Twenty years ago we heard many predictions that there would be no Indians left in Brazil by the end of the decade. These gloomy forecasts were wholly wrong. We are now optimists — hopeful that right thinking will prevail and the destruction of tribal peoples and their environments will stop. Tribal peoples will survive against extraordinary odds — but they do need the help of concerned people throughout the world.
My interaction with the Himalayan tribespeople overturned my pre-conceptions. There was no superior or inferior being. I was just a human being like them [...] I lived with people who had no electricity or cars and yet they lived very fulfilling lives. They had no schools but they were very intelligent people. I became even more thirsty to understand and learn more about the tribes people of the world.
The tragic destruction of the Gana and Gwi Bushmen reaches into the very roots of humanity and touches not only every human being alive today, but the generations yet to be born. The Gana and Gwi call themselves ’first people of the Kalahari', they might as well say, ’first people of the world'. They have been here longer than any of us. They are the last survivors of the world's first modern humans. It is not up to the Botswana government to wipe them out of history, with nothing more than an arbitrary and cruel presidential directive in favour of just more wealth for the country's elite – and of course the fantastically rich owners of De Beers. We will fight for the Bushmen's right to survive however long it takes. If they lose, then we will make certain that the crimes which brought their end are not expunged, but written large into history. Twenty-first century governments can no longer destroy indigenous tribes with impunity.
Would people still use the same demeaning language talking about European gypsies or immigrants? It is fundamentally an old, 19th-century throwback to the idea that that these people are somehow like our ancestors, or backward. It conveys that they are somehow not as intelligent as we are; that they haven't progressed as far as we have. It is fundamentally a colonial mentality.
Every time another tribe becomes extinct and their language dies, another way of life and another way of understanding the world disappears forever. Even if it has been painstakingly studied and recorded, a language without a people to speak it means little. A language can only live if its people live, and if today’s uncontacted tribes are to have a future, we must respect their right to choose their own way of life.
In the relentless search for advancement and material progress we have perhaps alienated ourselves from our Earth. I feeltingly witnessed this innate appreciation of belonging when the Colombian Indians greeted strangers on a street in Bogatá. Tribal people are the beacons that illuminate the importance of these connections. If we destroy them, we smother these lights, and so make our future far less human. I believe their survival, far from being a fringe concern, is one of the greatest humanitarian concerns of our time.
Governments, corporations and assorted others regularly exploit the idea that tribal peoples are "primitive" in order to remove them from their land or open it up to outsiders, thereby freeing up access to the natural resources on or under their land. Often this is done in the name of "development", justified on the grounds that the so-called "primitive" tribes are backward and out-of-date and need to "catch up" with the rest of us. But what are the consequences? For the tribes, they are almost always catastrophic: cultural and spiritual alienation, poverty, alcoholism, disease and death.
Where there’s money to be made from Amazonia, whether from cutting it down or taking its riches whilst leaving it standing, Indian tribes end up dead. That was the story a hundred years ago, and it’s the story today. A century of human rights declarations and more and more elaborate schemes to save the forest, haven’t made much difference; they won’t until the Indians, whose land this is, are put at the centre of the debate. They have proved time and time again that they are by far the best custodians of their own land.