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Many of those cultures did not survive the diseases and destruction wrought on them by the newcomers. Thus, present conditions reflect poorly the great diversity that once existed among tropical-forest societies. As I already indicated, the biological diversity of tropical forests is not the same around the world.

Has that affected the number of societies that various forest.

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A crude estimate, based on the number of ethnographically described groups that inhabit or in the recent past inhabited the main tropical areas of the world, reveals that it has not. Tropical America and tropical Africa are home to and ethnic groups, respectively; Southeast Asia and the Pacific excluding Australia harbor an additional groups Price Although humans have developed broadly similar types of ecological and economic adaptations in all three regions, a great deal of cultural diversity occurs at the local level.

For example, the members of 46 households in a single Amazonian village Santa Rosa, on the Ucayali River of Peru practice 12 distinct types of agriculture and employ 39 strategies of resource use that they constantly modify over the short term Padoch and de Jong In all these cases, cultural diversity can occur at inter-ethnic as well as intra-ethnic levels. Let us return to the so-called Pygmies of central Africa. At least 10 ethnolinguistically distinct populations of these foragers are found unevenly distributed throughout the Congo Basin and adjacent areas.

They differ markedly in subsistence and settlement patterns, as they do in other cultural aspects Hewlett For example, the Efe hunt with bows, the Mbuti and Aka with nets, and the Baka with spears. Among the net hunters, female Mbuti participate in the hunt, but female Aka do not.

Whereas the Efe and the Baka spend 4—5 months a year in the forest and camp close to villages, the Mbuti and Aka spend as long as 8 months in the forest, camp far away, and eat less food from the village. Although all these groups rely to some extent on cultivated foods today, they still make extensive use of diverse forest resources.

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Thus, the Mbuti of the Ituri Forest use more than species of plants and over species of animals for food, even though a much smaller number of species provide the bulk of their diet. In fact, the four distinct groups of Mbuti foragers have different cultural preferences for different foods Ichikawa Research on these African foragers therefore suggests that as much cultural variability exists within the same ethnic group as between groups: the locus of diversity is not only cross-cultural but also intracultural.

This diversity is only loosely related to the specific resources at hand. It also must be explained with reference to particular historical experiences that have shaped social processes, such as the systems of belief, the technologies used, and the division of labor by gender. Turning now to Southeast Asia, a few distinct groups of hunter-gatherers remain in the tropical forests of Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, Sumatra, and Borneo.

On the island of Borneo, for example, live the Penan, who hunt wild boar and other animals and collect a wide variety of plants for food, especially the starch of the sago palm, which they prune regularly; they also use plants for shelter and craft materials Hutterer Like most Southeast Asian and African foragers, the Penan rely on exchanges with their agricultural neighbors, trading mats and baskets for rice. Like many other foragers, they are struggling to save their forests. Other Southeast Asian groups exchange wild meat, resins, beeswax, medicinal plants, and other forest products with agriculturalists, even though they have the resources and know-how to survive solely on wild food species.

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Amazonia is a third large tropical area where very diverse groups of humans still rely heavily on wild forest products that are hunted, gathered, and fished, in addition to the practice of slash-and-burn cultivation. Their knowledge of the forest is vast and accurate. It is believed that the Yanomami of Venezuela could have subsisted on wild products alone, provided that they remained numerically small, mobile, and able to exploit the diversity of microenvironments in their habitat Good The Yuqui of lowland Bolivia might have remained true foragers until relatively recently, exploiting the patchwork dynamics of the forest through constant mobility, overlapping sexual roles, and active sharing of information Stearman Their fine-tuned knowledge of the fruiting phenology of plants and the feeding behavior of animals sees them though periods of resource scarcity.

Although wild game is still very important in their diet, the Siriono make their camps on artificial mounds that were built up by previous horticulturalists in the midst of seasonally flooded lowlands bajuras Sp. Hence, like most foraging groups today, the Siriono no longer rely entirely on wild products from the forest. The system is essentially the same everywhere it is practiced. During the dry season, the forest usually secondary is cleared, and trees are felled.

Then the vegetation is burned just before the rains begin, and various plants are planted on the ashes in a manner that generally imitates the wild vegetation they replace Harris The same parcel may be cultivated for 2—3 years and then lie fallow for 5—20 years to restore its fertility. Not only soil depletion, but also weed growth and insect pests can force farmers to clear new land.

The need for fallow periods requires that large tracts of land be held in reserve. In terms of labor input per unit time, however, swidden cultivation is often more productive than more labor-intensive methods of permanent cropping. Those general statements aside, it is important to emphasize that people use a great array of planting techniques, crop combinations, and rotational practices in their swidden systems, even within the same general area.

