Lost tribes: lost knowledge?

April 19, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

Example of indigenous mapThere are only five sertanistas left in Brazil. One of them recently said: “Everything dies at its own time. The forest dies, with it die the Indians, with them die the sertanistas”. Outnumbering the sertanistas is an assortment of characters in a sorry tale of diminishing rainforests, species loss and displaced people. Miners, cattle ranchers, loggers and global fast food chains encroach on virgin jungle and indigenous people.

Deep inside the steamy Amazon jungle is a closed world of elusive darting jaguars; huge anacondas; caimans hiding languidly in rivers, their eyes silently watching; and brightly-coloured parrots squawking from high in the trees. Sharing this world are tribes who have little or no knowledge of the “Western world” and are unaware that their ancestral territories and traditional ways of life could suddenly be destroyed by highways, cattle ranches and forest loss.

A sertanistas is a “backlands expert” with rich knowledge of remote Indian tribes. Like the great explorers, sertanistas carve their way through the verdant jungle and track down isolated tribes in need of protection. The sertanistas job is to divert development around tribal areas and they do this in the face of threats and violence from developers and the unpredictable actions of vulnerable Indian tribes.

The sertanistas are a dying breed. It has been 20 years since the last sertanista was hired and former sertanistas have retired or died. And so with them goes knowledge that is quickly fading from memory. Lost knowledge of the location of indigenous tribes; knowledge of the complex ecosystem that is the Amazon; knowledge about traditional ways of life; the secrets of life-saving medicinal plants; knowledge of diverse and fast disappearing local dialects.

One of the last remaining sertanistas is Sydney Ferreira Possuelo, a rugged 67-year old who has spent the last 20 years of his life discouraging contact with Indian tribes. Contact with the outside world often results in Indians ending up on the fringes of developed areas dependent on alcohol, prostitution or disease. Possuelo has incurred the wrath of developers who care little for the culture or dignity of remote tribes. Yet, he has been instrumental in having 11% of Brazil’s species-rich rainforest set aside and protected as exclusion zones. Possuelo occupies a land of tension in which indigenous people are scared and threatened and profiteers are aggressive and abusive of Earth’s abundance.

He is perhaps fighting a losing battle. Nearly 4 million indigenous people in 1,000 ethnic groups once lived in Brazil; today they number fewer than 734,000 in 220 tribes, having succumbed to disease, murder and cultural dislocation.

So it was with some interest that I read about Amazon Indians using Google Earth and GPS to produce a catalogue of their forest home. In conjunction with the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) – a nonprofit organisation working with indigenous people to conserve biodiversity, health and culture in South American rainforests – local knowledge is combined with modern technology to map deforestation areas and identify where new mines or logging areas are popping up and infringing on protected areas. Indians have access through ACT offices to Google Earth and head out on foot to areas where images have highlighted development or deforestation.

The really interesting thing here is that the indigenous people map in six dimensions – longitude, latitude, altitude, historical context, sacred sites and spiritual or mythological sites – whereas Westerners map in three dimensions (latitude, longitude, altitude). And so the maps produced are a rich source of preserved knowledge. With meticulous detail, sources of diverse food are charted, along with the location of medicinal plants, and sites where animals have been seen, including mythological creatures with deep spiritual meaning.

The maps help to span generations. As elders die off, younger Indians, perhaps seduced by the Western style of living, are not listening to the long-cherished stories about how places were named or which medicinal plant is used for a particular ailment. In a story-telling project, tape recorders have been used to preserve some of the elders’ stories and pass on their knowledge.

Vasco van Roosmalen, ACT’s Brazil program director commented: “A common question from politicians and developers is ‘Why do so few Indians need so much land?”..when you can illustrate it with these detailed maps – showing that they are using it for all their various purposes – it’s a much more powerful argument than just having a blank map..”.

A recent Yahoo! News article talked about how Brazil will offer free satellite Internet connections to indigenous tribes in an effort to crack down on illegal logging. 150 small communities in the Amazon and other remote areas including Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands and its arid Northeast will benefit from this programme.

These are great efforts to preserve ancient cultures and their stories, but it’s surely a very fine balance – you have to wonder whether access to the internet and computers will further erode indigenous culture.


Entry filed under: Cartography, Endangered species, Environment, Knowledge Management, Social problems, Society, Sustainability.

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