INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE OF THE RAINFOREST: PERCEPTION, EXTRACTION AND CONSERVATION

INDIGENOUS KNOWLEDGE OF THE RAINFOREST: PERCEPTION, EXTRACTION AND CONSERVATION 

Roy Ellen, University of Kent at Canterbury 
Introduction

Indigenous knowledge is currently flavour of the month: both economic commodity and political slogan. It has a market value placed upon it, and has become pivotal in preserving the identity and culture of indigenous peoples whose traditional way of life is under threat1. In this chapter I intend to review how rainforest populations conceptualise their interactions, construct their ethnobiological knowledge and alter and maintain the character of forest through their activities. What I have to say reinforces the observation that indigenous peoples have perceived, interacted with and made use of tropical rainforest in historically diverse ways, and that this diversity has sometimes been obscured by the understandable prominence given to the experiences of particular peoples with a high political profile, such as the Kayapó, Yanomami and Penan2. This process of globalising particular instances has resulted in an oversimplification of the relationships which people can establish with forest. I shall argue that it is important for those making recommendations in the fields of conservation and sustainable forest management to take indigenous knowledge seriously, but also to form balanced judgements based on the evidence available for particular situations. 
Domesticating the rainforest

We are sometimes persuaded to think that rainforest is a fragment of some vast unchanging past which has intruded into the present. In the popular imagination, peoples of the tropical rainforest are remote, isolated, living in more or less the same place, unchanging, 'in harmony' with their surroundings. In fact, we now have plenty of evidence to the contrary, and although the rainforest does indeed have a long ecological history, it is far from stable and unchanging3. Moreover, its history, at least for the last 10,000 years, has also been a cultural history: not only the context in which human social and ecological change has taken place but an environment which humans may have been instrumental in, by turns, maintaining and altering. Whether through simple extraction or low intensity farming, the cumulative long-term effects of these disturbances on forest composition and structure, compared with those of other large mammals living at similar densities, must have been considerable, at least in some areas4. This has improved the rainforest as a human resource base and contributed to its structural patchiness and biodiversity, and persistent interventions over many hundreds of years have had important co-evolutionary consequences. 
Long-term human impact has taken various forms, and we can obtain some measure of it by examining ethnographic evidence drawn from what we know about contemporary and historically recent food collectors and small-scale agriculturalists. Even groups subsisting at low population densities modify their habitats by increasing, say, river sediment loads as a result of agricultural soil disturbance and erosion; introduction of humanly-transmitted pathogens and other toxins; by changing soil nutrient levels, disturbing the structure and causing surface erosion [Rambo 1985: 58, 63]. Humans alter the forest inadvertently by helping disseminate certain seeds of wild plants (abandoned camps, gardens and villages providing particularly good examples of this), while anthropogenic secondary growth may constitute habitats for new kinds of plants and grazing animals. Even small groups of hunter-gatherers may change their habitat by dropping selected seeds which they collect for food. In this way the Mbuti of the Ituri forest in Zaire propagate genera such as Canarium and Landolphia [Ichikawa 1992; c.f. Fox 1953]. Clearance for temporary cultivation plots not only transforms forest structure through cultivation itself, and through regrowth, but also through the selective removal of trees. Large trees with hard woods have a selective advantage in being more difficult to remove. On Seram, in the east of the Indonesian archipelago, the presence, for example, of Canarium vulgare, Sterculia and Diospyros ebenaster , pose formidable difficulties for Nuaulu cultivators5. But plants may be preserved deliberately as well as by default, and many techniques are reported which involve degrees of protection of otherwise wild species [Ellen 1994: 205-6, Headland 1987, Rambo 1985: 71]. Collection of forest products specifically for trade (particularly resins, rattans and seeds) has probably been a major selection pressure in the Malaysian peninsula [Dunn 1975, Gianno 1990, Rambo 1979: 60]. Human settlement has led to the deliberate introduction of plant domesticates from other parts of the world and many varieties of cultivated trees [Fox 1953, Rambo 1985: 70]. The magnificent Tectona grandis is now well-established in the lowland forest of Seram, though it was probably introduced during the seventeenth century [Ellen 1985: 563]. In some parts of southeast Asia quick-growing species are planted in plots to ensure rapid and appropriate regrowth, and to supply fuel [Whitmore 1990: 135]. 
Thus, we must be clear that when we seek to 'preserve' rainforest, we choose between preserving the rainforest as it has evolved over the last 10,000 years (including its human component) and changing it by keeping humans out. 

