The title is a beautiful line spoken by Nixiwaka Yawanawá from Acre state in Brazil. This is what he said to The Guardian, a British newspaper, as he was protesting outside Jimmy Nelson’s exhibition in London. It seems that photographer Jimmy Nelson has gained fame/infamy for his most recent photographic exhibition ‘Before They’ – a collection of images from his visit to tribal communities in various parts of the world. The book which is a showcase of the photographs from the exhibition, is entitled ‘Before They Pass Away’. His TED talk introduced him as a vibrant man, passionate for his recent work and the concept behind it. There, it seemed, was a man who was fighting to catch a fading glimpse of peoples who were living their lives without much of the world knowing of their existence.
Here, I speak for myself. I will admit that I was unaware of the existence of the Dani of West Papua or the Waorani Indians of Ecuador, and I was thrilled by the idea that there was someone looking out for them, to make them known so that their environments and culture could be protected and not taken away from them… All the naïve idealistic beliefs, you get the picture. When I saw the title of his book, I was curious… What was his message?
I started examining his photos a bit more closely. If I could, I would have gone to the ‘Before They’ exhibition but there are currently no planned exhibits in Melbourne, Australia. Being a complete amateur in photography, I was impressed by the beautiful shots – the vigour and pride which was poignant in most of the photos I saw on the internet. However, I soon got the sad impression that this was yet another case of someone using a seemingly noble idea to gain something for himself, in this case, big money (the photographs are priced up to £45,000 each, and the book sells for £100, or over £5,000 in a limited edition). What Nixiwaka Yawanawá said sincerely touched me, more than Nelson’s photographs. One was genuine, the other no longer convinced me and in my view, was devoid of any true message.
Rather than taking colourful and well-aimed shots of those people, and inviting those who can afford to see them, frequently in glamorous locations, should we not instead be pushing for sensitisation on issues which are currently making the survival of those fellow human beings a struggle?
With more and more land area being claimed for infrastructure and agricultural projects, often an outcome of overpopulation and the ever increasing requirement for more resources, several tribes could be at risk of seeing their homes destroyed and being forced to be displaced. This is already happening in various parts of the world, where modernity is often associated with moving with the mass, often pushing those who are not willing to join in the movement, out of the way. Sometimes, this means a displacement from their ancestral homes to areas labelled as ‘conservation areas’. Are these areas conserving the tribes? Maybe it is another ‘ingenious’ way to generate more revenue by opening up these areas as eco-tourism havens. If we stop to think about what the homes of those tribes are being replaced by; dams, sugarcane and palm plantations, mining and logging initiatives – then maybe we will start to understand what the true focus should be.
So, what are the implications for us at earthikes; what can we learn from this and how do we ensure we are positively addressing the argument? How can we contribute in balancing development and conservation?
- Firstly, we must think seriously about the role we would like to play and the example we would like to set in the eco-travel, and more specifically, the trekking and hiking industry. With an increasing number of trekking enthusiasts looking for new adventures in some of the most remote areas of the world – we must be extremely cautious in how we advertise those trails, and what we might be opening those remote areas up to.
- Secondly, all trekkers, hikers and guides when registering will have signed up to the Earthikes Code of Conduct and will be therefore be held accountable in three key areas of sustainability i.e. the protection of Social, Economic and Environmental resources. It will be a way for us to share our values of respecting these communities and the environment they live in.
- Thirdly, we might have to make some tough decisions along the way…for example actually discouraging trekkers and hikers from expeditions on trails through certain areas and by proposing alternatives. Our aim is not only to offer the most extensive database of nature trails to our users; our aim is to protect overly visited trails and environments from degradation and help protect local communities from the uncontrolled development which often follows tourism.
Sometimes, the only way to protect is to move the crowd’s attention away from that which is stunning, by educating and sharing opinions on why it is best to leave those areas and protect them from afar. And this, we must be more than ready to do.
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