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Tribal Survival
Published in the November 2002 issue of Hope magazine

A society without structure, the Ogiek have long roved the highland Mau forests of Kenya hunting and gathering honey, needing neither chief nor council. Now they are fighting for their lands and their lives.  

And, with help from Survival International, they are winning. The London-based group supports the rights of the world's 150 million tribal people to own their land and decide their futures. 

Threats to tribes like the Ogiek come on all fronts. They are flooded by dams, displaced by settlers, pushed off their lands by miners, and murdered by "civilizing" governments.  Survival, in turn, advocates for such violated peoples from all angles -- lobbying governments, researching tribal areas, holding vigils, teaching school kids, and distributing publications in more than 15 languages and 80 countries. 

Survival works not just for but with tribal groups whenever possible, often arranging visits abroad so tribal representatives can put their own case to the world. The group also educates tribes about the protections they have under international law. Many tribes end up helping other indigenous groups reclaim their resources, too. 

The group's campaigns, which generate up to hundreds of letters a day, have pressured some of the world's most powerful companies and governments into pulling out of tribal lands. Among the recent victories:

-- The Panara were awarded nearly $600,000 in damages for cultural and physical harm inflicted when the Brazilian government forcibly moved them in the 1970s.

-- In Labrador, Canada, the Innu were given control of education and policing in two of their settlements. 

-- Mobil withdrew from land occupied by a tribe of uncontacted Indians in Peru.

-- A judge in Sarwak, Borneo ruled that companies have no right to log the land of the Iban and other area tribes, even if they have obtained permits to do so.

-- A reserve was created to protect parts of the Yugan Khanty's land in Western Siberia; oil and gas drilling have been banned from the area for five years. 

"Each individual letter, each petition, each piece of press coverage have all contributed" to these landmark decisions, says Sophie Thomas, development assistant for Survival. Here's how you can help, too:

-- Write letters to companies and governments violating tribal rights (information on current campaigns is available at

-- Help distribute materials or translate them into other languages.

-- Organize vigils or other events to raise awareness about current difficulties faced by particular tribes. Right now Survival is seeking volunteers to start an ongoing vigil in New York City to educate people about the plight of Botswana's Gana and Gwi Bushmen. 

-- Purchase tribal art, Survival stationery and other goodies through its on-line catalog.

-- Donate or raise money. It's a key way to support Survival's work, since the group doesn't accept funds from any national governments. 

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© 2002 April Thompson. All Rights Reserved.

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