Ways of human life in the rainforest

In terms of impact on rainforest ecology, to distinguish between the effects of those non-agricultural forms of human extraction we call hunter-gathering and low intensity agriculture is sometimes rather difficult6. There is now plenty of evidence for the manipulation and regulation of plant resources in otherwise food collecting populations of the rainforests, in ways which maintain or increase yield [Hutterer 1983: 173]. For example, replanting the heads of wild yams and protecting valuable fruit-bearing trees; the deliberate burning of bamboo clumps in order to facilitate the extraction of desirable haulms and to promote the growth of green shoots [Rambo 1985: 70]. Those peoples engaged in 'wild' palm sago extraction, extract selectively, detach and protect suckers thrown out by mature palms and exercise certain forms of ownership [Ellen 1988]. Often, such activity is sufficiently organised, purposeful and significant to warrant the description 'rainforest management'. At what point management becomes cultivation is a major scientific puzzle. The Huastec of Mexico's Sierra Madre use 63 per cent of the 800 wild species recorded and 25 per cent are actively manipulated [Alcorn 1981: 410]. The selective extraction of wild species, strategic burning, and swiddening at optimal conditions may combine to give rise to distinctive patches and new opportunities for colonisation: and there are numerous examples - such as that provided by the Kayapó [Posey 1988: 89] - of deliberate preservation of corridors of mature forest between plots as some kind of biological reserve. 
Peoples anthropologists conventionally label 'hunters and gatherers' often do things other than hunting and gathering; indeed practices which may assume a critical position in terms of identity and ideology may be rather unimportant in terms of objective ecological measurements [e.g. Barnard 1983]. Some groups, from an ecological point of view, are much like agriculturalists in the ways they extract, protect and ensure future supplies of plant resources [e.g. Hutterer 1983: 173, 176, Posey 1982, Rambo 1985]. Indeed, whether or not the rainforest could have ever supplied the carbohydrate requirements of food-collectors without cultivation has been seriously questioned [Headland 1987, Headland and Bailey 1991]. According to this view a key adaptive role must have been played by energy subsidies obtained through exchange.Trade and exchange have existed for centuries between interior or upriver peoples, including remote foraging populations, linking them to peoples of the forest fringes, the estuaries or coasts, and ultimately the global economy [Dunn 1975, Hoffman 1984]. Thus, such populations are not only involved in collecting forest products which enter the world system, but may be dependent upon inputs from non-food collecting groups for their biological and social survival. This has been the case for many hundreds of years for peoples as diverse as the Agta of the northern Philippines and the Baka of the Cameroun7. 

