Saturday, February 14, 2015

On the loss of biocultural knowledge



On the loss of biocultural knowledge.

In my decades of travel back and forth between the USA and various places in Papua New Guinea I have witnessed very rapid changes in many cultures.  Many people are losing their cultural traditions, many of which are vital for survival.  The loss of cultural knowledge varies widely among tribes.

In the worst example I have seen, the traditional language has a word for nearly every plant and animal in the forest.  Yet nearly everyone in the community now is ignorant of this rich lore and only a handful of elders can identify any but the commonest plants or animals in their traditional lands.  Most of the people have lost their skills to grow food in their traditional gardens.  They no longer know how to hunt or find edible plants in the forest, much less medicinal plants.  They have lost the knowledge of how to butcher game or how to prepare it.  No one knows what kind of wood is best suited for what purposes, and indeed they no longer can cut wood themselves and build their traditional wooden homes.   The old ways of starting fires are forgotten and replaced by matches, and even with matches now, younger people can not even find dry wood in the wet forest to build a fire.  They cannot make clothing from plant fibers or skins any more.  Old traditional ways of making soap, salt, and other necessities have been completely forgotten.

These people have almost completely lost the traditional skills they once had that enabled them to live off the land.  They are completely dependent on manufactured goods made by people far away.   Only a handful of anthropologists and biologists seem to care that an entire population has lost its core knowledge and skills necessary for basic survival.  A handful of enlightened donors and non governmental organizations are trying to stem the loss of traditional knowledge among tribal people of Papua New Guinea.

Unfortunately, the people I am referring to are not eligible to receive help from these well-intentioned people working in Papua New Guinea.  Why?  Because these  people do not live in Papua New Guinea.  They are Americans.