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Robin Hanbury-Tenison on Cornwall, tribal peoples and Survival International

Described in 2006 by The Spectator as ‘the doyen of British Explorers’, writer and conservationist Robin Hanbury-Tenison OBE is the founder of 'Survival International', which since 1969 has protected the rights of tribal peoples around the world. He lives on Bodmin Moor. Phone interview by Rupert White.




What motivated your first exploratory trips?

It was, sort of, running away.

I left University in '57, by which time I'd already hitch-hiked all over Europe. When I left Oxford I drove to Ceylon and had a very exciting time for 3 months. I had Angkor Wat all to myself, and Pagan in Burma (photo right by R H-T). Nobody else was visiting these places then.

Presumably they weren't yet recognised as tourist destinations. Did you imagine you could write books about your travels at that point?

No. But I took lots of photographs, worked my passage across the Pacific, got down to Mexico and came briefly back to England. Which then led to the first crossing (East to West) of South America in 1958.

This must have been one of your most challenging journeys: you crossed the rainforest in a jeep.

It was 6000 miles, 4000 of which had never had a vehicle on them. I went with Richard Mason. We worked from an old Bartholomew's atlas and, by building rafts and clearing a route, we did it. It took 6 months. Richard and John Hemming went back with Kit Lambert a couple of years later (1961) but Richard was killed by Indians, in an area that we hadn't been able to get to in the heart of Brazil.

After that I did the first crossing by river from the Caribbean down to the South Atlantic (1964), but they were all fairly pointless exercises. They were the sort of thing that one thought was important in those days. Sort of showing-off: doing them simply because they hadn't been done before. I got a reputation for doing these expeditions, though I'm not particularly proud of them now. But it was through meeting Indian tribes along the way, accidentally rather than on purpose, that I began to get an interest in their predicament.

Richard is still known as the last Englishman to have been killed by uncontacted Indians. You were close friends. How did his death affect you?

I had dreams and nightmares about it for a very long time afterwards. Though funnily enough rather than resenting or blaming the Indians, it had the reverse effect. We were both very interested in the philosophy of 'Die if you must, but never kill', which was Rondon's philosophy; the philosophy of the original Indian Protection Service. So although Richard was armed he almost certainly never defended himself, or tried to stop them. And he would not have blamed them for defending their territory.

It was a big news story across the world (eg Daily Express below), and presumably you were caught up in it all, though you were still only in your twenties.

I found myself in the full glare of the television and radio, for which, in a rather business-like way for once, I demanded money for Richard's mother. I was able to say they were not idiots it was a proper scientific expedition. 

And you'd have also stuck up for the Indians; it would have been too easy to vilify them.

I'm sure I did. One would have been saying it wasn't their fault.

The whole unfortunate incident would have focussed people's minds on some of the issues, and so perhaps it had a positive outcome in that sense.

In an unintended, slow-burn way, it did. I'd hate to think it was anything like the beginning of Survival though.



You'd moved to Cornwall in 1960, the previous year.

The reason I didn't go with Richard and John was that I'd just got married and had started the farm and was trying to make a living in Cornwall.

How did you end up here?

I'd never visited the place. I'd inherited a farm in East Anglia, but didn't want to live there. I was able to convert a small amount of land in East Anglia to rather more land in Cornwall. Coming from Ireland I wanted to live in the Celtic fringe – I don't believe you get proper countryside until you're about 200 miles West of London!

I didn't know about Cornwall. I was looking in South Wales initially. I went to Cirencester to learn about farming, and a land agent in London kept sending me details of this ridiculous place in Cornwall on Bodmin Moor. I had to go and see some people in Dorset, I said 'that's near to Cornwall isnt it?'. We went down to see Cornwall and it was a coup de foudre. I fell in love with Cornwall, fell in love with Bodmin Moor, and knew that was where I was always going to live. 

And you moved to the house you're in now?

Cabilla Manor, where we live now, was a ruin then, so we moved to a house nearby called Maidenwell which was part of the farm that I'd bought. 



So what led to Survival International forming in 1969? Was it particularly Norman Lewis' article on the genocide of the Indians in the Sunday Times (above)?

Six months before the Norman Lewis article I was on an expedition up the Orinoco in a hovercraft (1968). There were 22 scientists and television people who were calling it 'the greatest journey on Earth'. The only other sane person was Conrad Gorinsky who was a ethnobotanist and a quarter Indian. We were the only ones who had been in the jungle before and who spoke Spanish and Portuguese. Conrad was a research scientist at Bart's Hospital, and we travelled up some smaller rivers together to try and reach the tribes to consult them about potentially therapeutic plants.

