blog #3

Conservation and the Spirit World

The most intriguing session I attended at this year’s AAAS meeting was led by Stanford ecologist José Fragoso.  In it, Fragoso described how he and his colleagues are working with indigenous groups in Guyana and Brazil to find out how cultural change affects the diversity of species in the surrounding forests and savannas.

The researchers recruited more than 300 members of Makushi and Wapishana groups to survey other members of their own communities about their religion, language, technology and other cultural practices. The participants also tallied the animals their communities hunted (such as the tapir at left), and monitored biodiversity in the surrounding forests.

The results revealed a fascinating connection between the communities’ spiritual beliefs and game animal abundance. Hunters from the most traditional groups refused to enter areas which they believed to house dangerous spirits or special powers, according to a study that Fragoso’s team published last year. These spiritual sites turned out to be important for the wildlife too. They served as refuges for game animals and averted over-hunting. Those results square with what other biologists and anthropologists are finding the world over: “Sacred groves” may serve as key conservation areas.

But not all indigenous hunters are traditional. Some communities have adopted the language, religion and technologies of the mainstream cultures in Brazil and Guyana, and others are somewhere in between. When I talked with Fragoso after the session, he said that the mainstream groups also seemed to have a healthy abundance of animals–perhaps because they have adopted western concepts of game management and conservation. It was the communities in cultural transition, somewhere between traditional and mainstream, that had over-hunted their forests. Fragoso thinks that might be because those groups lack either set of conservation rules.

Fragoso is still analyzing some of the results from the study, but he says some peer reviewers have taken issue with their methods, arguing that the data collected by the indigenous research assistants are unreliable. (This wouldn’t be the first time that combining elements of social and natural sciences has resulted in a complicated review process.) It’s true that the team caught some mistakes–as the data came in, they noticed that some workers were rounding off compass headings, for example. So they conducted additional training. Without the communities’ help, the group never could have conducted such an extensive study that included dozens of villages and thousands of square kilometers of forest. As with any result in science, time will tell whether further studies corroborate these conclusions.

I find it inspiring that researchers are making this kind of effort to understand the hard-to-study factors (such as cultural change) that affect the forest and its inhabitants. Indeed, Fragoso and his team plan to return the data, in atlas form, to the indigenous communities that participated in the study. He hopes the results will provide them and their countries’ governments with relevant information for planning land use and negotiating indigenous land rights.

I recorded an interview with Fragoso about this work, so you can look forward to hearing more about the project on a future podcast.

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