Ethnobiological knowledge

The question now arises as to what all this has to do with ethnobiological knowledge, by which I mean what people know about plants and animals untutored by science. We recognise, of course, that individual subsistence techniques, and therefore different overall combinations of strategies employed by particular populations, have different ecological profiles: in terms of energy transfer, limiting factors and carrying capacity, the degree of human effort required, their effects on the landscape, the cultural regulation of environmental relations. But, by the same token, they must presumably also have different knowledge profiles. The successful adaptation of humans to rainforest environments depends on their ability to maintain population-land ratios at a level which will permit sustainable extraction, which in turn depends on their capacity to organise and apply knowledge of rainforest structure and composition [Ellen in press ]. 
But what do we mean by an 'ethnobiological knowledge profile', and how might we begin to measure it? And how can we access it, and compare it one group to another? We can begin by considering the main structural components of this knowledge, common to all rainforest peoples8. 
To begin with, there is knowledge of individual organisms , species-focused empirical knowledge (knowledge of form, physiology, behaviour, feeding habits, connections with other species, the activity of predators and diseases), quite apart from applications. This knowledge is highly variable from one organism to the next. Nuaulu, for example, have a wide-ranging knowledge of wild pig, enough to fill a short monograph, whereas few persons have anything but a passing acquaintance with worm snakes, which they rarely see and have little interest in [Ellen 1993a: cp. 36-9 with 103]. Those who have attempted to measure degree of utility, have conclusively shown that it is very asymmetrically distributed with respect to named species, and that it is only when we examine our data in this way that we can see what constitutes a 'use' is highly problematic [Hays 1982]. 
Of this kind of knowledge, some will be obviously adaptive in marginal situations (that is where selective pressure is at its maximum). This is most likely to be understandings of reproductive biology, of what parts are useful and how to process them, of the damage they can do to humans and other organisms upon which humans are dependent (toxic yams, insect pests, dangerous snakes, and so on), the role of other organisms in the dispersal of seeds, and the use made of the species by other non-human organisms as food. Nuaulu, for example, are well-informed on many species not because they are directly of use to humans but because they represent the food of animals which they hunt, particularly cassowary, pig and deer. In other words, plants and animals have to be understood as part of the web of forest life, not simply in isolation. Thus, it is adaptively more important to distinguish varieties of yam from one another because one contains toxic levels of dioscorine and the other is edible, than to distinguish them on the basis of perceptual criteria alone (say size of leaf), though such features may indeed flag crucial functional distinctions [Boster 1984]. This kind of knowledge is the result of generations of accumulated experience, experimentation and information exchange [Boster 1986, Posey et al 1984, Richards 1985]. 
But ethnobiological studies of rainforest peoples have uniformly demonstrated an impressive breadth, as well as depth , of knowledge of particular significant species. Recent attempts to collate data on the total inventories of plant categories for different subsistence populations shows strikingly how rainforest populations have repeatedly been found to yield much longer lists than populations living in other environments, lists consisting of between 800 and 2,000 items [Berlin 1992, Brown 1985: 44, Ellen in press ]. This, of course, reflects relative biodiversity, which we now know constrains ethnobiological inventories markedly, such that the inventories of tropical rainforest agricultural and non-agricultural peoples tend to be more similar than agriculturalists and non-agriculturalists globally. To some extent it also reflects the subsistence necessity of those who extract from such environments. Though, as we have seen above, it is still debated whether or not human populations could ever have entirely survived on rainforest plant matter without cultivation, breadth of knowledge is undoubtedly a key part of any adaptive strategy. 
Secondly, what may be more important in the long run than either breadth of formal knowledge or depth of substantive knowledge of individual organisms is knowledge of general principles based on the observation of many different species. Thus, both pre-emptive and retrospective control of resources are well-understood by food-collectors as well as cultivators [Ellen 1994: 204]. The evidence of regulation of rainforest resources by food collectors suggests, along with the pre-adaptation of knowledge and equipment, that the cultural preconditions for the emergence of agriculture existed long before its existence as a major mode of subsistence. The main elements of agriculture, individually or combined are all known for so-called pre-agricultural systems, with the possible exception of seed selection and artificial dispersal [Yen 1989: 57]. 
Thirdly, it has become clear that systematic encyclopaedic knowledge is situated within folk-models which reflect an ability to connect observations at the species level with informed perceptions about forest structure and dynamics. Thus, Darrell Posey [1988] has shown how Amazonian Kayapó maintain buffer zones between gardens and forest which contain plants with nectar-producing glands on their foliage which have the effect of drawing away aggressive ants and parasitic wasps from crops. Of course, what constitutes 'forest' is something we might expect to vary cross-culturally, but even if we restrict ourselves to focal shared meanings it is clearly complex [e.g. Ellen 1993a, Dwyer in press ]. Thus, for the Nuaulu forest is anything but uniform or empty in the way they perceive, understand and respond to it. It is more like a mosaic of resources, and a dense network of particular places each having different material values. In this sense it is much like the modern scientific modelling of rainforest as a continuous aggregation of different biotopes and patches, varying according to stages in growth cycles, degree of regeneration, underlying distinctions between 'secondary' and 'primary' begin to look pretty academic. 78 per cent of the 272 forest trees identified by Nuaulu have particular human uses, and it is through their uses that they are apprehended [Ellen 1985], wherever they are found. The picture is similar elsewhere. On average, Panare, Tembe, Urobu and Chacobo peoples of the Amazonian basin use at least two-thirds of the tree species growing in the forests [Carneiro 1978, 1988: 79]. Such peoples, like the Indonesian Nuaulu, being forest-fallow swidden cultivators, also have sensitive understandings of how forest changes as a consequence of different soils, selective extraction, cutting and burning; and of the regrowth stages following abandonment. It is this knowledge which permits such strategies - despite persistent rumours - to be self-sustaining [Dove 1983, 1983a], and which underlies its deliberate application in a way which assists the recovery of degraded areas [Conklin 1957, Sillitoe 1991]. 

