TakePart: Why should so-called civilized society be concerned with the survival of tribal peoples?
Stephen Corry: Whatever we might believe, “civilization” is only a narrow category of human existence, but it’s one that overrides everything “different” and forces the world into its own image, for its own benefit. Tribal peoples are fundamentally the same as “us,” but they are also different; they prove that alternative ways of living and looking at the world are possible. Because they are, seemingly, the most different to “us,” it makes them especially vulnerable, but also extremely important.
Diversity is vital for all our futures. If it weren’t, then why not cut down every forest, concrete over every place, accept species extinction, ensure everyone followed the same religion (or none), spoke the same language etc?
Tribal peoples aren’t universally virtuous, but they have a great deal to offer, and have already given humanity a lot, especially foods and medicines. Most are also the best conservationists—that may be a cliché, but it’s now easy to prove from satellite imaging.
Also, do we really believe in fundamental human rights and the rule of law? If not, then why not let the powerful take whatever they want, and to hell with everyone else? It’s a choice every generation must face: What kind of world do we want to leave behind us?
TakePart: Why, personally, are you so invested in preserving tribal peoples?
Stephen Corry: I am interested in the future, not in preserving any past. The fact that “progress” can be an enormous “con” trick, which harms—even destroys—the futures of many people, struck me years ago when traveling in tribal areas. By the way, that doesn’t mean that the industrialized world hasn’t created much of value: it clearly has.
If you see a child about to be smashed by a falling rock, and can do something about it, do you sit back or try and snatch it out of harm’s way? It’s a choice. Tribes aren’t children, but the image still holds.
I am not persecuted; there’s no risk of state-sponsored thugs breaking down my door to throw me in jail. These are privileges—how might I deploy them in the service of those who are denied them?
I believe I have been greatly enriched by tribal people: It’s a privilege that others should have access to. So is being able to dedicate myself to a project—Survival International—that achieves greater successes than anyone thought possible 40 years ago. Our team couldn’t be more dedicated and impassioned, or more fun to work with. That’s another privilege.
I’ve been lucky and feel very fortunate to do what I do. I enjoy it, it works; I’m doing it for me.
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