Long honed cultural traditions, sometimes even the most ridiculous, often make sense if observed in the environment or historical contexts in which they were honed. Traditional/ old/ indigenous cultures around the world often have mechanisms which either directly or indirectly teach its members how to live sustainably within their environments — a practice often referred to as ecological stewardship. Oftentimes, the rules which shape environmentally sustainable behavior are governed by religious beliefs, superstitions, folklore, or even taboo. The result is often that a group of people construct a cultural understanding of the world around them, their place in it, and parameters for behavior which, regardless if intentional or not, acts to physically preserve the environment around them. Examples of this include guidelines on when and how to hunt and fish, taboos against eating certain animals, restricting access to certain areas, and other deep seeded beliefs and practices that keep people checked within the bounds of their environment.
But changes in living strategies, rises in poverty, migrations of people away from their ancestral lands, intrusions of outsiders into wild areas, food scarcity issues, religious conversion, and economic exploitation have caused many of these stewardship beliefs to wan or even disappear in recent times. Problems often arise when cultures are removed from their traditional environments, and/ or when new peoples, ideas, living strategies enter into new locations, or when cultures “modernize” and old value systems are changed, diluted, or even eradicated. The results are often ecologically disastrous.
Research conducted by Bangor University and the Malagasy organization Madagasikara Voakajy indicate that many wild animals in Madagascar, namely the lemur, which were once protected by deeply seeded cultural beliefs and taboos, are now finding their ways onto dinner plates with ever increasing frequency. Their report claims that 95% of the households they surveyed have recently eaten a protected species with nearly half having consumed over 10 different species which are currently threatened with extinction.
(Go to Bushmeat is an Important Part of Diet for People in Rainforests for more on this issue.)
“The power of the taboo is declining, under pressures of globalization and human mobility,” the researchers claimed.
The report continued by explaining that one of the major causes for the rise in bush meat consumption in Madagascar is that migration into forest areas of people from other parts of the country is becoming more common, and these recent arrivals tend to not have the same taboos about consuming certain animals as the local peoples. These migrant are, essentially, not only violating environmental law and taboo alike by hunting and eating protected species, but are lessening the power of both regulation sets through disregarding their authority. The result is that it is becoming more and more common, even among local rainforest populations, to consume endangered bushmeat.
“Once a taboo is openly broken it becomes easier and easier for others to break,” commented Jeremy Hance from Mongabay.com.
Madagascar folklore explains the preservation of the lemur with stories about how this animal is a protector of humans. One of which is as follows:
A boy goes into the forest to collect honey. He climbed a tree in pursuit of a hive but was attacked by the bees. His subsequent fall was broken, and his life saved, by a lemur. So the people of the region vowed not eat this animal anymore.
Stories and beliefs such as the lemur being a protector or even a family member have worked to conserve this animal, which is a very slow breeder and most of its species are endangered. But with the break down of these traditional beliefs, a change in dietary preference, and a lack of other meat sources, lemurs are again being hunted and eaten. Law has stepped in to serve the role that taboo once did, but it has been an inadequate replacement. Though the penalty for hunting lemurs in Madagascar range from a $5 to $200 fine and/ or a month to two years in jail, it is seldom enforced.
The Maya in the Rio Dulce rainforest region of Guatemala have virtually hunted their environment dry of animal life. This seemed incongruous to me at first, as indigenous people in wild lands generally have cultural guidelines which ultimately allow them to exist in their environment in a sustainable manner. But the more I found out about the cultural landscape of the region, the more this issue began to make sense: many of the people currently living there actually just showed up two or three decades ago. The civil war in Guatemala pushed large numbers of people into the rain forest, and many of these came from cultures that did not have built in protocols for preserving a rainforest environment. The resulting social break down/ ad hoc mixture of various groups of people — among other issues — lead to the over-exploitation of the wildlife in the region. As economic incentives, lifestyles, and migration patters change throughout the world, many rainforest areas are in danger of meeting this same fate.
Part of the problem with the death of many traditional cultural values is a lose of the long honed knowledge which once taught humans how to interact sustainably with their environment. Cultures evolve with nature, and traditions often arise which may not purposefully be for conservation, but serve this function nonetheless. Scientists have even proposed promoting these traditional/ spiritual beliefs of the Wapishana and Makuxi Indians of Guyana as a conservation tool in the region.
When old or traditional ideas in cultures are eroded away in exchange for new values people often need to relearn how to live within their environment. Ultimately, it’s the same game with a different terminology. Rather than having taboo keep people from eating certain animals, superstitions on when and where to partake in certain activities, and traditions which keep people in line with the environment which surrounds them, people are now taught biology, ecology, conservation ethics, and a fear of law.
Now the young of Madagascar will no longer be taught to refrain from eating lemurs by influence of taboo or folklore, but by the urging of scientific logic and the force of law. The new value systems and living strategies which are taking over the globe are currently proving to be inadequate substitutes for the traditional systems they are replacing in terms of environmental conservation.
Dr. Julia Jones of Bangor University concludes: “Madagascar’s amazing wildlife, especially its world famous lemurs, are so important for the future of the country. They are worth much more to the economy alive than as meat.”
These are the values of our time.
- University study on bushmeat and the easement of taboo
- Cultural shifts in Madagascar drive lemur killing
- Space, Place, and Hunting Patterns among Indigenous Peoples of the Guyanese Rupununi Region