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Rainforest Information Centre Educational Supplement


"Miners going into the mines often used to carry small birds, such as canaries, which were highly sensitive to the buildup of toxic gases. If the birds died, the miners quickly fled. Today, the world's 500 million indigenous peoples are the miners' canary; and the Earth -- particularly the tropical rainforests -- is the mine.That the canary is dying is a warning that the dominant cultures of the world have become toxic to the Earth. In this case, however, we cannot flee the mine."
Jason W. Clay in "Lessons of the Rainforest"


1. Introduction
2. The Penan of Sarawak
3. The Yanomami of Brazil
4. The Kuku-Yalanji of North East Queensland, Australia
5. The Pygmies of Central Africa
6. Indigenous People and Rainforest Protection
6.1 The Desana of Colombia
6.2 Colombia: Tribes Get Half of Amazon
7. More Rainforest Facts
Recommended Reading

1. Introduction

The world's rainforest are home to many tribal people. This is one of the least-recognised facts about rainforests Tragically, most of the native societies of the rainforest have already been destroyed. In Brazil alone, 87 tribes were wiped out in the first half of this century. In the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, the military is estimated to have killed up to 150,000 tribal people under the guise of counter-insurgency measures.

More than 1,000 rainforest cultures still exist, but nearly all of them face a grim future due to the development plans of the ruling elites in their countries and international development agencies.

Their lands are being taken, their basic rights disregarded, and often even their very existence is being ignored.

These rainforest cultures are storehouses of great knowledge.

From them we can learn to live sustainably, within the limits required by the planet's ecosystem. Rainforest cultures have learnt to harvest the wealth of their forests without destroying them. They have a store of medicinal plant knowledge and a fundamental understanding of native flora and fauna. Rainforest cultures have successfully lived in rainforests for thousands of years.

Not only are forest-dwelling cultures losing their forests -- they are also losing their younger generations to whom they wish to pass on their traditional knowledge. With the incursion of western civilisation, the young have come to aspire to the wealth of the western world and all its technology, whilst disregarding their elders' wisdom.

Strategies for the use and conservation of tropical forests must first and foremost respect the rights of the traditional inhabitants of these areas. Guaranteeing the rights of the tribal peoples is often a major first step towards high-quality conservation of rainforests.

We shall now introduce you to some of these rainforest cultures from around the world.

2. The Penan of Sarawak

There are many tribes in the rainforests of the Malaysian state of Sarawak. Sarawak is part of Borneo, the third largest island in the world. Some of the other tribes in Sarawak are: the Kayan, Kenyah, Kejaman, Kelabit, Punan Bah, Tanjong, Sekapan, and the Lahanan. Collectively, they are referred to as Dayaks or Orangulu which means "people of the interior".

About half of Sarawak's 1.5 million people are Dayaks. Most Dayaks, it is believed thropologists, came originally from the South-East Asian mainland. Their mythologies support this.

The Penan, who say simply "this land is our origin" are the only exception. Because the Penan are the last surviving hunter-gatherer tribe in South-East Asia, they have received more international attention than the other tribes of Sarawak. There are about 10,000 Penan in all, but due to the impact of logging on their lands, less than sixty families are now able to continue the traditional way of life described here. The rest are either semi-nomadic or live in settlements. Life for the Penan is now extremely difficult because of the destruction of their forests. Malnutrition and other health problems are common.

The Penan's society is egalitarian and non-hierarchical. Traditionally, they depend entirely on the forest for their existence, their culture and their beliefs. Bird calls from a certain direction bear good tidings; from another, they bring bad news; entire hunting parties turn back if they hear the call of the banded kingfisher or the cry of the hawk bat. Long journeys are only embarked upon after seeing a white-headed hawk flying from right to left, or hearing the call of a crested rainbird or barking deer.

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The Penan are acknowledged masters of tracking and hunting, and masters of the blowpipe. This is the weapon for the rainforest. It is light, made of forest materials. Ammunition is readily replaced and the darts kill silently, allowing more than one kill, or more than one shot at the target.

As well as wild pigs, which the Penan hunt, the forests are full of monkeys, birds and orang utans. Fishing is done with either a spear or one of at least ten wholly biodegradable fish poisons. The Penan fish for more than 30 species.

