Mayan 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.



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."

Restoring Respect

Preserving tribal wisdom is as much an issue of restoring respect for traditional ways as it is of creating financial incentives. The late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy put his prestige behind an attempt to convince his countrymen that their traditional mud-brick homes are cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter and cheaper than the prefabricated, concrete dwellings they see as modern status symbols.

Balick has made it part of his mission to enhance the status of traditional healers within their own communities. He and his colleagues hold ceremonies to honor shamans, most of whom are religious men who value respect over material reward. In one community in Belize, the local mayor was so impressed that American scientists had come to learn at the feet of an elderly healer that he asked them to give a lecture so that townspeople could learn about their own medical tradition. Balick recalls that this healer had more than 200 living descendants, but that none as yet had shown an interest in becoming an apprentice. The lecture, though, was packed. "Maybe," says Balick, "seeing the respect that scientists showed to this healer might inspire a successor to come forward."

Such deference represents a dramatic change from past scientific expeditions, which tended to treat village elders as living museum specimens. Balick and others like him recognize that communities must decide for themselves what to do with their traditions. Showing respect for the wisdom keepers can help the young of various tribes better weigh the value of their culture against blandishments of modernity. If young apprentices begin to step forward, the world might see a slowing of the slide toward oblivion.

Mayan Civilization
Mayan Cultural Survival
Where did the Maya Empire Go
Mystery of the Mayans
Mystery of the Mayans Continued

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