THE FINE BALANCE OF HUMAN CONTACT (PERSPECTIVE)
Originally posted: June 27th, 2012
It’s with great interest and concern that I’ve been following the recent developments into what Survival International calls the “human safaris scandal”… and this morning, news that the Indian government has banned tourism businesses from operating near a sensitive indigenous reserve in the Adaman Islands appeared in my inbox. It’s an important issue, one that for those of us who recognize the significance and crucial need to preserve and protect indigenous peoples, cultures, languages, and territories, is a victory.
The Jarawa Tribe, a nomadic community of people who live in bands of about 40 to 50 people according to Survival (an organization that works to fight for the rights of tribal people worldwide) is under serious threat from intruders such as poachers and tourism companies that, according to reports, drive hundreds of visitors a day along the highly controversial Adaman Trunk Road (ATR) with the hope of “spotting” members of the tribe. But while the tour operators have been officially shut down, the ATR (which runs through the reserve) remains open.
This is one of several cases like it, that highlights the dangers faced by some of the world’s most threatened communities…first and most importantly, for the wellbeing of the tribe and the threats associated with forced exposure and contact with outsiders, but also because of the terminology that, in my modest opinion, is evidence of a disturbing side of human behaviour and perspective, and an issue that we, the Embera community and I, chose to explore during my last visit to Panama in November 2011.
EMBERA PEOPLES OF PANAMA:
Does cultural tourism threaten or promote the wellbeing of indigenous peoples?
Personally, I couldn’t shake the thought that boat loads of tourists snapping pictures of tribe members was a gross display of cultural exploitation. Young girls in traditional dresses and beaded necklaces posed for cameras, boys laid out their beautifully hand carved wooden sculptures in front of potential buyers, while the community as a whole gathered to perform symbolic dances and songs for the flock of about 40 visitors sheltered from the sun on an elevated palm leaf covered deck. As I struggled with the notion of cultural exploitation and what appeared to be a forced performance in front of this foreign audience, my job was to inquire about it.
“This is good for our community” I was told by Embera Drua leader, Johnson Meguimasa. First, because cultural tourism provides the community with an income, second, because it allows Embera children to go to school, and lastly, because it fosters a sense of cultural pride among the community and especially youth, I was told.
Despite my job being to listen and report, I remained tormented by the thought that Meguimasa’s answer may have also been a “forced performance”. I feel awful, as a journalist, for admitting this in writing, but knowing that this community was forced to co-exist with the so-called “outside world” after the government declared their land a national park in the mid-90s (in large part, to gain control over a body of water that plays a major role in the proper functioning of the highly lucrative and expanding Panama Canal), the trigger for this newly found enterprise is what I found troubling.
Seeking a second opinion from the Embera tribe, I travelled to meet with another community where, perhaps to no surprise, I was given the same answers by Embera Quera Chief, Atilano Flaco.
But is it because these communities have been cornered, put in a position of a forced interaction with outsiders as their only means of survival that the notion of cultural tourism was embraced? With an income now necessary given a ban on hunting (imposed with the declaration of a ‘national park’), were these community leaders simply promoting what has become a way to gain income without abandoning their traditional way of life in the jungle?
I asked all these questions, but never got answers that spoke directly to the root cause… Whether the Embera community was forced to put on a show to survive, or whether it truly embraces and believes in the benefits it now gains from cultural tourism is a question that still lingers in mind despite being given a clear answer. But it is not for me to judge. I report what I’ve been told by the leaders of these tribes and can only wish them well and hope that it is in fact, the lives that they have chosen for themselves as a way to promote and protect the wellbeing of their communities and their traditional survival.
WAORANI (HUAORANI) PEOPLES OF ECUADOR:
Last month, I travelled to the Amazon rainforest in Ecuador to meet with yet another indigenous community: the Waorani (Huaorani) people. Their story differs greatly from that of the Embera tribe in Panama. Unlike the Embera people, the Huaorani community was split in two upon the arrival of Evangelical missionaries in the mid-1950s. Some were lured by the trespassers, others fled deep into the jungle refusing Christian conversion and contact with outsiders. That division remains today.
It is estimated that about 250 Taromenane and Tagaeri people, the distant Waorani relatives, live un-contacted in the intangable zone within the Yasuni National Park where they fiercely protect their land and community with spears and attacks on trespassers. According to a number of reports, the Waorani clans that live in this voluntary isolation, have been targets of brutal attacks and massacres in recent years. While it is difficult for me to confirm the exact details at this point in time, a source in Ecuador tells me that a major body of research and evidence of human rights abuses on this community will soon surface and be publicized, sending shock waves across the world with respect to the brutal treatment of indigenous peoples and human rights.
The Waorani people I was able meet are their direct relatives but, like the Embera people, today welcome visitors through guides that work to protect their culture, traditions, land, and independent wellbeing. I stayed at the Waorani Ecolodge near a number of Waorani villages. The lodge is fully run by tribesmen and tribeswomen, who like the Embera people, are eager to teach visitors about the Waorani traditional way of life, culture, traditions, hunting techniques, and their profound knowledge and understanding of the Amazon rainforest, its significance and fragility. Unlike the Embera community however, the number of visitors they welcome is highly restricted (a maximum of about 10 people at a given time I was told), thus preserving a more intimate and respectful relationship.
The difference too (between the Embera and Waornani communities that welcome visitors) is that the Waorani will speak openly about the destructive impact of the community’s contact with outsiders. Dabo Yeti, one of the three surviving members of the tribe in the region who witnessed the arrival of the “white man” that created the above-mentioned division between the tribe, has been unable to move for five years and is slowly dying from Polio I am told. While he regrets having stayed behind, he can now shares his story…perhaps as a clear message that people need to listen and think about the potential risks of cross-cultural interaction.
So should the world partake in cultural tourism?
The Embera peoples say they chose to engage with outsiders and have full control over the number of people they welcome to their villages and when; as did the contacted Waorani people I was able to meet. The experience of a cross-cultural interaction can therefore be mutually beneficial to both hosts and visitors if properly organized, namely with full control given to the host community. The opportunity to learn and engage with indigenous communities can not only foster respect towards peoples that for centuries have been discriminated against and grossly misunderstood, but also help to fight the ignorance and stereotypes that shockingly, in an age of accessible information and a global humanitarian awareness, continue to threaten their survival.
There is so much to be learned from indigenous communities that there is no better word than “stupid” to think that human beings, who live freely in perfect harmony with land and nature, are to be treated like photo-op animals…shame on those who fail to recognize the importance of indigenous knowledge, ancient wisdom, and the respect for the freedom and rights of communities like the Jarawa peoples….so please, human safari participants, stop “spotting” and to start learning.
Congratulations to those who continue to fight to protect the Jarawa community – today’s news is indeed great a step forward!
To learn more about the effort to protect the rights and freedom of the Jarawa peoples, please visit: http://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/jarawa