Fruit and vegetables are obtained from the forest too. There are more than 100 wild fruits to harvest, many fungi, wild greens and edible palms. Sago is to the Penan what rice and wheat are to other cultures. There are six varieties of sago palm, and during harvesting, great care is taken not to damage the roots. This is to ensure that the palms regenerate. A meal of rice, say the Penan, leaves them hungry in an hour, whereas a bowl of sago will sustain them for days.

The passage of time is marked by the ripening of sago and wild fruits, and the Penan track their lives accordingly. It may take ten, fifteen or even twenty years for them to complete a journey and find themselves back at a certain spot.

When a Penan enters unknown territory, she or he begins using mal cun uk ( "follow your feelings") -- a process that enables them to accomplish amazing feats of orienteering. As the Penan say, "the earthworm can go hungry, the mouse deer may become in the forest, but never we Penan". Adat means "law", and for the Penan has legal, moral and spiritual aspects. Land cannot be bought or sold. It is not that the Penan own the land; it is the land that owns the Penan. The land is alive, the trees blessed with spirits, and the animals endowed with magical powers. It is taboo to kill a tree, as that would release its spirit.

The greatest transgression for the Penan is see hun which roughly means a failure to share. All children are taught from an early age to share anything caught or picked.

3. The Yanomami of Brazil

"Any discussion about the forests should start by looking at ...the remaining tribal people for whom the tropical forest has been home for many generations. Their story ... is one which we must all be profoundly ashamed. The Yanomami of Brazil are being driven to extinction by measles, venereal disease and mercury poisoning following the illegal invasion of their lands by gold prospectors -- even now that dreadful pattern of collective genocide continues" -- Prince Charles 1990

The Yanomami or Yanos live in communal villages. They build one huge doughnut-shaped house, up to 40 metres across, made of logs and thatching with a central open courtyard. Tis is the area for dancing and ceremonies. Under the huge roof surrounding the courtyard each family has their hearth. Their hammocks hang around the fire.

These communal dwellings are always near running water and their vegetable gardens are nearby. Crop cultivation accounts for about 80% of their food. More than half their gardens are given over to banana and plantain trees. Sweet potato and cassava are other staples, along with corn, peach palm and papaya. In all, about 60 crops are grown, only 20 of them for food. The rest are for medicine, religious ceremonies, tools and household goods. Hunting, gathering and fishing account for about 20% of the Yano's food. Hunters are afraid of vengeful spirits in their prey, so they are careful not to hunt more game than they need. In this way, the long-term survival of the game in the forest was assured. Gathering wild nuts and fruit is women's work. A particular favourite of the Yanomami is honey of which they know fifteen different kinds.

No hunter will eat an animal he has killed himself. Instead, it is distributed among relatives, friends and the families of potential wives. This reinforces the Yanomami's two greatest values -- sharing and equality.

Four hours' work per day is enough to provide them all their natural needs. They consciously limit the time taken by repetitive tasks so as much attention as possible can be given to the leisurely observation of nature and the performance of ceremonies. It is an attitude that has ensured a balanced and restrained use of the forest.

The Yanomami have no chiefs. There are "leaders", but their role is usually to make suggestions about fairly minor matters of daily life. They can exercise no power over anyone. To maintain good neighbourly relations, villages meet to exchange generous feasts lasting several days, with much singing and dancing.

The Yanomami have been devastated by the invasion of their territory by gold miners who have brought with them disease and mercury poisoning. In 1992, the Brazilian Government granted them a territory of 94,000 square kilometres along the border with Venezuela. Although this was a major victory for the Yanomami, it is not the end of their problems. Although the miners were forced to leave Yanomami territory, many have since returned. Some Yanomami have been murdered by miners and disease has killed many more.

4. The Kuku-Yalanji of North East Queensland, Australia

The Kuku-Yalanji live in the tropical rainforest from Mossman, north to Cooktown and inland to Palmer Island and Mt. Carbine. Most of them live at either Wujal Wujal on the Bloomfield River or at The Gorge on the Mossman River. The Kuku-Yalanji are the only tribal rainforest people in Australia who still have their own culture and language.

They are dedicated conservationists, taking from the forest only those tings that are absolutely necessary. They believe that taking from the forest today means less for tomorrow. They also believe that the spirits of their dead ancestors find refuge in the forest and remain there, watching the tribe and ensuring that all obey their rules and laws.

