Tribal peoples will survive against extraordinary odds - but they do need the help of concerned people throughout the world.

Acceptance speech – Survival International

Survival international is a movement, 20 years old this year, which helps tribal peoples to protect their lands and ways of life from destructive outside interference.

It began work by looking for money to help these people; particularly in health, appropriate education, marketing and support for indigenous organizations.

And although we do still channel funds into projects, survival has shifted its emphasis over the years. Nowadays, it is primarily a campaigning and educating organization.

It is a financially independent, non-governmental and non-profit making organization, funded by our members and by the public. With smaller amounts coming from private trusts and foundations.

No single donor gives more than 3% or 4% of our total income and we do not have money from governments.

Our five national offices, in the UK, USA, France, Italy and Spain, rely heavily on volunteer staff backing up small teams of professionals.

We have grown quite quickly over the last few years and are looking to expand our work all the time. This depends, of course, on more money being available.

We currently have about 8,000 paying members in over 60 countries, though our materials are actually sent to about 30.000 organizations and people. Many of them are in the third world.

We regularly publish in six European languages and Japanese, though most of our material is in English, French, Spanish or Italian.

In a year, we usually handle about 50 specific cases of violations covering about 25 countries; we emphasize South America and Southeast Asia but also work on Australasia, the Indian subcontinent, parts of Africa, the Pacific and North America.

In the past we have given some support to the sami people of northern Europe, but in general, we give priority to groups who have only recently come into contact with outsiders and who have no organizations to represent them. Generally, it is they who have the most to lose.

Survival focuses its attention onto deliberately narrow aspects of the injustice which tribal peoples face. We stress continually that they have rights to the lands they live on and use.

This is their land. They may not have concepts of land ownership, they may not have paper titles, they may not speak the national language or even have any idea they form part of a nation state. But none of this alters one jot the fact that the land is theirs by moral right and by law.

For over 30 years, the international law on tribal populations has stated unequivocally that they have full legal right to their land. Governments which flout this, as they practically all do of course, are acting illegally.

Survival puts a lot of weight behind this question of land. We believe that this is where the central battle lies. If proper land rights can be secured ‑ and they should be full ownership rights held in common by the people. Not just reserves ‑ then tribes will be able to choose themselves how they are going to adapt to the changing world.

We believe that governments must acknowledge that tribal peoples have this right.

We believe that governments are not actually going to recognise this unless they are made to and that they are not going to be made to other than by force of public opinion.

We are looking for long-term solutions – ideally very long-term solutions ? so that tribal land is free from invasion for once and for all time.

We are pushing for a recognition of human values over economic and political expediency: for an acknowledgement that many of our technological answers to life’s problems are in fact failing and that we must listen now, before it is too late, to some very simple and actually very obvious concepts which are encompassed in many tribal peoples’ attitudes to the world.

We don’t want to fall into a ‘noble savage’ trap. They have not got all the answers and they suffer in their traditional lives, from much the same things as everyone else does. But they do live by an evident fact; people do not exist outside of the environment. People and the environment are unique. Tribal peoples know this ? by and large we have forgotten it.

We believe that only worldwide public opinion is going to bring any profound impact on this problem.

When many shareholders are genuinely outraged that their companies are destroying Australian aboriginals, when development agencies know that many taxpayers will not tolerate their funding genocidal projects in India or Indonesia ? then the situation will change.

Public opinion nowadays would not allow a reopening of the slave trade from west Africa to the new world. Public opinion eventually threw out Marcos from the Philippines and look what it is doing in Czechoslovakia and East Germany today.

Public opinion, we believe, will stand up for tribal peoples’ rights and will bring profound changes to how they are treated. We are optimists actually.

Survival is doing two things: catalysing and crystallising.

Firstly, it is trying to catalyse this public opinion through its educational work: publishing newsletters reports, books and exhibitions, giving talks and slide‑shows, organising schools projects, and so on.

We publish a series of popular periodicals and occasional more technical reports.
As well as telling people how tribes are being oppressed and killed, we want to publicise the beauty of their ways of life and explain how much they have already given us and how much more they could give:

How so many of our foods and medicines come from them. From potatoes to muscle relaxants vital for major surgery, and how within their knowledge of the tropical forests, may lie cures to some of our most lethal illnesses.