The cultural embeddedness of technical knowledge

Such empirical knowledge of plants and animals as I have referred to does not exist apart from a broader socially-informed understanding of the world, in some kind of hermetically sealed vacuum from which other aspects of culture are excluded. Detailed knowledge of plant reproduction or symbiosis may, for example, comfortably co-exist with beliefs about the world which have not been empirically tested in a conventional scientific sense. Everything is seen as connected through claims of mutual causation to give rise to a complex notion of nature. Indeed, it is often plausibly argued that rainforest peoples have cosmologies which in certain respects anticipated the systems view of the world which underlies modern ecology; as has been the case for the Tukano of the northwest Amazon [Reichel-Dolmatoff 1976]. For the Nuaulu, no less than for the Tukano, forest is never experienced as homogeneous, is a complex category connecting notions of history, identity and place to pragmatic subsistence concerns. It is also highly-charged morally [Ellen 1993, c.f. Richards 1992]. 
Although uncut forest is recognised by Nuaulu as a single entity, it contrasts in different ways with other land types depending on context. It may contrast with owned land, which may sometimes display very mature forest growth, emphasising a jural distinction; with garden land, emphasising human physical interference; or with village land, emphasising landforms: empty as opposed to well-timbered space, inhabited as opposed to uninhabited space, untamed as opposed to tamed space, all with various symbolic associations and practical consequences for Nuaulu consumers. Although there are no Nuaulu words for either 'nature' or 'culture', it is in the various and aggregated senses that the Nuaulu come closest to having such a term, and from which the existence of an abstract covert notion of 'nature' can reasonably be inferred. The values with which Nuaulu invest forest are thus multi-faceted. And in the same way that the material uses to which forest is put must be understood in specific and local terms, so too the social implications. Nuaulu conception of environment is not as a space in which they hang, but much more like a series of fixed points to which particular clans and individuals are connected. These points are objects in an unbounded landscape linked to their appearance in myths; use of land is at every turn inseparable from specific sacred knowledge, sometimes mutually contradictory and obscure though never absent. 
The undeniable effect of merging practical usefulness, mythic knowledge and identity in the construction of the category 'forest', is to give it a moral dimension. That is, there are right and wrong ways in which to engage with it which arise in part from the specific social histories of parts of it, but also from its intrinsic mystical properties. Forest is unpredictable, dangerous and untamed, and various attempts are made to control it. This is reflected in ritual generally, in the specific rituals conducted prior to cultivating forest, in the charms which are used to protect travellers in the forest, in the prohibitions on certain behaviours and utterances while in the forest, in the correct ritual disposal of its products. 
The practical implications of the interconnections between the social and the environmental can be very important, and it is often the case that subsistence practices triggered by cultural beliefs (for example, linked to prohibitions) appear to regulate resources. It is in the context of all this that we must understand Nuaulu ritual restrictions on harvesting certain forest products at particular times. Certainly, the effect of all these things may well be to conserve resources and maintain biodiversity, and in particular cases people may consciously do so. But much of what appears to be 'ecological balance' amongst forest peoples is either illusory or simply a beneficial function of low population densities and benign subsistence practices. Responses by Nuaulu to commercial logging and transmigration in the nineteen-eighties have been essentially market-driven and short-term, rather than long-term and homeostatic, as might be thought to be consistent with their world view. When governments and other agencies interfere and seek to introduce 'rational' measures to conserve resources, ignorant of local cultural representations of the forest, their purposes may be meaningless to local peoples, as Paul Richards [1992] has shown for Mende living on the edges of the Gola in Sierra Leone. Similarly, governments with the best of intentions may interfere with cultural regulators (purposeful or inadvertent) which are often more sensitive, and in the long term, more effective [e.g. Morauta et al 1982]. 