To the Kuku-Yalanji, all people are related, so wherever they travel, they have brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, mothers and fathers. They live together in communities and extended families. Because of certain taboos they have developed their own sign language- something that can come extremely handy when hunting and silence is needed. There is a mother-in-law language, used when addressing one's mother-in-law which is similar to the language used when discussing the dreamtime or tribal lore.

The tribe is cared for by their "clever men" or Runyuji. Runyuji are responsible for curing sickness, finding out the cause of death, predicting the future and making or stopping rain. The "clever man's" uses rainforest plants for his medicines. Clever men are also able to see invading illnesses in a person's body and therefore know how to treat sick people.

Traditional ceremonies are still held, although they have been modified as a result of modern influences. For instance, instead of burning the home of recently deceased people as they used to when they lived in bark ad grass huts, a fire is now made outside and a smoking branch is carried trough the house to remove the dead person's scent and cleanse the area.

The Kuku-Yalanji are happy to adopt changes if the see advantages in them and their housing is now quite modern. Most wear modern clothing but few wear shoes. When fishing, they sometimes use aluminium boats, outboard motors and spotlights, but their traditional spear and woomera are much more effective than fishing lines.

Most artwork is done using wuba (ochre) for paint. Wuba is a coloured rock formed by an accumulation of iron oxides in the soil. It comes in various colours -- black is rare and charcoal is substituted and pipeclay is used for white. Clays can also be stained with a variety of vegetable dyes or blood. Ochre and other materials are ground into a fine powder then mixed with a little water. When painting is done on sandstone, as in their beautiful cave paintings the ochre sinks in and if the sandstone is rich in silica, bonding occurs between the silica and the oxides to make it permanent unless the rock face is destroyed.

5. The Pygmies of Central Africa

The term "pygmy" is a loose one and the people it is used to describe dislike the name, preferring to be called by their individual tribal names such as Mbuti, Efe, Aka and Asua. However, in the absence of any other collective name for these tribes, we are forced to use the term "pygmy".

There are about 200,000 pygmies in the forested areas of Rwanda Burundi, Uganda, Zaire, the Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea and the Congo.

Pygmies are considered to be the original inhabitants of African tropical forests. They are hunter-gatherers and for centuries have traded with neighbouring farmers. They exchange forest produce -- mainly meat, for grains. About half their food is obtained in this way. The farmers depend to a large extent on the meat, honey and medicinal products supplied by the pygmies, and modern pygmies would find it hard to do without the iron implements supplied by the farmers.

In recent times, the growing population of central Africa has meant an increased demand for meat form the forest and a growing number of pygmies have become commercial hunters. This has lead to a breakdown of the traditional relationships with farmers and a depletion of the game in the forest.

Some pygmies have become sedentary farmers, often because deforestation and over hunting have made it impossible to continue their traditional way of life. In many cases, national governments and missionaries have instituted programmes of forced settlement without consulting the tribes themselves.

Partly because food sources are sparsely distributed, population densities in the forest have never been high. In the Zaire basin, the population density of the Mbuti tribe is only about one person to every four square kilometres. An individual band may range over a vast territory in its search for food -- a much as 1,300 square kilometres.

Inadequate nutrition and disease are common problems. Fertility rates are much lower than for recent immigrants, and so their numbers are declining or stable, whereas the population of the newer arrivals is increasing rapidly.

Because their nomadic way of life exploits the forest in a sustainable manner, and because their well being is dependent on the survival of the forest, pygmies are ideal custodians of their forests. Protecting the forests and the pygmies that live in them go hand in hand.

6. Indigenous People and Rainforest Protection

6.1 The Desana of Colombia

An example of how indigenous myths work to preserve forests.

One of the striking things about rainforest cultures are the myths which are passed from generation to generation. One of the functions of these myths is to create an awareness of the importance of preserving the forest. The myths of the Desana in the Amazon region of eastern Colombia very forcefully convey the idea of sustainability.

The Desana see their world a s a huge solar circuit, with the sun pouring out energy to all living things. They call these solar energies, this network or web, boga, which literally translates as "current". Within this energy current, each creature's actions affect the rest. There is a fixed amount of boga continually circulating.

