Obituary: Andrew Gray

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ANDREW GRAY, the anthropologist and indigenous rights worker, is presumed to have died on 7 May when the small aircraft in which he was travelling came down in the sea near Vanuatu in the South Pacific. Although he and some others survived the crash, after two hours in the water, in heavy rain, high waves and darkness he became separated from the rest of the group who made it to land. He was not seen again.

Gray was born in Cardiff in 1955. He went up to Edinburgh University to read social anthropology in 1973 and graduated with a first class honours degree in 1977. He then went to Oxford to do graduate work, obtaining his doctorate in 1983. The field research he undertook for this degree was among the Arakmbut of the Peruvian Amazon. His 18 months there and the first-hand experience of the sorts of pressures these people were facing were to have a profound influence on the rest of his life, which he devoted to the cause of indigenous rights.

From Oxford he went to work for the International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) in Copenhagen where he was executive director for six years until 1989, after which he continued to work for the group as a consultant. As well as working for IWGIA he acted as advisor and consultant for the Forest Peoples' Programme of the World Rainforest Movement, the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Forest Peoples, and the Gaia Foundation, as well as a number of smaller indigenous organisations. He was a member of the board of Anti-Slavery International.

His work was very much hands on and he travelled enormously. Besides making frequent visits back to the Arakmbut, he was involved with schemes not only in numerous countries in South and Central America, but also in Botswana, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. The Pacific was a new area for him and he was greatly looking forward to his visit there on behalf of IWGIA, of which he had become vice-chairman.

Gray was firmly committed to the principle of indigenous self-determination which to put into practice needs long days in the field, of patient explanation and negotiation. He was equally at home in meetings of the United Nations observing and contributing to attempts to reach agreement on indigenous rights.

If Gray had wanted to, there is no doubt that he could have pursued an academic career. He thought, however, that his life was better occupied and more fulfilled with humanitarian concerns. On the one occasion he was persuaded to apply for a university lecturership he did so reluctantly and seemed relieved when he did not get it. He was not, however, ever far from academia. He regularly gave courses at the University of Gothenburg when he was living in Copenhagen, and for the past 10 years frequently lectured, tutored and acted as an assessor at Oxford.

He published numerous papers and articles but the lasting monument to his scholarship, in particular his ethnographic and anthropological skill, will be his three-volume work The Arakmbut of Amazonian Peru, published in 1996 and 1997. This trilogy, cleverly constructed to reflect the Arakmbut's own tripartite arrangement of the world, was written in close collaboration with the Arakmbut themselves and is a model of the kind of work such cooperation can produce. The Arakmbut, on learning of their friend's death, immediately went into their traditional mourning ceremony.

The news of Gray's death brought a flood of messages to IWGIA and the Forest Peoples' Programme from indigenous people and organisations from all over the world. For those of us who knew him, this is moving but no cause for surprise. In the world of indigenous rights and development where the pitfalls are many, he steered a safe course between the wrangling. This he achieved by a boundless supply of common sense and good humour, an enthusiasm for life, total commitment and absolute integrity.

Andrew Gray married Sheila Aikman in 1978. A researcher in education, she often accompanied her husband on his field trips, and after their son, Robbie, was born, the whole family went.

Peter Riviere

Andrew Gray, anthropologist and indigenous rights worker: born Cardiff 21 July 1955; executive director, International Working Group for Indigenous Affairs 1983-89; married 1978 Sheila Aikman (one son); died c7 May 1999.