They then plant manioc or cassava, maize, plantains, and bananas on mounds and abandon each plot after 3 years of use. They also grow vegetables, sweet potatoes, and other crops in gardens near their dwellings. In contrast, the Zande, who also live in the Congo, plant groundnuts and maize, finger millet, sorghum, and other minor crops. Although they might plant manioc in the third year, they are more dependent on grain crops than the Sakata are.

It is difficult to find swidden farmers anywhere in tropical Africa who do not grow commercial crops as well, on a more permanent basis, such as oil palms, cocoa, coffee, and tea in the highlands. Growing single crops monocrops for the export market can increase the number of diverse groups that can live in a given region, but it can also reduce considerably the diversity of crops grown for subsistence purposes.

Swidden cultivation is still practiced widely in some tropical areas of the Indo-Malayan region Aubaile-Sallenave ; Spencer Other, less well-known groups, like the Gidra of Papua New Guinea, are also swidden cultivators. The Gidra who live in inland villages rely on starch from the sago palm and meat from wild animals, whereas those who live in riverine villages rely more on garden crops and fishing Ohtsuka Until recently, the former adaptation was the more successful of the two, but the sale of garden crops and the adoption of modern fishing technologies has conferred advantages to the riverine adaptation; this is another example of how intraethnic diversity can be created by outside influences.

The Kuikuru cultivate 11 varieties of bitter manioc plus maize and several other food crops in swidden plots that average 0.


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Kuikuru gardens produce 4—5 tons of manioc tubers per acre per year. Enough forest is available for clearing within walking distance of any village for settlements to be permanent. When the or so inhabitants of a village change location, it is not for ecological reasons but for internal social pressures, most often disputes. Thus, as long as the population remains relatively small and the forest large, the swidden systems of the Kuikuru and some other Amazonian groups do not necessarily destroy the natural vegetation, even though they inevitably alter the species composition of the forest.

That does not mean, however, that all Amerindian tropical groups were equally well adapted to their environment. When they were first contacted by Europeans in the late s, the total population was only 43 25 in and possibly none today , and their tiny manioc gardens, of less than 0. Constantly under attack from their neighbors, and lacking leadership and strong kin ties, their community was breaking down despite their not having had face-to-face contact with Western society.

Although introduced diseases had reduced their numbers, the recentness of their move into the region from the Southeast was the principal factor in their demise. Ecological conditions could not have differed greatly between the two regions, but the Trumai had not yet formed alliances through marriage and political ties with neighboring groups that would have permitted them to live peacefully in this ethnically diverse area. Hence, the particular social history of an individual group, including its relations with its neighbors, and not only environmental constraints or direct contact with nonindigenous peoples, can contribute substantially to the shape of its future.

Agricultural production can be increased by applying ever larger amounts of labor to improving small parcels that are cropped permanently, rather than by enlarging the amount of land that is cultivated. Many agricultural peoples in the tropics, including swidden farmers, also practice some form of more intensive permanent cultivation. Frequently, they make small, permanent house gardens also called home or dooryard gardens , in which they plant a diversified mixture of trees, vines, bushes, grains, root crops, medicinal plants, and spices, and fertilize them with kitchen debris and animal dung.

House gardens play an important ecological and economic role. For example, among the Ibo of eastern Nigeria, who are short of land, a compound garden is a diverse plant community that can include 60 species, including tubers, vegetables, maize, small and large trees, and palms Ruthenberg In Java, the house garden is also a complex and dynamic ecosystem made up of tuberous plants at ground level, bushes and small trees such as papaya and banana at the middle levels, and tall fruit trees at the upper level.

A closed canopy helps to control weeds and lessens erosion, and the decaying vegetation produces fertilizer, imitating natural-forest dynamics and causing minimal environmental degradation. On the other extreme are the groups of rural Jola in southern Senegal who do not make house gardens at all or, if they live near towns, grow introduced, foreign vegetables, mostly for sale in the market rather than for household use.

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Agroforestry is a variant of the house-garden option; by incorporating trees into the agricultural landscape, it also reproduces the structure and dynamics of the natural forest. In Indonesia, for example, fruit trees of local forest species often are cultivated, as are bamboo, useful fibers, and so forth, all of which are only slightly modified genetically Michon and Bompard Indeed, many of the species in these special forests are protected and tended but not necessarily planted deliberately.

These systems often surround the village, linking the. The wood, resins, fibers, and so forth from these trees bring monetary revenue, and the fruits are used as complementary food. In central Sumatra, planting trees, or favoring their spontaneous regeneration, legitimizes a farmer's rights to productive land.

