘human rights’ were just things which your enemies – principally the USSR – violated. In recent years, British parliamentarians consistently supported, and lied about, Botswana’s attacks on the Bushmen, and successive UK governments have steadfastly refused even to ratify the international convention.

However, scattered around the world are small projects which do follow UN rules and are genuinely helpful. Schools where teachers from the tribe instruct on how to cope with the outside world, in their own language and environment, as opposed to those which reigned everywhere until recently, with enforced boarding, where children were beaten for speaking their language, and their tribal background was ridiculed as ‘backward’. Physical and sexual abuse was common. I say ‘was’, but much remains in place. Bushmen children in Botswana frequently refuse schooling because they know they will be met with mockery and beatings. Tribal boys in India are forced to cut their distinctive long hair to shear them, literally, of their tribal identity.

Medical assistance should come from health workers from the same tribe, who can call on outside expertise when necessary. When gold miners brought cerebral malaria to the Yanomami in Brazil, local NGOs taught tribal health workers how to use inexpensive microscopes to identify those at risk, and how to administer the drugs. The project was soon taken over by the Indians, and is still running years later.

It boils down to just two requirements: a sense of ownership by the people; and for projects to be on an appropriate scale – usually small and local – so that they aren’t seen as impositions. Tribal people, like most of us, generally know what they need: they are not ‘backward’ or ‘childlike’, though they’re treated as such.

More intractable is how to help the survivors of the genocides which flowed from colonial invasions and the theft of almost all tribal lands in richer countries. The Aboriginals of Australia and Indians of North America are the clearest examples. After years of abuse, the indigenous survivors suffer the same ills faced by the very poor in their countries, weighed down with a host of additional problems.

Their health is catastrophic, with many problems now self-inflicted: they are plagued with high rates of suicide, substance addiction, self-harm, domestic and sexual violence, and obesity leading to diabetes and limb amputations. One quarter of the gas-sniffing teenagers in one Canadian tribe had prenatal alcohol brain damage. Governments responsible for the problems in the first place might spend millions trying to rectify them, but invariably fail.

There has been progress where indigenous peoples have taken control. In the Australian ‘outstation’ movement, communities moved to more isolated areas, and voluntarily forbade alcohol. Some US reservations attempt to stay ‘dry’, with varying success. Elders taking children into the country, to show them how they once lived, engenders a sense of legitimacy which can reduce the totality of hopelessness. No quick fixes, but perhaps there are a few sparks in a long black tunnel.

What can governments do? They can start by openly acknowledging why the tunnel is so murky in the first place, and begin to accept real history. The Americas and Australia are just two of several places built on countless recent genocides, but you’ll be hard pressed to find them called that in school books: ‘a clash of cultures’ is one common euphemism.

We are fooling ourselves about what happened then and is still happening today. Isn’t it time to confront our denial of both history and of today’s laws with more honesty – it could even catalyze a context for change?

For more on the perils of forced development, watch Survival International's new satirical video There You Go!"

Stephen Corry is the director of Survival International and the author of Tribal Peoples for Tomorrow’s World.