But there was already word coming out of Brazil about the massacres of the Indians that were exposed later by Norman Lewis, and we talked about this endlessly, and it was really Conrad's inspiration that there really ought to be an organisation to protect these people. Libraries of information are lost each time the last shaman dies in a tribe, and a tribe a year was dying out. Conrad was full of it. We talked and talked, and agreed there should be an organisation. We were going to call it WEAP: World Ecological Areas Project.

We came back fired up with enthusiasm to do it. Then a couple of months later, out came the article, followed by a letter by Francis Huxley and Nicolas Guppy. We got onto them, and they also said there should be an organisation, and Conrad and I looked at each other and said 'that's our idea!'.

I was the one person apparently who had a flat in London, and I invited them all around. Nobody really remembers, because there were no minutes taken, but there were about 10 or a dozen people at that first meeting including John Hemming, Teddy Goldsmith, Guppy and Huxley and Conrad, and we just sat around talking and we decided to meet every week for the next 5, 6 or 7 weeks

I always say that, because it was my wine and my flat, it was me who ended up top of the heap and the chairman of Survival International.

Where was the flat?

Eastbourne Terrace, next to Paddington.

How did you all know each other? How did you know Teddy Goldsmith for example?

Not sure. We just got hold of each other. I suspect I'd have rung up Conrad and he'd have said 'well I know Teddy Goldsmith; I'll put you onto him'. So three or four phone calls like that, and so it began. And after the first meeting someone would have said 'you have to get Jean Liedloff involved'. And others would have said 'do you mind if I bring so-and-so'. So we were eventually getting around 30 people, and rather packing out my little flat. 

There was a difference of opinion because half the people said 'let's go on doing this and find somewhere bigger to meet, and keep the discussion going' but my view was that the only way we were going to get anything substantial achieved was to have an organisation with employees and an office, and we had to raise some money. Teddy agreed with me, but none of us had any money; there was no way we could start an organisation.

Then Teddy said 'my brother's got some money'. So we had a dinner at the Clermont Club that was hosted by James Goldsmith, who went on to become the richest man in the world. He laid on this dinner which was our first fundraising event and we raised £2000, which was enough for us to get a basement in Craven Street, which was part of the Royal Anthropological Institute. They had a spare room downstairs.

I found a bright young man called Robert Allen; an anthropology student who I employed, and we spent a lot of time with Tommy Franklin who walked me through the minefield of registering a charity. It was very bureaucratic and boring. We needed patrons and there was a lot of discussion about whether we should have a Royal patron, and we never did, though Princes Philip and Charles were involved later. Julian Huxley, Peter Scott, Malcolm MacDonald, Lawrence Van Der Post and other people nobly put their names to what we were doing.



The Ecologist magazine also started at Craven Street, with Teddy as editor. Was it in the same building?

It was actually the same office. As I recall it, February 69 was when Survival started, and by 1970 we were beginning to do stuff. My recollection is that Teddy and Robert Allen 'eloped' together but all Robert had to do was just move across the room! Teddy always believed that the spark that started the Ecology movement was the concern for the survival of tribal people. So when he eloped with Robert it was very much tied into the same ideas that started Survival International. And incidentally I wrote an article in that first edition of The Ecologist. 

Teddy and Robert and Francis Huxley and his girlfriend and others used to come down and stay with us. We had a lot of house parties in Cornwall. It was a big house, and there are several entries in my guest book recording their visits in the summer of 1970 especially. Teddy himself always said that it was falling in love with Cornwall and coming to stay here, that persuaded him to move down and bring the ecology movement to Withiel near Bodmin.

We always had a very cordial relationship though we had quite different objectives, when you think about it.

Were there times when it was particularly obvious that your viewpoints differed?

We respected each others approaches. Teddy was an extraordinary character. Very opinionated. Like an old testament prophet, he used to stroke his beard and say 'we're doomed, we're doomed, the whole world is doomed'. I spent millennium night with him in Mexico, and he was holding forth about how the world was definitely going to end that night. There was a big party, but he was glued to the television.  Everyone was terrified of the millennium bug. He said as soon as it hits Fiji everything will fall apart. When it didn't happen in Fiji he said 'wait and watch Singapore, then watch Paris, then watch London'.

Do you remember him as having rather pessimistic views?

No. He always said he was an optimist, because he believed we could do something about it. Bless him, he did start the whole environmental movement.

We disagreed a little bit on the philosophy of Survival, as he was much more interested in the whole global environmental issue, and tribal people were only a small part of that. Teddy had a brain the size of a planet, bursting full of information. He wrote unreadable books, but I was always in awe of his intellect and I m proud that we never disagreed about our aspirations. But he regarded looking after tribal people as being too narrow a focus.

Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace were founded at around the time. Did you have much contact with them?

