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Translating Dry Data for Forest Communities

By Patricia Shanley, Leda Luz, Jurandir Galvão, Margaret Cymerys


Results of scientific research relevant to forest communities rarely return to the forest. Effective translation of scientific data for rural residents requires a significantly different set of skills and expertise than the gathering and analysis of the data. The end product of forest-based research, thus, often remains a scientific paper, leaving community ‘give-back’ a dangling rather than integral part of the research process. In this context ‘give-back’ means to return relevant information or a useful product to a community in which research was conducted and differs from ‘feedback’, which connotes a response. Therefore, the community might give feedback, commentary, criticism or praise, about the give-back. Products of scientific research, however, are most frequently designed and aimed not for people who live with and near trees, but for people who live amongst desks and paper.Although results of scientific research may inform public policy, many forests lie beyond the influence of political arenas. Within such forests the fates of individual trees are decided daily by the people that live there and use them. Consequently, research results illustrating concrete benefits of conservation are useful in rural communities as well as in scientific ones. In many regions, few research projects aimed at diminishing deforestation offer explicit, relevant results to forest residents.This article describes a research and education program on the ecology and utilization of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) conducted along the Capim River in eastern Amazonia. The overall objective of the program was to demonstrate the value of standing forests to local communities and to assist them in generating a forest management plan. In this article, our purpose is to relate the methods by which results are being returned to communities, rather than to report on the scientific results of the research. We describe strategies to give back data to communities, including interactive workshops, traveling shows and illustrated booklets. Lastly, we offer examples of how data give-back can lead to conservation of forest resources.


Our interaction with the community began through discussions and forest walks. During forest walks we identified the most wide ly utilized extractive products and acquired a general idea of the distributions and densities of economic species. Based on these interactions with the community a research design was developed. The ecological component consisted of linking over 200 trees representing three fruiting and one medicinal oil species (selected by the communities) with a 40 km trail network. Trained and accompanied by researchers, community members mapped the trees and monitored phenology and fruit production over a three year period. We used satellite imagery as a shocking visual aid to help the community recognize the rapid loss of forest resources in their region. Using the imagery we located the agricultural plots of individual families and distinguished areas of intact primary, exploited and secondary forest.

Utilization of NTFPs was measured using illustrated notebooks of household consumption. Each family participating in the study was equipped with scales to weigh game, fish and fiber products. Medicinal plants and fruits were recorded in units. A village monitor was selected by the community to assist families in the recording of data. We checked reported folk remedios and local uses of plants with the nutritional, phytochemical and pharmacological literature available.Educational methods consisted of small group meetings, whole community workshops, cross-community exchanges, technical assistance, forest theater and the creation of illustrated booklets. Translation of data to communities was conducted in a clear and entertaining fashion using low cost, no-tech, rustic, multimedia methods. In workshops, sophisticated ecological or economic analyses were deliberately not attempted. The scale, focus and outputs of conventional economics and ecology signify little for the day-to-day livelihood of a forest-dependent household. Thus, rule one was to offer locally appropriate, relevant content.As a result, give-back of data to communities often entailed conducting separate data analyses. For example, in considering fruit production of primary forest species we found that forest residents think not in yields per hectare but in yield per tree. Our illustrated posters, therefore, feature production per tree. Similarly, as money is a rare commodity we discovered that economic assessments of the value of non-wood forest resources were best understood when values were expressed not in monetary terms, but in terms of the main agricultural commodity, sacks of farinha (cassava flour).A second guideline we followed was to visit communities by invitation. A request from a community signified that concern about the forest resource already existed. Programs were tailored to respond to these community concerns, thus ensuring local interest. If additional technical assistance, such as for forest inventories, was requested, a substantial investment of time and energy was required on the part of the community. In the following sections we describe the specific methods used to disseminate data. These included workshops, experiments in commercialization, traveling shows and illustrated booklets.