Some conclusions

In conclusion we need to emphasise three features of what indigenous people know about forest and how they use it. The first is that although different groups conceptualise nature in different ways9, these cultural constructs are only the context in which essentially similar kinds of knowledge are pragmatically understood. The second is that we must separate out what people really know and can apply, from formal, linguistic, knowledge. The third is that indigenous knowledge is always situational, variable and changing. Let me embellish on points two and three. 
The second point develops the distinction between formal linguistically-encoded knowledge which passively recognises diversity and functionality and substantive knowledge which is dynamically adaptive. Although formal knowledge at one level reflects a universal tendency of the human mind, it has been observed that - surprisingly - it is quantitatively less amongst food collectors. This would appear to be related to the social demographic and mobility circumstances of non-agricultural peoples, where knowledge is gained essentially through personal experience, not reflected in shared terminologies. On the other hand, populations less dependent on regular agriculture have a greater substantive knowledge of non-cultivated resources, even if this is not encoded lexically. Contrariwise, populations more dependent on regular agriculture are more likely to have less substantive knowledge of non-cultivated resources, even if terms are lexically encoded. That this disjunction exists may also be related to the vulnerability of agriculture to periodic failure due to pests and predators, and the advantage of maintaining some knowledge of 'famine foods'. 
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, indigenous ecological knowledge and practice must be understood contextually, beginning at the species level and working outwards; an approach which locks specific local knowledge within increasingly more general but denser culturally-relative paradigms, and which links indigenous ecological know-how to general subsistence and social behaviour. A pharmacologist looking at ethnobotany is understandably inclined to see potential drugs, a botanist scientifically-unrecorded species, food scientists new foods, materials scientists new materials and the Body Shop some new politically-correct cosmetic. But such an approach tends to reduce indigenous knowledge to partial unconnected bits: or to put it another way, knowledge is transformed into information. In the process much of potential value is lost. Rather than generating selected bits of information in a framework determined by the quite specialised requirements of conventional biological science and taxonomy, we should be focussing on connected systems of local knowledge, informed by an understanding that such knowledge is intrinsically situational and dynamic. Most folk-biological knowledge differs fundamentally from conventional science in not being organised abstractly within some convenient general-purpose classification, but rather with respect to particular contexts, defined perhaps in terms of different subsistence activities. How that knowledge is apprehended by people will be determined by culturally relative coordinates of sense perception which sometimes deviate sharply from the expectations of scientifically-trained personnel; for example, the significance of olfactory and textual stimuli compared with the purely visual. Thus, much knowledge is inaccessible except via a research strategy which allows a multi-focal approach; and if investigators additionally wish to appreciate how local people make key subsistence decisions, they must attend to the categories of knowledge locally applicable . 
But indigenous knowledge is also intrinsically variable and subject to change. We now have convincing demonstrations that knowledge may vary qualitatively and quantitatively according to crucial social variables, such as gender. We also need to take into account variation between different rainforest populations, reflecting for example different modes of subsistence, though it may be artificial to separate out populations on the basis of their apparent degree of interaction with forest, degree of acculturation or integration into the market. I take a broad view of what constitutes a rainforest population, including peasants as well as those more usually thought of as forest peoples. Knowledge may pass between superficially different groups which are in contact or who extract from similar biotopes. There are many observations to the effect that food-collectors (and many intermediate groups) are particularly well adapted to the rainforest; and even that lack of this knowledge effectively locks many farming peoples out of the rainforest, who can therefore only obtain its products as dependants of forest people. But in practice the relationship between different groups is likely to be more complex, suggesting that what might be seen as discrete bodies of knowledge tied to particular social and ethnic groups might better be seen as a division of ethnobiological knowledge reflecting the specialism of people who have long been in contact and in some cases share a common origin. We must be wary of inventing a category of 'traditional' peoples whose knowledge is regarded as somehow pristine and superior, however much the temptation. And just as knowledge is not fixed in its contemporary distribution, so it also changes through time: the result of generations of trial-and-error testing, extensive experimental evidence, enormous individual specialist and collective experience; new species moving in and out. It is this which development consultants, conservationists and pharmaceutical firms are now taking advantage of, but they and us also need to appreciate how that experience has been gained. 

