A blurred image shows an almost naked man in the middle of a vast rainforest, spear held high and directed both at the helicopter and the photographer hovering above it – a man defending his territory and his people from outside influences.
It was precisely this scene that made headlines in the United Kingdom a few years ago. It immediately highlighted the loss of ancestral homelands that some tribal communities are facing as a result of the ever-growing palm oil plantations in Sumatra and Borneo, for example, or deforestation in Brazil.
The challenges they face are real and serious, and the campaigns of human rights organizations like Survival International are crucial.
However, bad news dominates the headlines, so we believe that all indigenous communities and their culture are in decline – and this is not true.
Māori represents 18 per cent of New Zealand’s population, 38.9 per cent of Guatemala’s population is indigenous, and the Sami, who are spread across Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia, are thriving.
But the potential danger of loss is a harrowing story that generates clicks, and the appeal of propagating the tale of the “disappearing tribe” is great. It’s frustrating to see journalists (both print and television) going on a mission with a set story in mind and then searching for quotes, experiences or interviews that fit their given point of view.
Why are we doing this? Out of sentimentality.
During my travels through India, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early 1990s, I lived for some time with the Kalash, a pagan tribe that lives in three narrow valleys in the Hindu Kush mountains in northern Pakistan. I made firm friendship with Saifullah Jan, the chief speaker of the Kalash, who lived with his family and with whom we are still in contact today. In fact, it was his idea to found my travel company Wild Frontiers. He told me that he thought it would be good for both my international tourists and his community to meet, share stories, and he believed that through such meetings the Kalash would not only earn much needed money, but also realize that their culture was special and worth preserving.
At that time I remember a conversation with a very serious development worker at the American Club in Peshawar, who told me quite categorically that since the Kalash are surrounded on all sides by conservative Islam, they had no chance of survival and would disappear in 10 years. That was 25 years ago. When I recently met Saifullah, I asked him how he responded to those who claim that the Kalash culture is dying.
“That is not true,” he exclaimed. “The Kalash culture and community is as strong today as it was when you first came. We still have our festivals and shrines to your gods: Sagi Gol, Mahandeo and Jatch. We still have a shaman, an archer and qazis (guardians of legends) – people who hold the culture, the religion. And beyond that, our younger people are becoming more and more proud of their culture – they know they are different and they like it. Many learn the old traditions from their fathers,” he added. “There are now over 4,000 Kalasha. In the 1970s, there were perhaps 2,500, but now there are many more.”
Will Millard, a friend, expedition leader and television presenter who lived with the Korawai in West Papua for a year, agrees. “Perhaps tribal communities are not in decline, but only in transition,” he told me.
“As a human society, we are in a constant state of change. We accuse them [the tribal communities]of losing their culture because they wear clothes or use a gun instead of arrows, but a T-shirt does not make them any less Koravai men. Culture lives beneath the surface,” Millard added.
It is not our job to judge the “authenticity” of another culture.
“Just because a Welsh person doesn’t always carry leeks doesn’t make him any less Welsh – and yet we tribal communities impose these silly rules,” Millard joked half-jokingly.
Although I realize that this is not always the case, the lives of many traditional communities are changing for acceptable reasons. We cannot keep them in a goldfish bowl because of our own sentimental longing for a bygone era. They cannot remain static forever, and the desire to protect ideas of innocence and primitivism is backward and narrow-minded. The Kalash live in a harsh environment; the desire to