Workshops - data give-back. Due to a largely non-literate population, written give-back of results to many rural Amazonian communities is an ineffective mechanism for the transmission of information. Therefore, we designed interactive workshops in which community members presented data by means of posters, theater, games and songs. Data were presented after six months of collection and again after one year. General rules for presentations were that they should be clear, succinct, interactive and attention-getting. Topics had to have concrete relevance for a majority of community members. Depending on the amount of material to be presented, workshops lasted from two hours to two days. To be successful, a period of one hour to one day prior to the workshops was required to train residents who would present data. In some cases, presenters were self-selected, in other cases, they were chosen by researchers based upon their knowledge of game, forest fruits or fish. An attempt was made to include old and young, men and women.

Fruit, game and fibers. Production data generated from the population ecology study of the forest fruit trees were used to compare the potential income from wood with the potential income from fruit production. We designed posters showing a log with the price attached and beside it a pile of fruits representing the market value of one tree’s average annual fruit production (Fig. 1). Community residents took on the roles of logger, caboclo (local subsistence farmer) and fruit merchant with acumen. The logger spoke of his high costs, tractors, personnel, gasoline, the caboclo of his sick son and the costly medicine he was in dire need of. For a few dollars per tree, a deal was closed.

Figure 1. A poster representing the market value of one tree's average annual fruit production.

Next, a fruit vendor passed by looking to purchase fruit of that forest species. Based on the adjusted value of wood as sold by the community the previous year ($2 per tree), the potential monetary value of fruit was absurdly higher for each of the three species. For example, only seven fruits of bacuri (Platonia insignis) needed to be sold to earn the $2 that could be earned by selling the entire tree. Depending on the species, selling half of one tree’s average annual production (discounting half for family consumption and predation) can range between $15 and $50. One sack of fruit brought 10-20 times the value of one sack of farinha for one tenth of the time. These numbers had a powerful effect on the community who implicitly understood that alive, fruit trees offer a net present value of many harvest years while the sale of wood is a singular event offering a trivial amount of money. In addition, hunting stands and traps are frequently placed next to fruiting trees as they attract prized game species such as pace, armadillo and deer.

To demonstrate the value of forest products, posters were designed with the name of a family and month on one side. The other side showed the amount (in kg) of game, vine products or fruit consumed during that month and the corresponding price in the nearest town. The audience was asked to estimate how many kilograms of product each family had eaten and its cost. Estimates might be based on whether the head of the family was a proficient hunter or on whether the month represented was a good one in which to capture game or to collect fruits. For example, Protazio’s family consumed approximately 40 kg of game during July. If purchased in town he would pay close to $100 – roughly one tenth of the annual income of many Capim families.

The extreme number of fruit consumed monthly by well-known community members (over 1000 fruits/month/family) created an uproar among participants. Differential consumption of fruit was noted between communities. The average annual monetary value of fruit per family consumed in one community, which guarded primary forests, was as high as $600. In a neighboring community, where forest was divided into individual lots and where extensive logging had occurred, the economic value of fruit consumed annually per family was equivalent to only $150. Residents noted that during the season of forest fruit their families were rarely sick, possibly due in part to the rich nutritional content of the native fruit. Few family members could even vaguely recall how much game, fruit or fish they had consumed during a particular month. Regarding prices, contact with the market is so slight that residents had little on which to base their estimates. Consequently, estimates of the consumption levels of fruit, game and vines, and of market values for these forest resources, were extremely low.

Medicinal plants – forest theater. To demonstrate the importance of medicinal plants for rural communities and to offer phytochemically sound recipes, skits were performed. One community member acted out a common ailment such as diarrhea, worms, head lice or rheumatism, while another, a dispenser of drugs, attempted to sell her a common pharmaceutical remedy for that particular illness. The salesperson uses common tricks to lure in his ailing customer, but having no means to pay, she leaves. A herb lady enters: ‘My dear, do not listen to that trickster. Come here and learn of nature’s remedy, I have a plant that can cure your ill.’ She adeptly shows a bark or leaf, describes the plant’s characteristics and carefully dispenses a recipe. After the skit, prices were displayed of commonly purchased pharmaceuticals which serve for the same ailments. Prices of allopathic medicines for the ailments described above ranged from approximately $3 to $15.

