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Perceptions of nature by indigenous communities and their relation to the ecological contexts

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  1. Introduction.
    1. The purpose of this article.
    2. Evidence of continuing failures in stemming the tide of ecological disintegration.
    3. A temptation to idealize indigenous peoples as 'noble savages'.
  2. Definitions.
    1. Understanding culture understanding symbols.
    2. A key distinction to make in understanding culture.
    3. The cultures of so-called indigenous peoples.
    4. Ecological anthropologist - Roy Rappaport
  3. Cultural meaningfulness and physical law.
  4. Meaningfulness and traditional ecological knowledge in primary cultures.
    1. Distinction and classification.
    2. Synthesis and continuity.
    3. Identification and 'unification†with context.
  5. Conclusion.

The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of how indigenous communities perceive and relate to the bio-ecological contexts of which they are part and on which they depend. The main message is that there is much more to learn from them than information about plant resources or methods to enhance Western-style conservation management. The forest is only one such context and it is possible to discern principles that also apply in others. There are two possible approaches to take in this article. The first is to compare and contrast particular beliefs, values, and meanings that different peoples ascribe to their surroundings. This is analogous to drawing up inventories of species or habitat types that can then be used as resources to further existing purposes - be they commercial or for conservation - and management methods. However, this approach does little to challenge underlying assumptions or encourage learning from primary cultural perspectives. Einstein once said that problems cannot be solved through the same type of thinking as caused them in the first place. He was referring not to a need to accumulate greater quantities of information but to the need to see and analyze the situation in a qualitatively different way. This entails bringing different meanings, values, beliefs, and theoretical perspectives to bear on the problem rather than assuming that more data applied in essentially the same ways will resolve it.

[...] By contrast, the scale of ecological problems precipitated by Western industrial society suggests such a degree of dissonance between our culturally mediated behavior and sustainability of ecological necessities that we are now feeling its consequences at a global level. This global predicament is, of course, the cumulative result of the smaller-scale activities of individuals, collectives, and professions of all sorts. Dissonances between physical laws on which humans depend and the maps of meaning that we live by inevitably give rise to behavior that, in the long term, is damaging both to those physical systems and to ourselves. [...]


[...] Human existence comes to be seen and experienced not only in a self-interested way but also in the context of a ?wider scheme of things.' This may extend to experiencing being part of this larger whole of a sense of place and of having a role to play within it. Homo sapiens becomes just one species amongst many, all of which have their place within the larger ?being.' Individuals feel a belongingness, connectedness, and purpose within their various contexts family, community, society, and nation, forest and nature in general and, beyond that, the biggest possible context that is described in terms of sacred Ancestor Spirits, the Divine Creator and Sustainer, and other abstract concepts. The Islamic prayer, ?Allah-u-akbar' gives a ?avor of this, when translated as is Big'. [...]


[...] If these are only instrumental and utilitarian, without practical regard for ecological contexts or traditional cultures that so often express understandings of them the trajectory set is likely to be detrimental to those contexts. Later in the article we return to this problem. At this point it is worth mentioning that conceiving of oneself as one element in a wider context on which one also depends familial, tribal, societal, ecological, and spiritual is more likely than type 1 meaning to constrain behavior against excesses that would threaten that context. [...]

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