Who are traditional populations?

Manuela Carneiro da Cunha ( Anthropologist, University of Chicago) & Mauro W. B. Almeida (Anthropologist, University of Campinas)

The use of the term “traditional populations” is deliberately broad. Such breadth should not however be mistaken for conceptual confusion. To define traditional populations by means of their adherence to tradition would go against current anthropological understanding. To define them as populations with a small environmental footprint, and thus claim they are ecologically sustainable, would simply be tautologous.

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If we were to define them as populations outside the sphere of the market, it would be difficult to find any nowadays. In academic and legal texts categories are generally described by means of the properties or characteristics by which they are constituted. But social categories can also be described “by extension”, that is to say through the simple enumeration of the elements that make them up. For the time being we think it better to define “traditional populations” “by extension”, that is to say by listing their current “members” or the candidates for “membership”.

This approach is consistent with the emphasis we will give to the creation and appropriation of categories and, more importantly, it points to the formation of subjects by means of new practices.

This is no novelty. Terms such as “indian”, “indigenous”, “tribal”, “native”, “aborigine” are metropolitan creations, fruits of the colonial encounter. Despite being generic and artificial when they were created, little by little these terms were inhabited by real flesh and blood people. This is what can happen, though not inevitably, when they gain administrative or legal status.  It should not be forgotten that what frequently happens is that the peoples who began inhabiting these categories by force have been capable of reclaiming these same categories, converting terms laden with prejudice into platforms for mobilization. In such cases deportation to a foreign conceptual territory ends up leading to the occupation and defence of this territory. It is at this point that the category which started out being defined “by extension” can be redefined analytically on the basis of its properties.

Initially the category brought together seringueiros (rubber-tappers) and castanheiros (Brazil nut collectors) from the Amazon region and then expanded to include other groups ranging from mussel collectors in Santa Catarina to collectors of babassu nuts in southern Maranhão and quilombolas in Tocantins.

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What all these groups have in common is the fact that they have, at least in part, a history of low environmental impact and a current interest in retaining or recovering control over the territories they use. Above all, they are open to negotiation: in exchange for control of their territories they commit to providing environmental services

Although, as we will show, traditional populations have taken indigenous peoples as their model, the category of “traditional populations” does not include these. This divide derives from a fundamental legal distinction: indigenous territorial rights are unqualified as regards conservation, even when it can be seen that indigenous lands stand out as “islands” of environmental conservation in a context of accelerating devastation. In order to stress this specific characteristic of Brazilian legislation that distinguishes indigenous peoples from “traditional populations” we do not include the former in the latter category and, when referring to both, will use the expression “indigenous and traditional populations”.

Are Traditional Peoples really conservationists?

Those opposed to the participation of traditional populations in conservation argue that:

  1. not all traditional societies are conservationists;
  2. even those that currently are may change for the worse when they have access to markets.

For a long time there existed among anthropologists, conservationists, government officials and the populations themselves a presumption of inevitability in the relationship between traditional populations and the environment. A set of ideas which represent indigenous groups as naturally conservationist led to what has become known as “the myth of the good ecological savage”.1 It is obvious that natural conservationists do not exist; however, even when we change “natural” to ”cultural”, the question persists: can traditional populations be described as “cultural conservationists”?

Environmentalism can signify a set of practices or refer to an ideology. There are however three differing situations, which tend to be confused when a single term is used to designate all three. Firstly, you can have the ideology without its effective practice – we refer to the case of merely verbal support for conservation. Next there is the case in which both sustainable practices and cosmology are present.

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Numerous indigenous Amazonian societies subscribe to a kind of Lavoisierist ideology in which nothing is lost and everything is recycled, including lives and souls. Such societies subscribe to an ideology of limited exploitation of natural resources, in which humans maintain the balance of the universe, which encompasses both the natural and the supernatural.

Values, dietary and hunting taboos, and institutional or supernatural sanctions provide the instruments with which to operate in accordance with this ideology. Such societies may easily be placed into the category of cultural conservationists.  The example of the Peruvian Yagua immediately springs to mind2.

Finally you can have cultural practices without ideology3. In this case we refer to populations that, despite not having an explicitly conservationist ideology, follow cultural rules on the uses of natural resources that, given their population density and the territory in which they are applied, are sustainable. It should be noted that, to conserve resources, a society is not required to completely avoid predation, merely to keep it within limits. If a society approves the slaughter of a tribe of monkeys, including its females and young, and such a massacre, however repugnant, does not affect the population stock, then the society is not infringing conservation practice. What should be asked is whether the habits in question are compatible with sustainable use, rather than whether they are morally wrong.

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We may object to sport hunting in our society. The fact is that North American associations that started life as hunting associations, such as the National Wildlife Federation, were and are important for environmental conservation.  In the same way indigenous groups may conserve and manage with creativity and competence the environment in which they live.

However this does not necessarily spring from a cosmology of natural balance but rather may be the result of considerations to do with maintaining resource stocks. Indigenous groups and some mobile groups such as seringueiros do in fact protect and maybe even enrich the biodiversity of neotropical forests. The Amazonian forests are dominated by species competing for access to sunlight. By opening small clearings in the forest, human groups create opportunities for less favoured species to gain a window of access to sunlight, as is also the case when a large tree falls.4

The second argument is that, although traditional societies may have exploited their environments sustainably in the past, the frontier populations with whom they now interact will influence them in the direction of short-sighted resource uses. In the absence of adequate institutions and with little information about alternative opportunities, the wider economy will morally erode these social groups as a younger generation with an entrepreneurial spirit will enter into conflict with old customs and values of reciprocity. According to this line of argument, although the “traditional culture” may have practiced conservation in the past, the needs induced by the contact with a market economy will inevitably lead to cultural change and the over-exploitation of natural resources. It is true that there will certainly be changes, but not necessarily over-exploitation. For what the state of equilibrium prior to contact also implies is that, given certain structural conditions, traditional populations can play an important role in conservation.

Balée has undertaken a detailed review of the evidence that Amazonian societies enrich natural resources, whether these are rivers, soils, fauna or plant diversity4, 5, 6, 7. What this scenario fails to recognize is that the situation has changed and with this the validity of past paradigms. Traditional populations are no longer outside the central economy nor are they simply on the periphery of the global system.

Traditional populations and their organizations do not deal simply with ranchers, loggers and prospectors. They have become partners with mainstream institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank and powerful first world NGOs. Neither is the market in which traditional populations operate today the same as that of yesterday. Until recently, in order to obtain cash, indigenous societies supplied the market with primary products: raw materials such as rubber, Brazil-nuts, minerals and timber.

They have jumped the second stage of goods with added industrial value and have barely engaged with third generation goods and services. They have begun to participate in the information economy – fourth generation products – through adding value to local and indigenous knowledge.8, 9, 10, 11, 12. They have entered the emerging market for “existence values” such as biodiversity and natural landscapes. In 1994 there were buyers prepared to pay for titles to a square metre of Central American forest despite knowing that they would never be able to see this square meter.

Learn more about the question of payments for environmental services.

*An edited version of the text “Traditional populations and environmental conservation”, originally published in: ‘Biodiversity in the Brazilian Amazon: assessment and priority actions for conservation, sustainable use and benefit sharing’. João Paulo Capobianco et al.(org.). São Paulo: Estação Liberdade - Instituto Socioambiental, 2004 (540 pp).



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