To respond to chronic complaints, we met with villagers and ascertained the most common ailments and the plants used to counter them. Through a process of community meetings, literature searches, market surveys and interviews with phytochemical and pharmacological authorities, 14 plants were selected and a forest pharmacy created. Each woman became responsible for the collection of a particular bark, root or oil. Shelves were constructed to house the various plants. Community members who recalled medicinal oil extraction techniques from their childhood offered technical assistance for others. Collection of botanical resources encouraged a rich exchange of information on plant identification (‘that vine is Veronica?’), sustainable harvest (‘you know it has been 20 years since I tapped that copaiba tree, at what height should I drill?’), and correct dosages (‘Oh, I should only drink half a cup of this tea just twice a day?’).

Experiment in commercialization. Historically, distance to market, lack of river transport and insufficient market experience made commercialization of non-wood forest products amongst the Capim communities an uncommon event. However, the opening of logging roads during the last decade created a more direct route for villagers to get to market. Presentation of data from the production/yield study, combined with a profile of market prices of forest fruit, served to inform communities of the relative monetary value of fruit compared to wood, and awakened them to the possibility of an alternative source of income during the 4-5 month season of forest fruit. Prior to exposure to the ecological and economic data, many villagers had little notion that the fruit which occur abundantly in their forests offer compensatory prices in regional markets.

Due to interest on the part of residents, a few modest attempts at commercialization of forest fruit transpired. Numerous problems continued to hamper their efforts, including transport, packaging, rotting fruit, illiteracy and lack of market expertise. Nevertheless, after each sale the community shared lessons concerning the obstacles and opportunities. Lessons included tips on selection and gathering of fruit, packaging in cushioning leaves, using baskets and small boxes instead of plastic sacks, choosing advantageous locations in the marketplace, setting prices and advertising. Benefiting from these lessons, each sale brought greater profit, the fourth sale by the mothers’ club being especially gainful resulting in the purchase of used clothes, lye for soapmaking and a small pig. Profit from this fruit sale has not yet been fully realized since the pig has put on considerable weight and the mothers are expecting a lucrative profit.

Traveling shows. Through a network of farmers’ unions, women’s clubs and extensionists, we received invitations to present our findings to communities outside of the Capim region. In response to these requests, we preferentially chose to serve regions in which logging activity was either already present or imminent. These workshops used ecological and utilization data generated in the Capim region as a springboard to demonstrate forest value locally. A team consisting of one researcher and two community residents, who had worked with the research team, jointly directed the workshops. We found the inclusion of women on these teams offered an unusual and powerful educational link with new communities. Rural women in Amazonia maintain enormous household and agricultural workloads, are infrequently included in development efforts and rarely leave their own communities. As a result, the presence of rural women in community exchange workshops gave a voice to the unheard and carried the power of the unexpected.

Based on a community’s particular social and ecological conditions such as size of forest holding, species composition, utilization patterns, interests and needs, we adapted the workshop content concerning fruit, medicinal and game species. Information concerning market prices, preferred economic species and local management practices was gathered through informal conversations and forest walks prior to workshops. Based on this information, posters, songs and theater were modified to reflect the plant and animal composition of each locale. Depending on the needs, interests and dedication of a community, further extension assistance was possible. Additional technical assistance has included forest inventory techniques, mapping, market surveys and guidelines for the creation of community forest reserves.

As a result of our visits, an additional theater piece was created: ‘How I was fooled by the logger’. Individuals acted out scenes as they had occurred with loggers and ranchers. These included the trade of logging rights to 20 hectares of primary forest for a stove, the rights to log 1,000 hectares of forest in exchange for construction materials for a small building, deals in which the logger promised to return and pay and instead left the village and ‘went on a walk, a long walk all right, have never seen his face again’. The abundant laughter and head-shaking which accompanied each scene revealed an all-too-familiar, shared recollection by the audience. The bare honesty of the skits offered a comic outlet, thus creating space for open recognition and dialogue concerning ill-advised, sometimes tragic, land and timber deals.