Oh yes. Certainly when Jonathan Porrit was involved. Most of the big charitable organisations were founded in Britain. And it was a particularly fertile time.

And Satish Kumar and James Lovelock? They were in the South West too.

Yes, though they were more in Teddy's world than mine.

Another aspect to this was the fact that you and Teddy and the other editors of The Ecologist were interested in farming, and in the 70s all ran farms down here in Cornwall

I was a conventional hill farmer in those days with cattle and sheep. Dare I say it I was a proper farmer and Teddy was a dilettante, but he had some pioneering ideas about this. Peter Bunyard had some particularly radical ideas on organic farming. 

It was a fascinating time. There were the Paris student riots of 1968, and people like Levi Strauss, who was a huge supporter of Survival International, were influential. I never met Levi Strauss, though I know Teddy did, but I spoke to him on the phone and corresponded with him.

Sir Edmund Leach was president of Royal Anthropological Society. We had a joint committee and had some interesting meetings discussing the way ahead. I'd been invited to go to Brazil in 1971 and we were preparing for that. A book had just come out called 'The Fierce People' by Napolean Chagnon (1968). He did his fieldwork with the short and very feisty Yanomami. He wrongly accused them of cannibalism and infanticide and he gave them a very bad press, so at the meeting Edmund Leach said 'there's no point in meeting with the Yanomami they are so subhuman the sooner they die out the better'.

That was a seminal moment for me and others within Survival because we realised that there were people with whom we fundamentally disagreed. This has stayed with me during the following decades: that there are people who think that some peoples are so inferior that they should be allowed to die out.



Survival has tended to remain independent of other organisations.

Along with Amnesty International we're the only other charity that doesn't take money from governments.

One thing I learnt very early on is that many charities are more interested in competing with one another over the limited funds available than they are in solving the problem. Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (FotE) fight like cats. We did a lot of work with FotE, and Jonathan Porrit is a great friend and I respect him greatly, but I began to realise how difficult it is for charities to work together.

We had much the same relationship with Anita Roddick and The Bodyshop. For a while Bodyshop products had the Survival International logo, but then we were dropped and it became the Bodyshop that was saving tribal people across the world and Survival was forgotten about.

It was similar with Sting, who I got to know quite well. He initially devoted all his efforts to Survival, and then decided to start something up on his own. Sting was brilliant at putting forward his story and was at the peak of his fame, but he blew it by starting up the Rainforest Foundation Fund. He ended up confusing the message. There was a bad moment when I was asked on television about whether he'd damaged the cause, and I had to say that he'd done more harm than good. And of course I wasn't forgiven, though we made it up later. That was one of the few hiccups in Survival's history.

Thinking of that history, are the issues the same as they were 40 years ago? How have things changed in that time?

We spent the first 10 or 15 years working out exactly what the issues were, what we could do about them and what the purpose of the charity was.

We were working much more with anthropologists then. We wrote a lot of academic papers, we had a journal and there was a terrific debate about the semantics. We started out as the Primitive Peoples Fund, which was Francis Huxley's suggestion. He said 'this is what you must call it because this is the correct technical anthropological name for them', but the name went down like lead balloon in America and Africa. It was my idea to change it to Survival International.

So there was 15 years of debate and faffing about. Then a wonderful woman, Barbara Bentley who was the director of the Royal Anthropological Institute, jumped ship and joined us. She and I ran it for a decade together scratching around for ideas and people and money. I can remember a meeting in the mid-70's, when we agreed that it all comes down to land. And that's I think when we really found our way. Because if you can demarcate land that is theirs, not only will the Indians survive but they will look after it better than we do. And if you look at a map of the Amazon rainforest now, there are straight-lines that have been demarcated in this way. And to their credit Brazil has given large areas to the Indians.  That's the point we arrived at in the early 80's.

Stephen Corry who has been around for a long time - he was an anthropology student who joined us in about 1971 - has grown with the organisation, and credit for Survival's continuing existence goes 90% to Stephen. Its his intellectual probity and integrity that has given Survival its reputation. He was also good with the finances. I'm now only the president. He's the one that does everything.

Among the general population, the plight of tribal peoples is better understood now isn't it? 

That's one of our great achievements. I don't believe there is a primary school class any where in the world that now doesn't have a picture of a tribal person on their wall.

I understand there is a still a conflict between the welfare of animals and the welfare of tribal people though. Particularly in Africa and parts of Asia.

Yes. South America is much more sophisticated in this respect. My new book is on Borneo, and one of the things I say is that the rights of indigenous people in Malaysia have never been recognised in the same way as in South America, and this is why their land has been taken from them. So sadly there are still large parts of the world where such people are still considered inferior.