Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Living off the land

The tribal people of the world don’t have much of a voice. But journalist Joanna Eede has been collecting their extraordinary stories. She has spoken to Bushmen in Botswana, Amazonian Yanomami and Canadian Innu, among others, about their lives, homes and beliefs.

“This is our land. Do only people live here? No, there are also monkeys, even bears. The land is for everyone, men, animals and plants. The land is full of the spirits of our forefathers, it is a reciprocal relationship. The land is for our men of today and for our children.” So say the Asháninka tribe in Peru, echoing the beliefs of tribes the world over.

These people inhabit some of the most remote corners of the earth: tundra, sea-ice, mountains, deserts and prairies. They have done for thousands of years. “The affinity with their homelands is reflected in the names tribal peoples call themselves,” says Eede. “They are the savannah people, the people of the headwaters, the people from the wild pig place.”

“We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, the winding streams with tangled growth, as ‘wild’,” says Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota Sioux. “Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was it ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame.”

Each tribal society is unique. But most share the belief that man and nature should live together – and that a long-term attitude to the caretaking of the planet is vital. “The Iroquois of North America always consider seven generations ahead in their decision making,” says Eede.

We can learn from these wise people, who tread lightly and lovingly on the planet. "Only we, the indigenous people, know how to protect the forest," says Davi Kopenawa, from the ancient Yanomami tribe in the Brazilian rainforest. "Give us back our lands before the forest dies. It is dangerous to abuse nature. The sky is full of smoke because the napë, the non-Indians, are logging and burning our rainforest. The rains come late, the sun behaves in a strange way. The lungs of the sky are polluted. The world is ill."

This week, indigenous people in Brazil are threatening violence after a successful tender for the rights to build a giant hydro-electric plant on their ancient land. "Indians will be forced to kill the white men again so they leave our lands alone," says Kayapó leader, Raoni Metuktire.

We can also learn from their philosophy on life, too. "The desire for possessions is destructive," says Davi Kopenawa. "Nothing that can be bought, or sold, has any real meaning. Possessions are looked upon as symbols of advanced humanity, yet they disappear with the wind. All they do is cloud the mind and pollute the soul."

What can we do? Tell their stories, the tribal people say. "You have seen with your eyes what is happening here," says a Bushman in Botswana. "Go and tell people what you have seen. What would make us happy is if we have the rights to stay on our land."

Last Sunday, a glamorous gathering of actors staged a one-off benefit in London, performing readings from Eede's book, We Are One, which was written for the charity Survival International to mark its 40th anniversary. Julie Christie and Gillian Anderson shared a stage with Derek Jacobi and Mackenzie Crook. Sadly, Colin Firth didn't make it...

Should we care that tribal people are being forced away from their land and livelihoods? "Yes, if we believe that taking other people's lands – and so destroying them – should not be tolerated," says Survival International director, Stephen Corry. "They teach us that price and value are not the same things, and that community can be more intelligent and humane than government."

Or, as Cecilia Mitchell, a Mohawk in the USA puts it: "Different people, different ideas and different beliefs make life so much more interesting.”

Photographs, from top: Mike Goldwater, Grenville Charles, Bruno Morandi