Illustrated booklets. Although the written word is little understood, we found that illustrations depicting potent messages have the power to influence the thinking and behavior of populations toward their forests. Choosing primary and secondary plant species widely utilized and distributed throughout the Amazon basin, we are creating booklets with relevant ethnobotanical, ecological and market information.

We have completed one booklet on medicinal plants and are working on another on the ecology, utilization and management of native forest fruit species. The booklets respond to many of the common inquiries we received regarding the utilization and management of native plants. Within the communities in which we worked, it was not unusual to find close to 80% illiteracy. Therefore, the medicinal plant booklet, Recipes without Words: Medicinal Plants of Amazonia, was designed to be ‘read’ by the illiterate. In the booklet, 14 medicinal plants, the ailments for which they serve and recipes are depicted by illustration. On one page a plant is pictured together with a person suffering from a common sickness such as rheumatism, flu, fever, diarrhea or head lice. The next page features preparation techniques and dosages. For example, the recipe for jatoba (Hymenaea courbaril) reads: ‘Take three fingers width of bark, boil in one liter of water. Drink half a cup three times per day (see Fig. 2).’ The native fruit tree booklet includes information on fruit tree densities, production, regeneration, market value, recipes for jams, soaps and oils, and tips on planting and management. Songs with ecological messages and references to locally valued fish, game and tree species are included at the beginning and end of the booklet.

The data presented in the workshops described above served communities in a number of concrete ways. Data quantifying the consumption of fish, game and fruit were presented in a public hearing to contest the installation of a proposed mining operation in the river basin. Information generated by mapping the densities and distributions of fruit trees was used in negotiations with loggers and aided in delineating areas for future community forest reserves. Oil trees identified through the forest inventories were tapped to obtain a valuable medicinal oil for the community ‘forest pharmacy’. A mothers’ club was founded on the profits made from the sale of forest fruit, and recipes using native plants for medicines, jams and soaps were rescued from one community and shared in the next. A number of individuals and communities who participated in the workshops opted not to sell timber and created forest reserves. Communities who were already guarding tracts of the forest shared their management guidelines for community forest reserves, thus reinforcing and strengthening the conservation efforts of isolated populations.


Forests throughout the Amazon basin continue to be felled, in part, because of lack of information of their actual worth by residents. Forest inhabitants sell forests due to desperate economic necessity. However, short and long term damages, both ecological and economic, accompany these quickly made decisions. Extension/education programs which alert forest communities to the subsistence value and commercial potential of wood and non-wood forest resources can offer practical economic and concrete management alternatives. Scientific data that affirm and expand upon traditional notions of forest worth, can help give rural communities reason for pause before entering into disadvantageous land and timber deals.

Furthermore, greater immediate payoffs from the substantial monetary investments made in scientific research may follow if results are given back locally. The odds of catalyzing forest conservation or policy change through the publishing of scientific data are remote. By contrast, although geographically limited, local use of relevant data can offer immediate conservation gains.

Educational workshops on forest worth cannot change the underlying socioeconomic mechanisms which drive deforestation. Educational programs will also not remove the substantial barriers that exist to the fair marketing of forest products. Nor will extension programs eliminate the grinding poverty that underlies many land and timber transactions. Nevertheless, if forest communities enter negotiations with a stronger information base regarding the value of their forest resources, they may increase their opportunities for more just outcomes.

The case study reported above offers one small reminder that conservation projects launched through the biological sciences can profit from greater proximity to and understanding of the lessons learned from decades of field-based work in the social sciences. Many of the guidelines and methods we clumsily discovered as natural scientists are classic lessons in the fields of rural development, anthropology and popular education. To effectively undertake this type of conservation project, groups must draw on a multitude of disciplines in the natural and social sciences. In addition, although ethical obligations to communities in which research is conducted have been elaborated upon and recently reassessed by botanists and anthropologists, less attention has been paid to this crucial topic by other scientific disciplines.

