Large-Scale Deforestation in Amazon
Large-scale deforestation, or forest clearing, has been understood for years to cause great loss in biodiversity (Foley et. al 2007). Within the Amazon Rainforest specifically, deforestation is a huge issue that has many hidden ramifications often overlooked by policymakers. According to the authors of “Amazonia revealed: forest degradation and loss of ecosystem goods and services in the Amazon Basin”, “rainforests in the Amazon sequester carbon from the global atmosphere, regulate the water balance and flow of the entire Amazon River system, influence the patterns of climate and air chemistry over much of the continent, and may even ameliorate the spread of infectious diseases” (Foley et. al 2007).
In addition to these devastating effects, deforestation within the Amazon Rainforest takes a large toll on the Indigenous Amazonians local to the area, dependent upon the rainforest for cultural, traditional and medicinal purposes. Deforestation is cited to challenge the access to and ownership of traditional lands within the Amazon, and also introduce, spread and encourage the re-emergence of various temperature and precipitation dependent infectious illnesses and diseases (Hofmeijer et. al 2013). Amongst Indigenous Amazonians, traditional approaches to health, tradition and social life are being “placed under increasing stress in the context of local social and economic changes” due to external influences such as deforestation (Hofmeijer et. al 2013). Profit-driven Western-style environmental degradation has historically placed additional amounts of pressure on Indigenous peoples around the world. Such external pressures can be determined as acts of environmental injustice. Biodiversity loss through deforestation specifically, may be linked to shifts in Indigenous culture and knowledge. This research project seeks to investigate how the loss of biodiversity in the Amazon rainforest caused by deforestation may be connected to degradation in Indigenous culture and knowledge.
The Amazon Rainforest is regarded as one of the world’s greatest collections of biological diversity (Foley et. al 2007). However, through mass deforestation for economic gain, this area is at risk, and so are the Indigenous Amazonians living throughout the entire region, who depend greatly on the Amazon’s biodiversity. The following literature review explores how the loss of biodiversity in the Bolivian Amazon rainforest caused by deforestation is connected to degradation in Tsimane’ Amerindians culture and knowledge. The following literature review thus contains an overview of the existing research including (1) cultural change amongst Tsimane’ Amerindians (2) traditional ecological knowledge loss amongst Tsimane’ Amerindians.
Cultural Change Amongst Tsimane’ Amerindians
The Tsimane’ Amerindians were never successfully settled in Christian missions, but the creation of roads in the region in 1975 led to a stark increase in the number of loggers and cattle ranchers inhabiting their region (Gurven et. al 2010). As the number of colonists increased, the Tsimane’ began to call for their own form of independence. Fortunately, in the 1990s, the Tsimane’ joined a pan-Indigenous organization called Central de Pueblos Indigenas del Beni and acquired legal acceptance of their remaining lands from the Bolivian government (Gurven et. al 2010). However, Tsimane’ Indigenous culture has remained under external pressure and risk of cultural disturbance. Much of this risk of cultural disturbance stems from the continually high rates of deforestation and biodiversity loss in the Bolivian Amazon. According to an article detailing the carbon emissions and deforestation rates in the Amazon Basin between 2000 and 2010, “Following Brazil, Bolivia contributed the second most deforestation in the last decade, which accounted for 12% of the basin total, more than the sum of the Peruvian Amazon and the Colombian Amazon” (Song et. al 2015). Additional studies show a relation between Tsimane’ cultural shift and these dramatic rates of biodiversity loss through deforestation.
In a study that sought to understand how Indigenous culture relates to forest tree diversity, researchers hypothesized that “cultural change would be negatively associated with tree diversity in the forests managed by villages” (Guze et. al 2015). The study, which was comprised of interviewing 86 informants from 6 Tsimane’ villages, collected information regarding the Tsimane’ people’s attachment to their own culture and their partiality to change (Guze et. al 2015). The authors of this study note that their “proxy of biodiversity is based on trees because they are the most important structural organisms of forests and provide a reliable estimation of overall biodiversity” (Guèze et. al 2015). Although they do not reject the notion that there may be alternative ways in which tree diversity and cultural change are associated, the study found that the Tsimane’ Amerindian’s attachment to their traditional/ cultural values relates to tree diversity in the surrounding areas in which they live, “independently of other socio-economic factors such as population density or frequency of travel to market towns” (Guze et. al 2015). The researchers also found that three components of Tsimane’ culture studied, including knowledge, practices, and beliefs, might each relate to forest biodiversity (Guze et. al 2015). Knowledge, practices, and beliefs integral to the Tsimane’ people’s culture may be modified through cultural change (Geuze et. al 2015; Reyes-García et. al 2014). Additionally, the researchers state that “culturally exposed people may lose the knowledge of which species to manage or how to manage the species, having an impact on tree diversity in the forest” (Geuze et. al 2015). In more acculturated, or exposed villages, biodiversity loss through anthropogenic disturbance is associated “with cultural change, suggesting that the management becomes closer to a Western-type management, possibly through the adoption of practices such as cash-crop production and commercial logging by the Tsimane’” (Guze et. al 2015). It is important to note that tree diversity and forest structure are not synonymous. Changes in tree diversity related to cultural shift were significant; however, the researchers found that forest structure was not also associated with cultural change (Guèze et. al 2015). Ultimately, these researchers concluded that while cultural change does not always lead to biodiversity loss, in the case of the Tsimane’ Amerindians, tree diversity loss seems to have a causal relation to cultural shift (Guèze et. al 2015).
