Why I support Survival International
Their published Mission Statement reads:
“We are Survival, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights. We’re the only organization that champions tribal peoples around the world. We help them defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures.
We exist to prevent the annihilation of tribal peoples and to give them a platform to speak to the world so they can bear witness to the genocidal violence, slavery and racism they face on a daily basis. By lobbying the powerful we help defend the lives, lands and futures of people who should have the same rights as other contemporary societies.”from survivalinternational.org
I have known for a while that I have wanted to donate a portion of my income to a cause and have actually been struggling to find one which I can really fully stand behind. If I manage to donate, consistently to one cause for the rest of my working life, then that is potentially a lot of money, so I want it to really go to the right place.
I have worked as a volunteer for various charities, all of whom do really good work. But here’s a rub…
Many of the charities that do work in the so-called “third world” are to some degree operating in the same paradigm as the people who caused the problems in the first place. Before this sounds wildly controversial let me explain:
Charities like Oxfam (who by the way, I have worked for and to a large degree really believe in) work to alleviate poverty. One of the ways in which they do this is by providing education. To a significant degree this education includes things like teaching children to read and write.
Why does a child from a culture whose entire history (until recently) is based on orality – that has never had or needed a system of writing need to learn to read and write? For generations upon generations these are people who have lived more or less happily and harmoniously with their environment – so what’s the problem now?
It’s usually fairly obvious to see that the problem is that these people face an encroaching globalised society, where their land is being “acquired” and their own culture eroded or replaced with globalised culture. Learning skills like reading and writing in this context is probably necessary and useful and makes a profound impact on the quality of life that they are able to lead. In essence these are skills which are being taught to cope with the adaptations which they have been forced to make.
And here’s the point I’m trying to make – they have been forced to make these adaptations – they have been forced into a situation whereby they need these skills. The work of these charities is necessary remedial work to alleviate the damage that has been done over generations of colonial and neo-colonial influence.
And here’s where Survival becomes really interesting:
They are working to protect the people who haven’t had this damage imposed on them from being damaged in this way. In essence they are giving the tribal people of the world the choice about whether they will need to learn to read or write or not. I see a great dignity in this.
I really believe that ultimately, and ideally, it should be up to people to decide their own future. It is should not really be up to us a globalised civilisation to decide the fates of un-contacted tribes.
As an undergraduate Choreography student I was lucky enough to go to Indonesia to do a module of Dance Anthropology. I saw Balinese society by eating, sleeping and praying in the homes of Balinese people. I saw how the reliance of the Balinese people had allowed them find a way to accept globalisation without being destroyed by it. I was also very aware of the way that on a neighbouring island the people who had practiced shamanistic religious traditions for generations were being forced to declare themselves as either Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic or Confucianist (not the absence of the option of “other”) and then were being told that they had to behave like proper Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, Protestants or Confucianists and give up their indigenous traditions.
When I got back from this trip I saw a map of the world showing the correlation between the density of biodiversity and the density of linguistic diversity (which is frequently used, reasonably accurately, to show cultural diversity but is easier to measure). The places where there were many languages have thriving biodiverse ecosystems, the places that were monolingual had little biodiversity in comparison. Indonesia was, at the time this map was published, the most biodiverse and the most linguistically diverse place on Earth. It is also a place where there are some of the most known or suspected uncontacted tribal people (another place which is obviously very key in this is the Amazon rainforest).
I suspect that much of this diversity has been lost since I looked at that map.
Survival is one of the only charities dedicated to such a cause. Imagine the world we would live in today if they had existed and suceeded 200-300 years ago when the North American indiginous people faced, what some describe as genocide. Or imagine what Africa would look like without the ravages of the colonial slave trade. Whilst they are a relatively small charity, the cause they represent is enormous.