Effective forest conservation education programs can be low-cost, incorporating and training local populations as the heart of the teaching team. Traditional ecological knowledge is thus valued and expanded upon while helping to ensure a multiplier effect. Although rural regions such as Amazonia create obvious geographical difficulties for dissemination of information, isolated areas also afford profound educational advantages for rural extension programs. Vastness of territory signifies a sheer lack of visitors to far-off forests. Whoever arrives, whatever is said, is well remembered.

This article is condensed from Shanley, P., L. Luz, J. Galvão and M. Cymerys. 1996. Translating Dry Data for Forest Communities: Science Offers Incentives for Conservation. ODI Rural Development Forestry Network Paper 19e :7-19. London, Overseas Development Institute. Contact: Kate Schreckenberg, Rural Development Forestry Network, Overseas Development Institute, Regent’s College, Inner Circle, Regent’s Park, London NW1 4NS, UK; Tel. +44.171.4877413, Fax +44.171.4877590, e-mail forestry@odi.org.uk



Describing linguistic and ecological knowledge in dictionaries

By Andrew Pawley

Ralph Bulmer and Saem Majnep in New Zealand, November 1977
I wish to raise some questions about concepts and methods that face descriptive linguists and other researchers concerned with languages and knowledge systems. First, to what extent can a speech community’s shared knowledge of the world properly be considered part of its language? Second, if such knowledge is part of language, how can it effectively be represented in language descriptions? Finally, what sort of professional training and what scale and organization of research projects are needed if rich descriptions of languages are to be achieved?

My ideas on these matters have been largely formed by my experience as a participant in two interdisciplinary projects. Both projects have continued, intermittently, for some 30 years and are instructive for their shortcomings as well as for their accomplishments. In 1963 I joined a project led by the anthropologist Ralph Bulmer among the Kalam and Kobon speaking peoples of Papua New Guinea. In 1967 I embarked on a project of comparative and descriptive linguistics in Fiji in collaboration with Timoci Sayaba. The main focus of the descriptive work, especially after 1980, was Wayan, a dialect of the Western Fijian language spoken by about 2000 people living on two small islands in the Yasawa group on the western margin of the Fijian archipelago.

Knowledge and language

Ralph Bulmer was not much interested in playing elegant analytic games with Kalam terminological systems. He wanted, above all, to record what the Kalam know and believe about their world. When we came to draft entries for a dictionary, Bulmer’s interests in recording as much as possible about Kalam knowledge posed a problem, one that faces every lexicographer. To what extent can knowledge of the world shared by members of a speech community be considered part of language? For example, speakers of English know many things about sheep: they are land-dwelling animals that suckle their young, they have four legs with hoofs, they eat grass and other vegetation, they are domesticated, there are many breeds, they are kept for their wool, skins and meat, they live in herds, they are thought of as easily led and not very intelligent, and so on. Which if any of these facts belongs, in principle, in a dictionary definition of sheep? Linguists and philosophers disagree among themselves about questions of this sort. Is the attempt to incorporate cultural knowledge in language descriptions fundamentally misguided? Or does the restricted representation of such knowledge in standard dictionaries reflect arbitrary limitations in the conceptual framework or practices of lexicographers?

A problem with conventional dictionaries is that their treatment of ethnobiological terminology is – by scientific standards – seriously flawed. Systematic treatments of terminology are now starting to appear in ethnographic dictionaries, especially for languages spoken by traditional communities.

Representing knowledge in language descriptions

In the case of entries for names and plants and animals, dictionaries should accurately specify: (1) the meaning and reference of local names for biological organisms, matching these with scientific identifications, and taking account of sexual dimorphism, life stages, regional variants and polymorphism; (2) the structure of names, for example distinguishing between simple and compound names; (3) the logical relations between taxa, such as the hierarchy of specific, generic and life-form terms, and related information, including synonymy and overlap; and (4) informants’ knowledge about plants and animals, their roles in social and economic life, in ritual and symbolism, and their ecological contexts.

