About good and bad culture

Vanishing World Photography ▪ July 2012

I always believed that in this age, all people are considered equal and that everybody – be it a European city dweller or a tribesman living deep in the jungle - has the same right to choose his or her own way of life. Recently, Ethiopian officials showed me I was wrong. It was during my last visit to the Surma (Suri) tribe in summer 2012.

The Lower Omo Valley is a fascinating region because of the many tribes living there, each of them practising their own unique culture. Many still live their traditional semi-nomadic cattle-herding lifestyle and they would like to keep it that way. However, this is not consistent with the government's plans for economic development of the region. A massive hydro-electric dam is being built on the upper Omo River (Gibe III), tribal land is being leased to foreign companies for agricultural or mining projects, and there are plans for a new road from Southern Sudan. Traditional cattle herders are in the way of the ’progress’.

Since our previous visit in 2010, the Ethiopian government has visibly increased pressure on the Surma people to abandon their culture, which is inextricably linked with their traditional livelihood and core to their independence. It would seem that the authorities have people’s best interest in mind when they are building schools and teach the Surma to adopt intensive farming. But unlike the traditional pastoralism – self-sustainable even in the arid landscape of the southern Omo – intensive farming techniques require massive irrigation projects and heavy use of industrial fertilizers most local people cannot afford.

The state-sponsored education is designed not to empower the tribal people and prepare them for challenges of the modern world, but to assimilate them into the society where they are treated as second-rate citizens. On the other hand, Surma cultural practices like decorative scarification, traditional stick fights Donga, or the lip plates worn by women are declared illegal and punished.

It is not important what we think about such practices; for the Surma people they are important parts of their ethnic identity and it should be up to them if they want to continue stretching their lips (not all the girls choose to do so), or scarring themselves using sharp razor blades. Donga fights are an important rite of passage for young Surma men, while serious injuries during these fights are rare - it might be safer than competitive boxing.

The problem is that by prohibiting these practices, the Ethiopian government is suppressing the rights of tribal people. Even more worrying are the reasons why they do so. Officials are not really concerned about better living conditions for the Surma men and women. Instead, they want to turn them into helpless beggars who would give up their land for a small handout. The Surma are not interested in financial compensation (even if the government really was going to pay any, which I doubt); they need their land for livestock, which is their biggest source of wealth and social status. With no land and no cattle, previously proud people all too often turn towards drinking.

Even more disturbing is that the Ethiopians feel they have the right to ban tribal practices from the position of a superior culture. "This is not a human being", a policeman in Kibish said to us with a jovial smile, pointing at a Surma woman with a lip plate. His comment left us feeling disgusted but not surprised; we had just been treated to a thorough explanation about good (Habesha) and bad (Surma) culture by the Kibish police chief!

The Surma are not alone in this, all the other tribes in Omo Valley have a similar story, as do many others around the world. The Botswana government cannot tolerate the ’primitive’ Bushmen who want nothing else but to live their own way in the Kalahari. The Indonesian government is suppressing Papuan tribes because of their land, timber and the mineral riches of West Papua. In many countries, laws against nakedness are used to prejudice against tribal people who don’t share the same social stereotypes.

More often than not, tribal people gain very little by adopting our civilization in exchange for the loss of their cultural identity, their independence and their place to live.

Original Czech version available here

Lynx could soon return to Britain

Selmy.cz ▪ May 2016

Although Eurasian lynx is still among the endangered species, recent reports invite some optimism. A study published at the end of 2014 in the prestigious magazine Science (with the contribution of experts from Friends of the Earth Czech Republic) shows that in the 21st century, the populations of lynx and other large carnivores in many parts of Europe were stable or gradually increasing. Authors attribute such conservation success particularly to the improved legal protection and positive changes in public acceptance. Perhaps the most important result of the study is that even in densely populated Europe, large carnivores and people can share the same landscape. [1]

More good news came recently from Spain where a captive breeding programme has tripled the population of Iberian lynx over the last 15 years (hopefully, saving the species from extinction). [2]

This success provides encouragement to the conservationists of the Lynx UK Trust, who would like to see the lynx, after more than a millennium of absence, becoming once again part of the British ecosystem.

