Ms Miriam Ross was born and grew up in Edinburgh. Her interest in tribal peoples was sparked by spending a year working in Brazil at the age of eighteen, and she became a supporter of Survival International soon after. Miriam has worked in Survival's research and campaigns department since 2001. Aside from running Survival's press office, she has spent most of her time working on Survival's campaigns in support of the Gana and Gwi Bushmen in Botswana, and the Jarawa of the Andaman Islands, India. She visited the Bushmen just a few months after the Botswana government evicted them from their land. In 2004, she visited the Andaman Islands to research the situation of the Jarawa and the other tribes of the islands, and met with government officials. She has also spent time with the Wanniyala-Aetto people in Sri Lanka. Survival International (Web: www.survival-international.org ) is the only international organisation supporting tribal peoples worldwide. It was founded in 1969 after an article by Norman Lewis in the UK's Sunday Times reported the 'massacres, land thefts and genocide' taking place in Brazilian Amazonia in the name of 'economic growth'. Today, Survival has supporters in 82 countries. It works for tribal peoples' rights in three complementary ways: education, advocacy and campaigns, while it offers tribal people themselves a platform to address the world. Survival works closely with local indigenous organisations, and focuses on tribal peoples who have the most to lose, usually those most recently in contact with the outside world.
ECOCLUB.com: You are currently undertaking a travel boycott campaign against the country of Botswana. What prompted you to do this? Is this a symbolic move in a long campaign or do you expect to achieve something concrete in the near future, as with the bauxite mine in Orissa state, India?
Miriam Ross: Survival is calling for tourists to boycott Botswana due to the Botswana government's persistent failure to respect the rights of the Bushmen of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Despite a landmark ruling from the country's High Court in 2006, which affirmed the Bushmen's right to live on their land, and recognised the government's eviction of the Bushmen as enforced, illegal and unconstitutional, the government is trying to drive the Bushmen out by denying them water on their own land. Survival knows of no other government that is actually preventing tribal people from accessing water. We hope that the government will start to treat the Bushmen with fairness and humanity, and that we can call off our boycott as soon as possible.
ECOCLUB.com: Many working in the travel sector, find travel boycotts against whole countries controversial as they harm ordinary people, rather than the elites. In addition, nearly all states persecute or exploit someone, be it their ethnic minorities, the women, the working class, immigrants, other countries etc. We would have nowhere to travel...On the other hand pressuring a specific company may be quite effective. Have you contacted the lodge in question, owned by a well-known transnational tourism corporation which claims to be ethical and community-minded. Surely they would have no objection to provide water access to the Bushmen, their neighbours which arrived thousands of years earlier than they?
Miriam Ross: Wilderness Safaris opened the Kalahari Plains Camp inside the Central Kalahari Game Reserve in 2009, having failed to consult the Bushmen on whose ancestral lands the lodge sits. The lodge sports a bar and swimming pool for tourists, while Bushmen in the reserve are banned from accessing a well which they rely on for water.
Responding to Survival's allegations, Wilderness Safaris says it cannot provide water to Bushmen in the reserve, claiming 'it is not a water utility and its business model is not robust enough to carry this responsibility'. However, it recently constructed windmills on a concession in Zimbabwe to pump water for wildlife, adding, 'it is gratifying to see them slake their thirst on the new water'.
The CEO of Wilderness Safaris, Andy Payne, has since said that 'any Bushman who wants a glass of water can have one' (!)
ECOCLUB.com: In a modern priest vs. conquistador analogy, Tourism developers and Conservationists seem more benevolent and less stereotypical than Big Oil and Mining. Leaving aside the distinct possibility that these interests are often intertwined (e.g. big NGOs sponsored by Big Oil & Mining, sharing boards of directors etc.), have you come across similar cases where tourism and conservation are in fact displacing tribal peoples in other parts of the world?
Miriam Ross: In Sri Lanka, the last forest refuge of the Wanniayala-Aetto or 'Veddah' was designated as the Maduru Oya National Park, and the Wanniyala-Aetto were moved to government villages and banned from entering their forest without a permit. In northern Tanzania, Maasai villages have been burnt to the ground by the authorities, and thousands of Maasai have been brutally evicted to provide a company, Otterlo Business Corporation Ltd (OBC), with more access to land for game hunting.