The following entry from the Kalam-English dictionary illustrates one way of presenting information about ethnobiological categories.

KMN [kimin] noun. Game mammal. Life-form taxon, including all large marsupials and rodents and some smaller arboreal forest species, and water-rats, but excluding dogs, pigs, bats and most medium sized and small rats and other small, mainly terrestrial rodents and marsupials. Synonym sab; cf. wnbek. Contrasts with kopyak (rats and mice found near homesteads), as (frogs and certain small, mainly terrestrial, marsupials and rodents), yakt (flying birds and bats), etc. Some small rodent and marsupial taxa are considered by some informants as kmn and by others as as. The crucial distinction between kmn and as appears to be in terms of culinary use and dietary prohibitions. kmn may be cooked ritually and may be preserved by smoking for consumption at smi festivals. They are not forbidden food for initiates in the smi or for adult male sorcerers. as, which are mainly collected by women, are not cooked ritually and are prohibited food for initiates between their nose-piercing and final release from restrictions at the smi. Kmn takn ak sugij yb aml ñapal, mey mab wog ak bteyt tblak, wog spot ak, ... kmn ap tap okok ñbek owakng, mey aml sugij ñapal. When shooting by moonlight, they easily find game mammals in parts of the forest where trees have been felled and in old garden areas, ... and when the animals come there to feed they shoot them. kmn includes more than 45 taxa, such as abpen, blc, cemen, gabi, godmug, kabacp, madaw, magey, mosak, pakam, sbi, sumsum, takp, weñem, yaked, and many others.

Professional training And organization of research projects

I turn now to some practical questions about the scale, organization and funding of research projects that aim to produce thorough descriptions of languages. I will speak as if the organizer of the project is a linguist, though of course this need not be the case. Linguists often tackle a language alone – there may be no other choice. But this is not a satisfactory state of affairs. The first thing to recognize is that any fully-functional language is too big for one person to handle and that linguistic competence is too complex to be left entirely to linguists. In order to produce detailed descriptions such as the Kalam examples I present above, a language needs to be studied by a team of researchers representing several different disciplines. Fieldwork should be arranged to observe the full annual cycle of ecological changes and of social and economic activities. There are advantages also to short or long return trips over a period of many years, giving time to reflect, to check and to expand one’s general knowledge.

Bulmer recruited as collaborators two other social anthropologists, one male (working among the Kobon) and one female, and many natural scientists, including several botanists and a number of zoologists – specialists in the study of birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, fish, etc. – a geologist, and an archaeologist. Bulmer himself was something of a renaissance man with virtually professional competence in ornithology, and some knowledge of other branches of zoology, botany and material culture. Perhaps his most important innovation was the way he involved members of the Kalam community in his work. Initially he worked with ‘informants’ and ‘field assistants’ in the usual ways. He and his Kalam field assistants collected botanical and zoological specimens which were sent to specialists for identification. But by the late 1960s he was collaborating with several Kalam men in publications of Kalam text materials. Then came his long-standing partnership with Saem Majnep.

In ranking priorities for research assistance from specialists we need to consider, among other things, the relative size and importance of the various domains of vocabulary of a language and the degree of technical training needed to make sense of each domain. Some knowledge of social anthropology is indispensable. Unless the linguist is also trained in sociology a strong case can be made for making one or more social anthropologists the first pick for the team.

In the domain of biology a botanist should generally be the top priority for specialist help. In most traditional societies, a very considerable part of the vocabulary of the language – often the largest single terminology – will relate to plants. In Kalam there are over 1500 terms for plant taxa, representing over 1000 species. This amounts to 15 percent of the recorded lexicon of Kalam. Plants are by far the largest semantic category. It should be mentioned that in Kalam many common lexical concepts, including plant taxa, have more than one name, mainly because of name avoidance taboos.