Traditional Ecological Knowledge Loss Amongst Indigenous Amazonians
In a study analyzing the relation between traditional ecological knowledge of the Tsimane’ Amerindians in the Bolivian Amazon and cultural change, the authors wrote that “traditional ecological knowledge has been defined as a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relation of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment” (Reyes-García et. al 2014). Within this case study, data was obtained by engaging in a one hour interview with 484 Tsimane’ people living in 47 communities (Reyes-García et. al 2014). From analyzing their results, the researchers concluded that “both the individual level of detachment to traditional values and the village level of agreement in detachment to traditional values are negatively associated with individual levels of plant use knowledge” (Reyes-García et. al 2014). Therefore, shifts or separations from cultural values could be linked to the loss of traditional ecological knowledge. This association of loss of cultural values and loss of traditional ecological knowledge is imperative to note because both have previously been shown to be related to environmental degradation or loss of biodiversity in alternate studies.
These findings were corroborated in another study titled “Evidence of Traditional Knowledge Loss Among a Contemporary Indigenous Society”, that examined the “changes in cultural traits associated to the traditional knowledge of wild plant uses among an Amazonian Indigenous society”. Researchers reported a net decrease in the plant usage between 2000 and 2009 “equivalent to 1 to 3% per year” (Reyes-García et. al 2013). These changes were reported as “not the result of randomness” and “The Tsimane’ could be abandoning their traditional knowledge as they perceive that this form of knowledge does not equip them well to deal with the new socio-economic and cultural conditions they face nowadays” (Reyes-García et. al 2013). Although within this study Amazon deforestation was not cited as the single causation of the loss of traditional ecological knowledge amongst the Tsimane’ Amerindians, it is proposed that the apparent decrease in plant usage and increase in forest disturbance could be related to Tsimane’ adoption of new economic, social, political, and environmental practices (Prez-Llorente 2013; Reyes-García et. al 2013). Loss of biodiversity through deforestation, coupled with the worsening effects of climate change which is aggravated through deforestation, are likely to create stressful environmental conditions for the local Indigenous people.
Additionally, a research article titled “The Importance of Indigenous Knowledge in Curbing the Loss of Language and Biodiversity” argues that the protection of Indigenous knowledge itself is important in preventing or slowing the loss of biodiversity in the areas Indigenous peoples inhabit. The researchers state “with the accelerating losses of biodiversity, habitats, and native languages, Indigenous knowledgeincluding the study of traditional ecological knowledge of species and landscapes maintained by native nationshas become ever more significant” (Wilder et. al 2016). The authors go on to state that currently, Indigenous ecological knowledge is rapidly changing and eroding (Wilder et. al 2016). Communities suffering from declining use of their languages are suffering more rapid losses of traditional knowledge, and efforts to curb this loss are time sensitive (Prez-Llorente 2013; Wilder et. al 2016). Although efforts to “restore habitats of declining species and resuscitate lost practices and knowledge” are growing, there is an immediate need to assist Indigenous peoples in efforts to “maintain their traditional livelihoods based on local natural resources” (Wilder et. al 2016). The research article strives to analyze research which proposed relation between biodiversity loss and cultural shifts or traditional ecological knowledge loss. The article concludes that Indigenous knowledge is “a bountiful repository of understanding crafted over the millennia that is rapidly diminishing in scope and detail” and by failing to appreciate the potential worth of Indigenous scientific knowledge, scientific and academic institutions are at risk of losing the opportunity to learn from the great plethora of Indigenous knowledge (Wilder et. al 2016).
Map showing 6 Tsimane’ villages within Tsimane’ territory; Source: (Guèze et. al 2015)
The study area that will be utilized in this research project is the Tsimane’ territory in the Amazonian province in Beni, Bolivia. The central coordinates of this location are Latitude 14° 35’ S – 15° 30’ S and Longitude 66° 23’ W – 67° 10’ W. Tsimane’ villages are dispersed throughout the lowlands of Bolivia. Some villages can be found along the banks of the Maniqui River and along the Quiquibey River in the Pilon Lajas region. Others are located in the interfluvial region between San Borja and San Ignacio de Mojos. This entire region is densely forested and has a humid tropical climate with an average temperature of 30 Celsius (86 Fahrenheit). The area sees an annual precipitation average between 40 to 150 inches. Due to differences in the history of flooding, various broad forest types occur throughout this region “ranging from inundated to seasonally-flooded bajo forests to terra firme forests, which cover most areas” (Guze et al., 2015). These differences in tree diversity will be observed.
