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7 February 2011
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Issues

Tribal people are increasingly threatened in today’s world. Dangers come in many forms - from governments and multi-national companies; banks, missionaries and guerrilla armies – sometimes in the name of economic growth and development. Mining and logging companies have destroyed whole landscapes, including vast tracts of rainforest, and seriously jeopardised tribal lifestyles. As their land is appropriated and their environment destroyed, indigenous people’s knowledge and identity are at risk.

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As the world’s population grows, land gets scarcer. The threat of encroachment for farming or other purposes is ever-present. Tribes like the Kombai in Western Papua and the Penan in Borneo are highly vulnerable to logging concerns. For tribes who have always lived by hunting, or gathering food from the forest, or from shifting cultivation, restriction or encroachment on the land as well as enviromental changes can profoundly impact upon the ways they support themselves. The Akie of Tanzania are not solely hunting and gathering but are dependent on honey collecting and more recently on the cultivation of crops such as maize. This can lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, where previously a tribe was mobile - often with depressing consequences, as for instance with the Sanema in Venezuela and the Babongo of Gabon.

In many countries, indigenous people live on the margins of society with little or no representation in government. That makes them vulnerable to human rights abuses, loss of land rights, unemployment, conflict, child labour, forced labour and trafficking. Even in countries where groups are ‘recognised’ by the state, forced assimilation into the mainstream may be a further ordeal. Education programmes can serve to discredit indigenous knowledge and lifestyles, leaving young people with low self-esteem at the mercy of social problems like drugs and alcohol. Indeed the strain of being perceived as ‘backward’, ‘primitive’ or troublesome by the wider community, as for instance the Babongo of Gabon, the Akie of Tanzania and the Suri of Ethiopia, has long-lasting repercussions.

Climate change is also beginning to impact indigenous habitats. In the Omo Valley in Southern Ethiopia, for example, drought has killed the cattle and devastated the herding communities who rely on them. In other parts of the world flooding brought on by environmental change has put pressure on indigenous lifestyles. There is also concern as to the impact of climate change upon Arctic communities such as the Nenet reindeer herders.

Steps taken to conserve the environment sometimes ends up excluding local people. The creation of a national park can mean indigenous tribes are thrown off land, or that their access is limited, or they are forced to live in settled, depressed communities. The Vale do Javari in Brazil where the Matis live is an example of an indigenous reserve. It may have given the Matis security but it has left some non-indigenous local people angry and excluded. 

The Nenets of Siberia and the Nyangatom in Ethiopia are both vulnerable. For without access to ancestral homelands, a group’s economic survival, spiritual well-being and cultural identity are at stake. For the Nenets, the threat also comes in the form of gas exploration. Beneath the tundra on which they roam, lies one of the world's biggest reserves of gas. The future of the reindeer herders of the Yamal will depend upon the careful development and extraction of this valuable natural resource. Tribal lands have been opened up to tourism as well as seen throughout the Omo valley. The impact on the local people depends on how much control they have over the land and the financial gain that tourists bring.

Elsewhere, the availability of modern weapons has eroded the traditional hierarchy of tribes – especially in groups in Africa, such as the Nyangatom and Suri in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. Guns have had a devastating effect on conflicts between clans, and on tribal warfare. Just as with colonial policies of ‘divide and rule’, governments today are potentially capable of using ethnic conflicts and tribal tensions for their own self-serving and destructive ends.

Tribal societies who have lived an isolated existence until recently – like the Jarawa of the Andaman Islands and various Yanamami groups in South America – are particularly vulnerable to the importation of ‘foreign’ diseases like measles and mumps. Such diseases can kill large numbers of people as happened to the Matis following official contact. As the outside world encroaches, indigenous healthcare systems are disrupted and there is an increasing reliance on western medical care, which is often in short supply – as for the Sanema in Venezuela. There is a need for educational and medical projects for indigenous peoples which take into consideration the intricacies of each group, and have indigenous skills and practices at their core.

Bibliography

Eriksen, T.H. (2001)
Small Places, Large Issues: An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology, Pluto Press
Moran, E.F. (2006)
People & Nature: An Introduction to Human Ecological Relations, Blackwell, UK
Sillitoe, P. Bicker, A. Pottier, J. (2002)
Participating in Development: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge, Routledge, UK

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