Acknowledgements
An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1993 British Association meeting at Keele University (Section E). I would like to thank Professor Ian Douglas of the Department of Geography, University of Manchester, for that original invitation. Writing and subsequent revision has been supported by ESRC grants R000 23 3088 (The ecology and ethnobiology of human-rainforest interaction in Brunei: a Dusun case study) and R000 236082 (Deforestation and forest knowledge in south central Seram, eastern Indonesia), in association with the EC funded programme, Avenir des peuples des forêts tropicales (APFT). 

Notes
1. Most emphasis on the indigenous knowledge of rainforest peoples and its commercial applications has been placed on ethnopharmacology. The literature is growing at an exponential rate, but for some examples see: Arvigo and Balick 1993, Balick 1990, Elisabetsky and Posey 1994, King 1994, King and Tempstra 1994, and Schultes 1994. The economic values placed on rainforest in more general terms, as these are reflected in indigenous knowledge, are discussed in Godoy and Bawa 1993, Peters, Gentry and Mendelsohn 1989, and Plotkin and Famolore 1992. See also, Panayotou and Ashton 1992. On the role of such knowledge in conservation, sustainable, and community, development see Martin 1994, 1995: 223-51, Williams and Baines 1993, Posey et al 1984. 

2. On the Penan case see Ritchie 1994; on the Yanomami, Colchester 1992. More generally, see Colchester and Lohmann 1993. 


3. For the wider picture see Flenley 1979: 1, 77-100; for southeast Asia, see Maloney 1993, Whitmore 1990:94, Glover 1977: 160; for the Amazon see Balée 1993, 1994, Roosevelt 1994 ; for equatorial Africa see Kadomura 1990. 

4. See references cited in note 3, and also (for southeast Asia) Dunn 1975, Flenley 1979: 122, Hutterer 1983: 196, and Medway 1977. 

5. Ellen 1985b: 568; c.f. Rambo 1985: 68 for Koompassia excelsa among the Semang of the Malaysian peninsula. 

6. Some of the more general issues of typology are considered briefly in Ellen 1988, 1994. 

7. Bahuchet 1983, Peterson 1978. For selected examples from other parts of the world see Dunn 1975, Morris 1982 and Roosevelt 1994. 

8. We now have a considerable body of systematic data on the ethnobiological knowledge of rainforest peoples, mostly concerning plants. Major monographical studies include Balée 1994, Conklin 1954, Ellen 1993, Friedberg 1990, Revel 1990, and Taylor 1990. Berlin's important work on Amazonian Peru is best accessed through the bibliography attached to Berlin 1992. Some other important sources are listed in the bibliography to Brown 1985, and in Conklin 1972. 

9. Some of these differences are documented in the burdgeoning literature on `the cultural construction of nature'. Compare, say, Ingold in press , Descola 1994, Ellen in press a and Strathern 1980. 

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