Tribal aid project wins coveted prize

May 21, 2004

Helping a remote Amazonian tribe fend off loggers and oil companies using state-of-the-art mapping technology has won a young British anthropologist a prestigious environmental prize.

Conrad Feather, a 25-year-old PhD student at St Andrews University, spent four years working with the Nahua people in their struggle to defend their homeland in Peru.

The tribe had avoided contact with the outside world for decades. But their isolation ended in 1984 and within one year up to 60 per cent of the Nahua had died from respiratory diseases.

Mr Feather, as part of a seven-strong anthropological team, first made the two-week bus, plane and dugout canoe journey to the Nahua in the summer of 2000.

He found the people's fierce reputation no longer protected them from outsiders eager to exploit the timber and gas reserves found within tribal lands.

"They are pragmatic, canny and well able to make decisions for themselves, yet they are also vulnerable," Mr Feather said.

The Nahua were also unaware of their rights.

Mr Feather, who has become almost fluent in the Nahua language, introduced the people to technology, including laptop computers and global positioning systems, that enabled them to map their lands.

"Because of the growing pressures from illegal activities, this is the only way that the Nahua people's territory - and, of course, the biodiversity of the region - can effectively be protected," Mr Feather said.

The tribe has now used its new tools to repel gas prospectors and win recognition from the Peruvian government.

Mr Feather said it had been an honour to live and work with the Nahua. "Too often, solutions for environmental problems are imposed on the people instead of looking for solutions through local knowledge and local participation," he said.

The project won Mr Feather the St Andrews Prize for the Environment, the first time the £17,000 prize has gone to a Briton.

He said the money would be spent on an early warning system that the tribe could use to alert national park authorities to the arrival of loggers.

Sir Crispin Tickell, chairman of the prize's board of trustees, praised the project's potential application to other parts of the world.

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