Secondly, and most importantly, survival is trying to crystallize this opinion, which we and many other groups are raising, and which is growing anyway; to focus it into organized and sharp campaigns, well targeted, using proven methods and seeking realistic, more immediate goals.

We get media attention, use our consultative status at the united nations and similar organizations, make constant representations to governments and multilateral development banks, and so on.

Our principal tool is the letter campaign. We ask our members to write to those in power. Usually governments, companies, or banks, which are responsible for so much suffering.

These letters appeal for precise action in a specific violation of a particular tribal people’s rights.

We are running dozens of campaigns at any one time; and we see some of them working.

For example, following a recent action targeting the Indonesian half of New Guinea, an American paper company abandoned a projected mill, which would have wrecked the environment and destroyed the tribal people living there.

We have seen projects for dam building shelved in Guyana and mining concessions withdrawn in Venezuela.

We have seen the world bank, which funds an enormous amount of destruction all over the world, pull out of dam projects in India and delay loans in brazil because the Indians were not getting a fair deal.

We have seen Indonesia cut the budget on its appalling transmigration programme where poor people are shipped to outlying islands and dumped on tribal land.

One of our most famous members, Claude Lévi-Strauss, managed to stop a proposed car and boat rally in French Guyana, which would have blitzed many Indian communities.

Tribal people are well able to articulate their own defense if given the chance. And, of course, they do this better than any intermediary can.

What we can provide more easily than they can is a knowledge of the outside. Comparisons with other countries, analyses of international laws and forums and a general bringing together of widespread concern into a sharp focus – in brief, an efficient international organization with thousands behind it.

Since its inception, survival has put a great deal into supporting the growth of indigenous peoples’ own organizations.
Shortly after they formed, we were seeking funds for the new South American Indian federations. Like the one in the Cauca area in Colombia, which has done so much to regain Indian land off white landowners.

They have paid a colossal price; on average one Indian leader murdered every month over the last fifteen years.

Our Right Livelihood Award this year comes after several years of supporting indigenous organizations for the prize. Three years ago, the new Amazon Indian confederation and its leader won one.

Then last year it was the turn of the Sarawak native organization which has struggled so hard against the total logging of their lands.

We are not incurable romantics, green or otherwise, fighting a rearguard and doomed action against history. We are not talking about some inevitable drift into assimilation with white culture.

Our experience of the last 20 years, the aboriginals’ experience of the last 200 years, or the Native Americans’ experience of the last 500 years, shows us that is not actually what happens.

Tribal peoples will struggle to hang on to what they have left. And there’s more tenacity in that struggle, more resilience in their cultures and ways of life than many think, or often would like to admit.

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 actually; not complacent of course. But 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.

Survival seeks to bring this concern together and forge it into an effective weapon to put into the hands of the people themselves.

Our goal is to build a strong and well-focused worldwide movement to help tribal peoples.

We cannot stress too much that Survival is its members’ work. The Right Livelihood Award will be an enormous help to them in this task, which is desperately needed, now more than ever. And it is on their behalf, as well as on behalf of all threatened tribal peoples, that I thank the foundation for awarding us this prize.


We have asked Davi Kopenawa Yanomami to stand with us for the Right Livelihood Award ceremonies. This is the first time he has left Brazil.

He is spokesman of the 10.000 Yanomami Indians there and has spent many years fighting for the Indians’ rights to their traditional lands.

These lands have been invaded by at least 45.000 illegal gold miners.

The forest is being destroyed and the Indians are dying of new diseases as well as being killed in armed confrontations with the miners.

The first proposals to secure Yanomami land as a protected area for the Indians were put forward in 1968.

Although several promises have been made over the years, the Brazilian government has still failed to take the necessary steps to prevent the destruction of this, the largest little contacted Indian group left in Brazil.

Survival has pressed for the protection of this area since it began work 20 years ago.

The campaign now involves dozens of non-governmental organizations all over the world and is centered in the committee for the creation of the Yanomami Park which is coordinated in brazil by Claudia Andujar who is with us today and who will translate for Davi.

The Yanomami are in critical need of emergency medical work. Thankfully, Survival was able to raise some money for this last week – we are now looking for a lot more.

I hope that Davi will tell us just how important the ramifications of the genocide of the Yanomami will be for all of us and how important it is to stop it.

Survival International
6 Charterhouse Buildings
London EC1M 7ET