Amazon Cultural Survival

There is no way that concerned scientists can move fast enough to preserve the world's traditional knowledge.

While some can be gathered in interviews and stored on tape, much information is seamlessly interwoven with a way of life. Boston anthropologist Jason Clay therefore insists that knowledge is best kept alive in the culture that produced it. Clay's solution is to promote economic incentives that also protect the ecosystems where natives live. Toward that end, Cultural Survival, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass., that Clay helped establish, encourages traditional uses of the Amazon rain forest by sponsoring a project to market products found there.

Clay believes that in 20 years, demand for the Amazon's nuts, oils, medicinal plants and flowers could add up to a $15 billion-a-year retail market--enough so that governments might decide it is worthwhile to leave the forests standing. The Amazon's Indians could earn perhaps $1 billion a year from the sales. That could pay legal fees to protect their lands and provide them with cash for buying goods from the outside world.

American companies are also beginning to see economic value in indigenous knowledge. In 1989 a group of scientists formed Shaman Pharmaceuticals, a California company that aims to commercialize the pharmaceutical uses of plants. Among its projects is the development of an antiviral agent for respiratory diseases and herpes infections that is used by traditional healers in Latin America.

An indigenous culture can in itself be a marketable commodity if handled with respect and sensitivity. In Papua New Guinea, Australian Peter Barter, who first came to the island in 1965, operates a tour service that takes travelers up the Sepik River to traditional villages. The company pays direct fees to villages for each visit and makes contributions to a foundation that help cover school fees and immunization costs in the region. Barter admits, however, that the 7,000 visitors a year his company brings through the region disrupt local culture to a degree. Among other things, native carvers adapt their pieces to the tastes of customers, adjusting their size to the requirements of luggage. But the entrepreneur argues that the visits are less disruptive than the activities of missionaries and development officials.

There are other perils to the commercial approach. Money is an alien and destabilizing force in many native villages. A venture like Barter's could ultimately destroy the integrity of the cultures it exhibits if, for example, rituals become performances tailored to the tourist business. Some villages in New Guinea have begun to permit tourists to visit spirit houses that were previously accessible only to initiated males. In Africa villages on bus routes will launch into ceremonial dances at the sound of an approaching motor. Forest-product concerns like those encouraged by Cultural Survival run the risk of promoting overexploitation of forests, and if the market for these products takes off, the same settlers who now push aside natives to mine gold might try to take over new enterprises as well.

Still, economic incentives already maintain traditional knowledge in some parts of the world. John and Terese Hart, who have spent 18 years in contact with Pygmies in northeastern Zaire, note that other tribes and villagers rely on Pygmies to hunt meat and collect foods and medicines from the forests, and that this economic incentive keeps their knowledge alive. According to John Hart, the Pygmies have an uncanny ability to find fruits and plants they may not have used for years. Says Hart: "If someone wants to buy something that comes from the forest, the Pygmies will know where to find it."

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