However, there are also success stories where tribal people are successfully fighting back. In 2007, the Eshkesh Safari Company withdrew from a deal on the land of the Hadza tribe, also in Tanzania, following opposition from the tribe. The company had wanted to use the area for hunting, and the Hadzabe feared that the game aniamls they rely on for food would become scarce.
This year, thousands of members of the Endorois tribe returned to their ancestral hom around Lake Bogoria in Kenya's Rift Valley, after an absence of thirty years. They were thrown off their lands in a series of evictions that began in 1973, so that the government could transform their land into the Lake Bogoria National Reserve. But the African Union endorsed a ruling earlier this year that confirmed the eviction had been illegal.
ECOCLUB.com: What alternative, non-violent, courses of action, besides not traveling to places where tourism displaces tribal people, would you recommend to concerned travelers?
Miriam Ross: Tourists considering visiting tribal peoples and their territories should research their trips thouroughly, and find out whether the tribe's land rights are upheld, whether they want tourists coming to visit, and whether they are in control of and benefitting from any tourism that takes place on their land. They should be respectful, as they hopefully would in someone else's home. And they should not travel to areas where there are uncontacted or recently-contacted tribes, who are likely to have no immunity to diseases as common as cold or the flu.
Where tourism is violating tribal peoples' rights, use the power of the pen and tell travel companies and governments your concerns.
ECOCLUB.com: In a recent report to the UN Human Rights Council, James Anaya, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, discusses the ethical responsibilities and obligations of transnational corporations in terms of respecting human rights and indigenous rights. Considering that voluntary codes of corporate conduct are a way for corporations to avoid legislation, and that transnational corporations have a way and a record of circumventing local laws, don't we finally need a clear set of international laws on tribal people rights?
Miriam Ross: A clear set of inernational laws on tribal peoples' rights already exists: ILO Convention 169 (http://www.survivalinternational.org/law). ILO 169 recognises tribal peoples' rights to land ownership, to equality and freedom, and to make their own decisions about projects that affect them. It is legally binding on governments that ratify it. So far, only 22 countries have signed up to the law, so Survival is calling for all government to do so. Almost every country in the world has endosed the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples, but it is not legally binding, so is less powerful than ILO 169.
Whether or not the country in which a company is operating, or the country in which the company is based, has ratified ILO 169, the law is there, and it is gaining strength as the set of standards by which tribal peoples should be treated. As James Anaya argued, it is not enough for a company to claim that it has complied with local laws or practices, if these are inadequate, as they often are.
ECOCLUB.com: How many tribal people living in a traditional way (non-proselytised to the major religions) are there in the world today, approximately, and how rapidly are their numbers dwindling?
Miriam Ross: There are over 150 million tribal people worldwide. Some do adhere to major religions, but this does not mean they are not tribal - I have sat with nomadic Penan in the rainforest of Borneo, hearing them say Christian grace before their meal of sago and freshly hunted wild boar. The numbers of some tribes, whose land is being taken from them, are dwindling, but many other tribes are increasing in number.
ECOCLUB.com: Most states are built on 'national / founding myths' that supposedly provide unity, so it is the natural thing to do for any government (majority) to treat "their" last remaining tribal peoples (ethnic minorities) and their way of life as 'archaic' and to argue that they (and in particular their valuable lands) need to be 'assimilated' into modern civilization for their 'own sake' and the 'greater good of the nation'. Such governments certainly dislike/disallow foreign NGOs meddling into their 'internal affairs ' fearing that they may serve sinister geopolitical agendas of super-powers, involving the constant invention of minorities and independence movements (divide & rule). So should there be perhaps a specialised, powerful United Nations agency to represent & defend Tribal People worldwide, or are civil society movements and organisations like yours doing an adequate job and powerful enough to face autocrats?
Miriam Ross: Gandhi said that the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its minorities. Human rights are everyone's business - that's the point of them. If governments are not called to account by the international community, they can get away with all kinds of crimes. Of course, goverments don't like criticism, and some will invent outrageous allegations against human rights NGOs in an attempt to discredit them. The United Nations does speak out for tribal peoples, but it cannot force governments, companies or others to respect their rights, so pressure from civil society is important too.