Rainforests, wildlife preserved by indigenous spiritual beliefs

Keith Rozendal, special to mongabay.com
November 15, 2010

New research within the native Wapishana and Makushi communities of Guyana suggests that indigenous cultural beliefs such as shamanism help preserve tropical forests and wildlife.

The analysis, published in the September 2010 Journal of Latin American Geography, draws from a massive data set that tracks wildlife populations, hunting kill sites, and spiritually significant features of the landscape within a 48,000-square-kilometer area in southern Guyana. The authors recruited the hunters themselves to record much of the data.

The data show that hunters avoid spiritual sites, potentially creating animal refuges. More than 99 percent of their kills occurred more than 500 meters away from spiritually significant sites.

A spiritually important mountain outside the Wapishana village of Shiriri. Hunters and other community members avoid this site, despite its proximity to the village. Photo by: Jeff Luzar
The scientists used geographic methods to rule out other influences over kill locations, such as distances from villages or roads, vegetation types, and the abundance of food for the hunter's main prey: deer, rodents, peccary, and other small mammals.

“These sites are usually considered to be dangerous,” said co-author Jeff Luzar, a visiting scholar of anthropology at Stanford University, in an interview with mongabay.com. “Maybe it's a mountain that has some kind of story associated with it, or a spring, that people will avoid.”

Shamans and elders located the spiritual sites on maps of the region for the scientists, and they recounted the cautionary tales associated with the sites.

One shaman told the researchers of an angry dragon-like spirit locked under a mountain just outside the village of Shiriri. The shaman said earth tremors occurred the one time he climbed the mountain, so hunters never go there to hunt.

Through the stories they tell, shamans appear to regulate “who goes hunting, why they go, how long they follow the proscriptions, and how that influences their diet and hunting practices,” said co-author Jose Fragoso, a biologist at Stanford University, in an interview with mongabay.com.

“Shamanism is a fulcrum around which a lot of environmental use is mediated,” Fragoso said.

The new data should spur more comprehensive studies of hunting and indigenous resource use, said anthropologist Neil Whitehead of the University of Wisconsin, who was not part of the research. Whitehead has studied the Patamuna and other Guyanese indigenous groups.

Ewell (front of canoe) and Wycliff, two indigenous technicians from Rewa Village, head out to collect animal population counts for the study. Photo by: Jose Fragoso
“Choices during subsistence hunting are more complex than they first appear,” Whitehead told mongabay.com. “It incorporates lots of cultural values.”

The scientists trained dozens of indigenous hunters, usually men, to conduct wildlife population counts. Intergenerational teams paired each of the more experienced hunters with a younger hunter. The teams walked along specially crafted paths in the forest, systematically recording any animals and animal signs they saw. Collectively, the hunters have walked more than 25,000 miles (40,000 km) to date, gathering data.

“We train them in scientific methods of collecting information, combining the traditional skills of hunters with the ability to record and think of things in a scientific way,” said Fragoso.

These techniques yield better wildlife population estimates than those typically gathered by visiting scientists, according to Fragoso. The counts show that hunting practices in these communities are sustainable, he stated.

“Because of their societal and cultural rules, their hunting is not as intense as it could be,” said Fragoso. “They seem not to have caused any extinctions or major population reductions.”

Added Luzar: “The Wapishana and Makushi seem to be very good stewards of their resources.”

Citation: Read J, Fragoso J, Silvius K, Luzar J, et al. (2010) Space, Place, and Hunting Patterns among Indigenous Peoples of the Guyanese Rupununi Region. Journal of Latin American Geography 9(3): 213-243. doi: 10.1353/lag.2010.0030

Keith Rozendal is a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

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Keith Rozendal, special to mongabay.com (November 15, 2010).

Rainforests, wildlife preserved by indigenous spiritual beliefs.