Recent finds provide evidence that the Eurasian lynx roamed Britain until about 500 AD (though cultural references suggest it might still have been hunted by people in the 7th century). Similarly to much of Western Europe, it disappeared due to habitat destruction (deforestation), lack of prey species and hunting for fur. In the 1950s the numbers of lynx in Europe were reduced to only 700 individuals; since then, lynx have been successfully reintroduced in several parts of Europe (including the Bohemian Forest in the Czech Republic). In some of these areas, the lynx reintroduction brought a new economic boost to remote rural regions, wildlife tourism being a growing business. Positive impact on UK tourism, as well as ecology and farming, is what those in favour of lynx reintroduction hope for.

More hope comes from other successful reintroduction projects, involving endangered species such as the white-tailed eagle, osprey, red kite and experimental reintroductions of European beaver in Scotland. Many of these projects were conducted with the participation of the Lynx UK Trust leading experts.

Last year, their efforts reached a new phase. In early March, Lynx UK Trust with a huge support in the media and on social networks launched a national survey to gather the opinions of people across the UK on lynx reintroduction. The preliminary results indicate a generally positive attitude of the British public towards the solitary, secretive creature – over three quarters of respondents agreed with the proposal that a trial reintroduction of lynx to the UK should be commenced within the next 12 months.

Following the survey, a detailed national consultation process has been carried out requesting feedback from a range of stakeholders at a national level. This phase is currently nearing the end and Lynx UK Trust is planning to apply for a licence to conduct trial reintroduction of lynx to the wild for a period of five years at one of the carefully selected locations.

The plan proposes to initially release six animals of breeding age from Romania. Each would be wearing a GPS collar for the purposes of tracking and they would be continuously monitored for 5 years. During the trial period, the Lynx UK Trust conservationists (who include experts in wildlife reintroductions, field research, ecology, biology and genetics) would assess the impact of lynx on the ecosystem and local community. If everything goes well during the 5-year-period, the hope is that the relevant authorities approve lynx reintroduction to other suitable sites on a permanent basis.

Proponents believe that the return of the lynx will have a positive economic impact partly due to the tourism boost, partly by reducing the damage caused by deer overpopulation. (In addition to two native species of ungulates – red deer and roe deer – and fallow deer introduced to Britain as soon as the 11th century, several invasive deer species spread here over the last 150 years: Sika deer, muntjac and water deer. Lynx could significantly contribute to controlling their populations.) [3]

The principal opponents of the plan are mainly sheep farmers (represented by the National Farmers Union). Although the experience from other parts of Europe clearly shows the damage caused by the lynx to livestock is negligible, the Lynx UK Trust guarantees to cover any potential losses of farmers.

Possible the last refuge of lynx in the British Isles was the Cairngorms mountain range in the Scottish Highlands – due to its remoteness one of the last places in Scotland to suffer deforestation; some remnants of the native Caledonian Forest still exist today. Scotland was also the place where the last British wolves were hunted to extinction around 1700. The restoration of native forests in the Scottish Highlands with the help of volunteers is the aim of charity Trees for Life.


[1] Recovery of large carnivores in Europe’s modern human-dominated landscape, Science Vol. 346 no. 6216 pp. 1517 – 1519, 19 December 2014

[2] See BBC News

[3] Research shows that even small population of apex predator significantly alters the behaviour of herbivores which, through the top-down process, results in a greater overall balance in the ecosystem. The presence of lynx makes roe deer move more often from one area to another, thus enabling a gradual restoration of the forest.


Lynx UK Trust’s Proposal for a Trial Reintroduction

George Monbiot – Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding (May 2013, Allen Lane) ISBN 978-1846147487

Original Czech version available here

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