In pioneer fronts, however, collective control of scarce resources is weak or nonexistent. Wealthy farmers are cutting down the forest to plant profitable cash crops. Monocrops are now being grown on hillside areas where a wise and carefully managed complex agroforestry system would have prevented the rampant erosion that is now menacing the fragile soils.

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This is one more example of how profit can compromise future productivity. The Chiripa integrate subsistence gardening and hunting with commercial harvesting from the forest of yerba mate leaves, which are used to make a kind of tea that is drunk widely by Paraguayans.

Unlike their nonindigenous, mestizo neighbors who work as hired labor in such enterprises as logging under a coercive patronage system, Chiripa yerbateros belong to independent communities that comprise nuclear families integrated through bilateral kin ties and affiliation to elderly religious leaders. These enduring social institutions are not simply defined by productive relations; they are the principal explanation of why and how the Chiripa have survived as an ethnic group.

Thus, agroforestry can allow indigenous peoples to participate in the national economy without irreversible damage to the environment, provided that they have the right social institutions in place. In some societies, the entire farming system can rely on intensive techniques.

The Kofyar of the Jos Plateau in Nigeria enhanced the natural productivity of the soil by making permanent, terraced homestead fields where crops are intermixed and heavily fertilized with dung from corralled goats. With no more than simple tools, small, independent Kofyar households can grow most of the family food Netting The Jola of Senegal and other peoples living on the swampy coastal lands of the Upper Guinea coast cultivate wet irrigated rice in permanent diked paddy fields that are annually transplanted on with a single crop Linares An individual family owns parcels in all the important sections of the rice fields, improving soil fertility by careful tilling and controlling water.

Through centuries of careful experimentation, the Jola have developed multiple varieties landraces of the West African rice species Oryza glaberrima, to which they have added introduced varieties of the Asian species Oryza sativa, thus staggering harvest time and other labor requirements and spreading the risk of failure if precipitation is insufficient. As among the Kofyar, land among the Jola is privately owned but inalienable, and production is organized on the basis of independent nuclear households that exchange labor rather than extended households or larger lineages Linares These social organizational features can, in fact, be shared by other intensive farmers elsewhere.

The rice economies of East and Southeast Asia vary in the intensity with which they use land, labor, and capital, but most farmers grow at least two crops a year, using household or family labor, exchange organizations, and irrigation societies Bray Rice cultivation is used as the basis of economic diversification into commercial cropping and manufacturing.

The examples discussed above suggest that most tropical forests have been inhabited by humans for a long time; to one degree or another, these forests are anthropogenic, having been transformed through human agency. Everywhere, indigenous groups have developed diverse and ingenious techniques to incorporate the biological diversity inherent in tropical forests into cultural patterns of resource use. Regardless of whether they are hunter-gatherers or intensive agriculturalists, some of their practices have had little effect on the environment and others have greatly modified it.

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In all instances, the particular lifeways that have emerged are a product of historical processes of cumulative social change and continuing adaptation. Culture is not in any simple way determined by nature, but rural economies are doubtless forged in the mutual interaction of humans with the diverse ecosystems that they occupy. In the process of engaging nature, indigenous farmers have created hundreds of varieties of cultivated plants landraces , thus increasing food security through plant genetic diversity that confers resistance to pests, pathogens, and adverse climatic conditions.

That is only one of the many ways in which local peoples have actually increased diversity.


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  • Clearly, then, indigenous peoples have the capacity to transform tropical rainforest environments without destroying their biodiversity. Such practices are generally sustainable as long as population numbers are kept down and land continues to be plentiful or as long as access by densely settled peoples to scarce resources, such as fertile soils, is carefully managed for the common good.

    Even under ideal conditions, however, examples of tropical forest peoples who misuse resources can be cited: in the Amazon, they overexploit game and fish populations; in Northern Luzon, they deforest Lawless ; in the. Upper Guinea coast, during years of drought, they cut down and burn palm groves to grow rice Beye and Eychenne But those instances do not add up to a worldwide systematic and massive assault by native peoples on their resource base. Since then, conditions have changed; the world's tropical forests and the people living within them are increasingly under threat from overpopulation; from land-hungry peasants, unskilled migrants, loggers, miners, and cattle ranchers; from government projects to build roads and dams; and from commercial plantations and crop monocultures.

    Cultural diversity is being reduced even faster than biological diversity. It is estimated that in Brazil alone there were indigenous cultures in but only 87 in Sponsel With the loss of lives goes the loss of cultural knowledge about the forest and the myriad beneficial uses to which people can put its plants and animals as food, medicines, dyes, fibers, industrial materials, and so forth.

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    But the forest itself is also disappearing fast. Close to 3 million hectares of Amazon forest are being cut down every year. Doubtless, we are facing cultural and biological extinction rates of unprecedented magnitude.