Tsimane’ Study Participants and Tsimane’ Lands
Around 9,000 Tsimane people live in the Beni area of Bolivia, dispersed throughout 80 villages which contain an average of 100 people (Gurven et. al 2010). The study participants will include 50 Tsimane’ Amerindians randomly selected from ten of the villages throughout Tsimane’ territory in the Amazonian province of Beni, Bolivia. The Tsimane’ language is isolated from most other Indigenous languages of South America, however many Tsimane’ men are now able to speak Spanish as well. In order to obtain adequate cultural data, researchers must be able to speak both languages fluently.
Ecological data will also be acquired by studying the tree diversity of the nearest rainforest areas. Due to the alarming rates at which deforestation is occurring throughout the Bolivian Amazon region overall, it can be assumed that loss of plant and tree diversity is related to deforestation. The main observable tree families within the Tsimane’ territory of Beni, Bolivia include Moraceae, Arecaceae (palms), Euphorbiaceae, and Fabaceae (Guze et al., 2015).
Cultural Data Collection
To prevent any ethical implications from occurring throughout this study, direct consent must be given by each of the study participants prior to their engagement in participant observation interviews. This consent must be free, written and spoken prior to the initiation of our research. Additionally, free, written consent must be obtained from the Gran Consejo Tsimane’ (the Tsimane’ political authority) prior to our arrival at each site.
In order to obtain data on cultural change and the loss of traditional ecological knowledge participant observation interviews will be administered. These observations will study the Tsimane’ Amerindian’s levels of cultural attachment as well as their traditional ecological knowledge. Levels of cultural attachment will be discerned by asking Tsimane’ participants to rank their levels of attachment to several various Tsimane’ cultural traditions. Levels of traditional ecological knowledge will be tested by questioning participants on their ability to locate, create and administer plant medicine. Within this area of data collection, the Tsimane’ Amerindian’s rate of exposure to contemporary human activity, or the disturbance of human activity, must also be noted. Participant observation interviews are the most viable method for data collection in this research study as they allow researchers to ask subjective questions having to do with cultural and traditional topics. Participant observation interviews are commonly used in ethnographic research and are therefore proved to be the most effective method in the collection of cultural data for our research project. The fieldnotes gained from this portion of the study will be used as a data source from which researchers can draw informed conclusions.
Ecological Data Collection
Ecological data will be collected within the territory of the five Tsimane’ villages which will be observed. Data will be collected by obtaining an inventory of plant and tree diversity in the specific village areas of focus. Soil samples from each of these areas will also be collected in order to obtain edaphic information.
To gain a greater understanding of how deforestation relates to this loss in overall biodiversity, the distance from any areas of logging, the distance from any human settlements or villages and the distance from any other observable forest degradation will be recorded. These empirical recordings will then be compared to past documented recordings in order to determine the overall loss of biodiversity and will, therefore, be used as the primary ecological data source in this research project. It is important to use this method of ecological data collection because it will be compared to the cultural data collection in order to identify an overall correlation between the two rates of change.
There are signs that around the world traditional ecological knowledge is decreasing. Since traditional ecological knowledge has the potential to encourage biodiversity conservation and deforestation prevention, identifying the multifaceted causation of traditional ecological knowledge loss is of great importance within modern scientific research. Historically, Indigenous peoples around the world have faced many issues including loss or degradation of Indigenous lands, acculturation, and even genocide. The importance of preserving and protecting Indigenous culture has commonly been deprioritized. Also, the benefits of conserving Indigenous traditional ecological knowledge for modern study and potential usage has been largely overlooked. Since the Amazon Rainforest is home to the world’s richest biodiversity (Foley et. al 2007), it is important to protect the area from the rapid losses that are occurring through mass deforestation and forest degradation. If biodiversity loss through deforestation is proven to have a causal relation to Tsimane’ Indigenous cultural shifts and traditional knowledge losses, then conservation talks will be much more likely.
Anthropocentrism prioritizes human life over the environment and all other non-human species. The extraction and burning of fossil fuels, transportation, deforestation, agriculture, transportation, and other human activities all have an immense impact on the environment, non-human species, and climate. However, the lives of vulnerable and marginalized people around the world are also impacted by these activities. Environmental justice is as much of a social issue as it is an environmental issue. Curbing the loss of biodiversity in the Bolivian Amazon Rainforest by ceasing mass Western-style, profit-driven deforestation is not only important in protecting the environment. Conservation may also protect the culture and livelihood of the Tsimane’ Indigenous people who are and have always been dependent on the rainforest.