#09 Prejudice
Alice Bayer

Not 'Progress' But Prejudice: Development and Tribal Peoples

'Primitive', 'backward' and 'Stone Age' are just some of the ways governments, companies, and the media portray and describe tribal people, justifying the theft of their land by their supposed need to be 'developed'. So what does "development" mean: for whom, by whom and to what end?

'You napëpë [whites] talk about what you call "development" and tell us to become the same as you. But we know that this brings only disease and death ... Without forest, there is only sickness.' Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami leader, Brazil.

Tribal people all around the world are facing the loss of their land for economic development projects. Mining, hydroelectric dams, logging and plantations, to name just a few examples, are often carried out on tribal peoples' land without their consent. Not only can such activities cause enormous environmental degradation leading directly to the loss of tribal land; they are also often justified by extreme prejudice toward the people whose ancestors have lived there for hundreds or even thousands of years. 'Primitive', 'backward' and 'Stone Age' are just some of the ways governments, companies, and the media portray and describe tribal people, justifying the theft of their land with their supposed need to be 'developed'.

In order for development projects to bring real benefits to tribal peoples, they must first be consulted and their full consent has to be a pre-requisite. Ultimately, tribal peoples themselves are the best judges of what kind of 'development', if any, is needed on their lands.

'Primitive', 'backward' and 'Stone Age' are just some of the ways governments, companies, and the media portray and describe tribal people

'What should development mean for those who are largely self-sufficient, getting their own food and building their dwellings where the water is still clean – like many of the world's 150 million tribal people?' asks Stephen Corry, Director of the tribal rights organization Survival International.

Development: for whom, by whom and to what end?

Many of the world's tribal peoples have been living self-sufficiently on their lands for hundreds, even thousands of years. Rather than leading 'primitive' lives, they have acquired specialist knowledge and developed sophisticated skills for survival in what to Western eyes are often harsh environments. They have a strong connection to their land, which provides them with what they need for survival. A great deal can be learnt from tribal peoples about forest stewardship and medicinal plants, about seasonal fluctuations and migrations of animals, to name just a few. Still they are often driven off their land in the name of 'development'.

Tribal peoples in India (known as Adivasis) suffer extreme prejudice from the government and society in general. Calls for their 'development' by government officials are made on a regular basis. India's Jarawa tribe, for example, lives on the Andaman Islands and has only been in peaceful contact with mainstream Indian society since 1998. The Jarawa's ancestors and those of the other tribes of the Andaman Islands are thought to have been part of the first successful human migrations out of Africa and have lived self-sufficiently on the island for thousands of years.

But Indian government ministers have described the Jarawa as 'beastly' and 'primitive' and called for them to be 'mainstreamed' – in other words to be assimilated into Indian society. One official called for the Jarawa's children to be removed and sent to state schools, a move reminiscent of Australia's 'Stolen Generation'. The example of the Jarawa's neighbours, the Bo tribe, shows the devastating impact such an approach can have. They were forcibly settled by the British around 1900, and subsequently ravaged by diseases or killed. The last survivor of the Bo tribe died in 2010, and the Jarawa could face a similar fate if forced to join the mainstream.

In India's state of Orissa, the Dongria Kondh tribe faces the loss of its land and livelihood, also in the name of 'development'. British mining company Vedanta Resources is intent on mining their sacred hills for bauxite, but claims it would be bringing 'sustainable development' to the area. The Dongria have not been consulted about this project and vehemently oppose it. Lodu, a Dongria leader, recently said: 'If the company stops trying to take our mountain, we will stop suffering. But if they stay, we will suffer, the mountains will suffer, the earth, the forests, the water and the winds will suffer. Because of this we have started getting lots of different diseases, fever, diarrhoea. Because of these illnesses, some of us have died.'


And Ethiopia's eight tribes of the Omo Valley face similar prejudices. Numbering some 200,000 people, their way of life is adapted to harsh and often unpredictable conditions in the region's semi-arid climate. They have developed sophisticated methods of survival: some tribes practice 'flood retreat cultivation' on the banks of the Omo River, others practice rain-fed, shifting cultivation to grow grains and beans or hunt game and fish. But despite their highly specialized lifestyles, the government deems them 'backward', and has already started large-scale 'development' projects on their land. Talking about the region in 2011, the country's late President, Meles Zenawi, said 'In the coming five years there will be a very big irrigation project and related agricultural development in this zone. Even though this area is known as backward in terms of civilization, it will become an example of rapid development.'

"So that means we and the cattle will die together"

Forced relocations or 'villagisation' of the Omo Valley tribes have already begun, forcing local communities to give up their pastoral way of life, while most haven't even been consulted about these projects. 'The government says cattle and people have to move from the Omo Valley to where there is no grass and no crops. So that means we and the cattle will die together,' one tribal member said to a Survival International researcher.

As Ethiopia is also a major recipient of Western aid, donor countries and development institutions such as the World Bank need to start asking serious questions about where the money for 'development' is going. Only recently, the World Bank announced it was funding the power lines linked to the controversial Gibe III Dam, even though it had earlier pulled out of funding the project itself.

What if tribal people chose their own futures?

Tribal people who have been given the chance to live the way they choose often have better health indicators than their assimilated counterparts. Reports of recently contacted groups show that they are healthy, have low child mortality rates, and rarely suffer from diseases such as obesity, alcoholism and depression, which often blight those communities that are forced off their land. A lifestyle of physical exercise and a rich and varied diet low in salt and sugar mean that mobile hunter-gatherer peoples are usually healthier than their settled neighbours.

The above examples of the Jarawa, the Dongria and the tribes of the Omo Valley give some limited insight into how prejudices towards tribal peoples' way of life can have a major impact on how they are treated, and whether their rights to their land are respected. 'Development' cannot be forced on tribal peoples without their consent; when it is, it can cause major damage to the people and their way of life. Tribal people must, in accordance with international law, be given the chance of prior and informed consent regarding any projects on their land and be respected for their knowledge, skills, and stewardship of lands most Westerners would struggle to survive in. If given a choice over their futures and their lands, tribal peoples can thrive, and take their rightful place as proud citizens of the 21st century world.

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