Monday, 9 September 2013

Animal or human priorities?

Three beautiful photographs showed a leopard and a minutes-old impala, standing shakily between the legs of the big she-cat. Naively, the tiny antelope even tried to suckle the leopard whilst its real mother stood at a distance, helpless to do anything to protect her youngster from its inevitable death. Two days later, the same free newspaper portrayed two more expert images from Africa. This time a stalking lioness found itself hotly pursued by the herd of buffalo amongst which it had tried to find a meal.

Wildlife photographers perform a massive service in bringing to our eyes the sights and sounds of a world we cannot encounter when busily occupied in the daily commute and the routine which is part of earning a living here in Britain. The photographers’ skill is a constant wonder, joy and stirrer of all sorts of emotions.

However, within a couple of hours of seeing the images of the leopard and impala, an e-mail from India arrived in my inbox. Written by a Catholic journalist who campaigns on behalf of the indigenous peoples (Adivasi) of Gujarat, Mari Marcel Thekaekara often creates word pictures which also make a permanent home in people’s minds. Mari also wrote of wildlife, on this occasion an elephant, but on this occasion, the victim was a woman.

“On March 30, Kokila, an Adivasi woman, was collecting firewood with a few friends... when she was charged by an angry elephant... The elephant kicked her around like a football and smashed her into a pulp. An Adivasi who saw the incident said, ‘It was terrible. She was smashed to pieces... We could not prepare her for burial according to our rites. There was no body left.’

...Kokila was a lively, feisty, irrepressible woman... I recall her taking a lead on stage in dramas. She was bold and theatrical, making everyone laugh, dancing infectiously with abandon, urging everyone to join her. How do you compensate the death of such a woman? Of any woman for that matter? Can you replace the person for her family? Her children? Her people?”

Perhaps Mari’s article came too soon after the photographs of the leopard and impala in the Metro, beautiful pictures with a touching story. Yet this woman, who, during the brutal massacre of Christians in Orissa in 2008, travelled to London to personally plead with journalists to write about what was described as ‘the worst anti-Christian violence since India achieved independence’ does not forget the needs of endangered species: she merely challenges us to take a closer look at our priorities:

“What does one do when a tiger's life is apparently more precious than an Adivasi's?...  I believe we must protect our tigers and our elephants and the less exciting unknown species that co-exist with them...[but] It's hard to explain to ordinary people... why a tiger's life is deemed so much more important than our laughing, dancing, full-of-the-joy-of-life Kokila. A tiger's death mostly makes it to every newspaper in the country; each life is precious, counted, documented by tiger lovers in London and New York. It makes for eye-catching, sexy photographs too. Our Kokila will never make headlines...”

Sadly, Mari is telling an all too-familiar tale. Conservation of the environment and of wildlife is vital. Species which cannot speak for themselves need advocates and money. We are well-accustomed to seeing campaigners raising publicity and funds on behalf of whales, orang-utans, foxes, badgers, grey seals and so on (interestingly, never for spiders, slugs or snails!). Time and again, London’s Victoria Station is graced with defenders of the orang-utans, dressed in orange look-alike suits. Yet I have never seen groups of people crusading on behalf of the Adivasi of India, Australian Aborigines, Alaskan Inuit or the Amazonian tribes whose land is continually taken over by greedy and profiteering multi-national companies.

Some years ago a camera team discovered a hitherto unknown group of people living in the Amazonian rainforest and stayed for a while, living with the tribe, filming them and producing a wonderful photographic record of their stay. As the team left the area, their leader commented that they would probably be the first and last outsiders ever to encounter the indigenous group. “We may be carrying bacteria from all sorts of diseases which they have never had to face and for which they have developed no resistance. The fact that we have stayed here will probably kill them.” If this were to be the case, how could an historical or anthropological film possibly justify the deaths of an entire group of people?

Mari Marcel Thekaekara comments, “Poor people battle for their lives, their livelihoods and their precarious homes.”

Fr Xavier Manjooran SJ a long-time worker on behalf of the Adivasi (indigenous peoples) and Dalits (Untouchables) of Gujarat, explains:
“People from outside with different value systems and worldview have pushed the original inhabitants to the interior forests and mountains, and snatched away their land and rights over the resources. As time went by and more outsiders came into India, the British took control of the forest and forest resources and started using these resources to make profit. This approach was quite different from that of the indigenous people who have dealt with forest, land and natural resources from time immemorial. Besides, the rules and regulations created by the British, which were continued in India even after Independence, made the Indigenous people ‘encroachers’ and law breakers in the forest and in their own land. Thus the original inhabitants were pushed to the receiving end. It is a fact that the majority of Adivasis or tribals continue to live below the poverty line, have poor literacy rates, suffer from malnutrition and disease and are vulnerable to displacement and seasonal migration. They are also subjected to physical, psychological and sexual exploitation... the poor are becoming poorer and increasingly dispossessed. The majority of the poor and the displaced are from the indigenous communities.”

In our multicultural society, it is easy to forget that some of the immigrants against whom strident voices are regularly raised, suffer intolerable burdens in order to provide for their families back home. Yes, there are many who are benefit frauds and tricksters, but there are also those who need and deserve compassion. A journalist recently interviewed a homeless Indian living near one of the bridges on the Thames. Rajiv dare not let his family know that he is destitute because they are completely dependent on what little money he can send them. He entered Britain legally, but with the credit crunch, he lost his job and soon found himself homeless. Now, he lives under a bridge and depends on food supplied by The Passage and the Salvation Army so that he can still send money home to his family.

In the early Church, we hear that nobody was hungry because the new Christians shared all that they had and cared for each other. Is their level of generosity possible or impossible in today’s world? We can respond magnificently to natural disasters and raise huge sums through Children in Need, Sports Relief and other such charities, but, sadly, these are annual one-off occasions. Is there an answer to someone leaving many thousands of pounds to a cat’s home when people are starving? To quote Mari Marcel Thekaekara, “What does one do when a tiger's life is apparently more precious than an Adivasi's?”

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