Plants are also of paramount importance in Kalam economic and social life. The Kalam eat about 170 cultivars, representing 28 species of domesticated food plants. They also eat another 40 species of wild plants. They cultivate more than 30 species for other purposes – medicines, rituals, ornamentals, flavoring and wrapping food, and for technology. They use another 150 wild species for technological or ritual purposes and a good many more for firewood. Many other plants are important to them as the known feeding and nesting sites of different kinds of birds and animals which the Kalam hunt.

Vertebrate biologists are likely to be next in importance, usually starting with mammologists – not because mammals are the most numerous of vertebrate species but because they are usually the most important to people in terms of economic and symbolic value.

Vertebrate taxa number about 400, but the number of terms is actually much higher because of multiple synonyms for many taxa. The Kalam eat about 200 vertebrate species. The largest group of vertebrate taxa is that which falls under the primary taxon or life-form yakt, birds, a term that also includes bats. There are about 230 yakt taxa, representing five species of bats and 204 species of birds, of which 140 occur in the Upper Kaironk Valley. There are about 45 mammal taxa, of which 31 fall under kmn (larger game mammals), several under as (small mammals) and three under kopyak (dirty rats). There are about 30 frog taxa, 27 snake and lizard taxa, but only six fish taxa (three of them eels). In the swift mountain streams of the Kaironk Valley there are no fish other than eels. At least 40 invertebrates (grubs, caterpillars, grasshoppers, spiders, snails, etc.) are eaten by the Kalam.

For the Wayan language the priorities would be slightly different. Whereas the Kalam know almost nothing about marine life, the Wayans are an island people and know a great deal. There are about 500 Wayan fish taxa, compared with only about 600 plant taxa – the island flora is relatively impoverished. Wayans distinguish over 200 marine invertebrates including 140 mollusk taxa and about 40 crustacean taxa. In such a context marine biologists, especially specialists in fish, crustaceans and mollusks, would be high on the priority list.

There are other important domains where linguists are likely to need expert assistance or specialist training. A linguist is unlikely to be expert on all facets of the inanimate environment, e.g. on rocks and soils, stars, clouds, topography. Nor is he likely to have the expertise that will allow him to adequately describe terms and formulas applying to medical conditions, or to the technology of constructing houses, canoes, etc., or to agricultural systems. Even arithmetical systems and color terms can be extremely tricky to understand without specialist knowledge.

The anthropologist or linguist will need to spend time in the field together with biologists during their visits. They need each other to be around during field excursions, one to impart biological expertise, the other to assist as interpreter, and to ensure accurate recording of indigenous names and semantic scope. The linguist will need to keep a register with details of specimens collected and perhaps contribute to the tasks of collecting, preserving, transporting if not identifying specimens and will require some training in these skills.

In closing, I would like to point out that linguistic diversity is similar to biodiversity in several ways. First, each language is a store of intellectual capital, just as biological organisms are a repository of genetic capital. Second, no sharp boundary can be drawn between language and the rest of culture, just as biodiversity is inseparable from the environment in which it is found. Language is the chief means by which a people’s knowledge and perceptions of the natural and social world, its technology, verbal arts, social values and practices and other traditions are codified and transmitted. Third, the worldviews associated with different languages and cultures are diverse, each being the product of generations of accumulated experience in different circumstances, just as biological organisms are the end product of many generations of evolution. The parallels between biological, cultural and linguistic diversity make it all the more imperative that biologists, anthropologists and linguists work together with local people to understand their complex knowledge of the natural world.

This article is condensed from Pawley, A. 1996. Some problems of describing linguistic and ecological knowledge. Paper presented at the working conference on Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge, Endangered Environments. University of California at Berkeley, 25 - 27 October. The conference brought together experts from an array of disciplines in the social, behavorial and biological sciences to explore the complex connections between cultural and biological diversity, the interrelated causes and consequences of loss of both forms of diversity, and the role of indigenous languages and traditional knowledge in the promotion of sustainable human-environment relationships. Contact: Luisa Maffi, Institute of Cognitive Studies, 608 Barrows Hall, University of California, Berkeley, California 94720; Tel. +1.510.6431728, Fax +1.510.6435688, e-mail maffi@cogsci.berkeley.edu


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