Should We Save 'Endangered' Cultures?

Should We Save 'Endangered' Cultures?
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Though hard to imagine for residents of the technologically developed world, there remains hundreds of tribes cut off from global civilization, who, in many ways, live as our ancestors did thousands of years ago. Largely indigenous to forested regions in South America, New Guinea, India, and Central Africa, these native peoples evoke wonder whenever they emerge from their homes in the wilds.

For decades, state and international policy has largely protected these tribes, granting them the right to live their lives in isolation. There's good reason for this. History has taught us that when cultures separated by an ocean of differences come into contact, the results can be disastrous. Disease and misunderstanding can rapidly wreak havoc on a smaller, uncontacted society.

But what if an isolated society is already on the verge of extinction? What then? Is it not global society's moral duty to try to bring them back from the brink of death?

According to a trio of academics, the answer is "yes." Moreover, the team recently published evidence that shows seven different isolated tribes in South America to be critically endangered.

In a recent issue of the journal PLoS ONE, Professor Robert Walker, Dr. Dylan Kesler, and Professor Kim Hill argue that no-contact policies should not ignore the well being of the very societies they are designed to protect.

"If populations are small and declining, or not growing as a result of external threats, then current policy approaches should be deemed ineffective," they write, further contending that well-organized contact is preferable to allowing a unique culture to fade from the Earth forever.

Making their arguments more pressing is new data from aerial surveys and satellites. Walker, Kesler, and Hill examined images from NASA, Google Earth, and DigitalGlobe (among other sources), looking for signs of purposeful forest clearings and human-made fires over the last 10-14 years from eight different uncontacted tribes in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

They found that only one ethnicity, the Yaminawa of Brazil, demonstrated clear growth over the study period, with a burgeoning population of 400. All of the other tribes had populations of fewer than 120 individuals and showed no signs of growth.

Threatening these peoples are individuals engaged in dodgy activities like illegal logging, mining, squatting, poaching, and narcotrafficking, who pay no heed to the welfare of isolated societies. Tromping through the rain forest, these miscreants threaten to spread disease and inflict harm upon native peoples.

Walker, Kesler, and Hill argue that well-organized and well-funded efforts to contact critically endangered isolated cultures are vastly preferable to the malicious contact they currently receive. The trio also insists that the desire to leave cultures isolated is misguided.

"In our experiences from interviews with people after contact, there is a unanimous consensus that people stay isolated mostly because of fear of extermination and slavery. People want to trade, particularly for access to steel machetes and axes, and they crave exposure to new ideas and new opportunities. Humans are a gregarious species that intrinsically desire and benefit from outside interactions with other groups."

Source: Walker RS, Kesler DC, Hill KR (2016) Are Isolated Indigenous Populations Headed toward Extinction? PLoS ONE 11(3): e0150987. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0150987

(Image: Gleilson Miranda / Governo do Acre)

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