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Video: What does 'development' mean for tribal peoples?


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A new short film created by Survival International and voiced by David Mitchell examines what the overused, and often questionable term, ‘development’ means for the fragile futures of indigenous tribes.

The satirical two-minute animation explores what ‘modernity’ means and how our Western conception of ‘development’ may not always be the right choice for tribal people who want to determine their own future.

Despite the positive associations attached to the idea of 'development', Survival International reveals how previously self-sufficient peoples can lose autonomy through this process, as well as their shared livelihood and land. The short film is inspired by a comic book entitled There You Go written by Oren Ginzburg, which examines what happens to an imaginary tribe when development experts promise them a better life through ‘sustainable development.'

The media often has perpetuated the myth of peoples in need of development and modernisation, with offensive notions of ‘primitivism’ and stereotypes of ‘savage tribes’, yet Survival International swiftly topples this belief by giving us an unflinching look at the destruction that this can create.

I talked to Survival International campaigner Sophie Grigg to find out more about the film (which you can watch below), its aims and how we can safeguard the future of tribal peoples.

What are the aims of your satirical short film?

The aim is to raise awareness of the disastrous ‘development’ that is still being imposed on tribal people in some parts of the world. In India, Ethiopia, Malaysia and elsewhere, governments still think that tribal peoples are backward and need to be brought into the ‘modern world’. Of course they already live in the ‘modern world’ but have chosen to live a different way of life. It’s only by making people aware that this is still going on that we are able to change public opinion and make it stop. Pushing tribal people into the mainstream invariably robs them of their land, their self-sufficiency and leaves them with nothing.

Your film is critical of Western conceptions of development - what do you think is wrong with our current perceptions of third world countries?

We appreciate that not all development is like this, but this sort of development still very much exists today. It’s often not coming from so-called ‘western’ countries, but from the urban elite in India, Botswana, Laos etc, who think that tribal people have been ‘left behind’ in development. They don’t realise that tribal people have not been left behind, but have chosen their way of life.

What role do you think the media plays with regards to the simplistic ideas we have of indigenous cultures?

The press in countries like India and Malaysia regularly portray tribal people as ‘primitive’ and ‘backward’ and unquestioningly promote the idea that they should be ‘brought into the modern world.’ The western press also regularly perpetuate these myths. Only this month, the Sun described tribal peoples in India’s Andaman Islands as ‘savage tribes’ and on the same day the Sunday Times had a sensationalist article alleging that tribal ‘cannibals’ ate Micheal Rockerfeller under the headline, ‘Cook a fella’.

How can we increase awareness of the damage caused in the name of development in countries like Ethiopia?

We should make people know that this type of development is still going on, and it’s often in countries like Ethiopia and India that receive huge amounts of foreign aid. We should urge our governments to make such aid conditional on putting an end to forced evictions and imposed development on tribal people.

Given that more young people and students want to gain first-hand experience of different cultures and volunteer abroad, how can we contribute to greater sustainable development, without harming communities and perpetuating dependence?

It’s really important for people to properly research any volunteering project before you go. If they are in tribal areas it’s essential that the tribal people are deeply involved in the project and it’s something that they have chosen and control, not something that is imposed on them by outsiders, however well-meaning that ‘help’ may be. 

Here is Survival International's film:

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