The Desana strongly believe human beings should "borrow" no more than necessary of this life energy. For example, when a hunter kills a tapir, he is extracting a quantity of the sun's energy not only from the tapir, but from the whole system. By utilising the tapir's body for food with respect and no waste, the hunter successfully transforms the animal into human flesh and human action -- the energy transfer is successful. Bad hunting -- whether through gluttony, wanton slaughter of game, neglecting the proper prayers, improper dressing and distribution of the game -- is not just a simple violation of the rules of Desana society. it is a violation of the boga circuit -- a potentially perilous break because energy has been taken and nothing given back.

As for the death of a human, their soul travels to the Master of Animals who dwells deep within the rainforest and possesses the power to replenish animals taken by the Desana. The dead Desana's soul becomes fuel for future generations of local animals. Were there no deaths among the Desana, there would be no birth among the deer, turtle, fish and other animals. Conversely, the birth of each new Desana baby represents a withdrawal from the energy circuit. For this very reason, the Desana realise that to populate mindlessly will obviously take from the rainforest ecosystem. The forest flora and fauna will suffer, and because all are within the boga, all will suffer.

Unrestrained population growth takes energy from the reservoir of boga that would otherwise have been circulating among all creatures. The Desana have a system of rewards and punishments to ensure that all members of the tribe understand the link between their own reproductive behaviour and the fate of all creatures in the forest.

6.2 Colombia: Tribes Get Half of Amazon
- Taken from World Rainforest Report no. 16, June 1990 -

In February 1990, asserting that the indigenous people are the best guardians of the rainforest the Colombian Government recognised native land rights to half the Colombian Amazon. Encompassing some of the Amazon's most pristine forest, the new reserve is home to some 55,000 tribal people and brings the area of legally recognised indigenous land to 69,000 square miles. The decrees to the land which were based on an old Spanish colonial law that says the state has no rights to land it has never conquered, acknowledge indigenous landrights more extensively that laws in any other country. The land belongs to the indigenous people and cannot be sold.

There are two underlying reasons for the government's actions: the land being "handed back" already belongs to the indigenous people and as the government acknowledges, they are the best custodians of the land. Following the decree, Bolivian officials sought advice from Colombian lawyers on how to create similar reserves in its Amazon region.

7. More Rainforest Facts

An estimated 50 million of the world's 300 million indigenous people live in or depend on tropical rainforests.

The "slash and burn" or "shifting" agriculture practised by indigenous groups is sometimes blamed for the destruction of large areas of tropical forest, but in fact indigenous groups have developed the only demonstrably sustainable agriculture for tropical forests. It is "shifted cultivators" -- poor farmers who have been forced off their land an into the forests, who do the damage. Norman Myers estimates that one in twenty people on earth are "shifted agriculturalists".

The soils of tropical forests are generally poor. Most of the nutrients which support the luxuriant growth in tropical forests circulate without actually becoming part of the soil. Mycorrhizal (fungal) associations between the roots of trees play an important role in tis process. This means that in most cases when tropical forests are cleared for agriculture, they only produce good crops for a few years. Farmers are therefore likely to clear another area of forest one the first one becomes unproductive.

The water vapour produced by tropical forests carries enormous amounts of latent heat which is released when it condenses and falls as rain. Since the circulation of the air masses tends to be away from the equator towards higher latitudes, a proportion of the latent energy in tropical clouds is transported outside the tropics to the cooler regions of the planet. Tropical forest therefore tend to spread out solar radiation into temperate zones in a manner that is both swift and efficient.

In Costa Rica, beef production almost quadrupled between 1960 and 1980, yet local beef consumption declined by forty percent. The average Costa Rican eats less beef per year than the average domestic cat in the United States. The extra output was exported, most of it to the US.

On South-East Asia, traditional healers use about 6,500 varieties of tropical plants to treat illnesses including malaria, syphillus and stomach ulcers.

Recommended Reading

The following books were used to complete this supplement:

Rainforest Information Centre, 1991, The Australian Rainforest Memorandum, Rainforest Information Centre, Lismore, Australia - reports on the Yanomami, World Rainforest Report no.21, Rainforest Information Centre, Lismore, Australia - reports on Colombia,, World Rainforest Report no.16, Rainforest Information Centre, Lismore, Australia

Sayers, Collins & Harcourt (eds), 1992, The Conservation Atlas of Tropical Forests: Africa, Macmillan, London

Knudtson & Suzuki, 1992, Wisdom of the Elders, Allen & Unwin, Sydney

Davis, W. and Henley, T., 1990, Penan: Voice of the Borneo

Rainforest, WCWC-Wild, Toronto

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