Conservation of Indigenous Cultures: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Iran Nomad ToursEcoutourism iranConservation of Indigenous Cultures: Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

At a time when we can have access to data about various cultures around the world, personal stories pave the way for a better understanding of cultural diversities. Watch the following movie to see how Tala Sadat is proud of her nomadic lifestyle.

Tala Sadat tells us how she loves her nomadic life. She has always been a nomad living in Mt. Zagros.

Nobody can deny the important role of indigenous people in defending the environment and Earth’s biodiversity. According to National Geography, 80% of global biodiversity is protected by indigenous peoples, while they are less than 5% of the world population. So, they need to be preserved. But how?

A Holistic Approach to Development

In order to help them preserve, we need to take some holistic measures to develop their conditions, make their lives easier, appreciate their lifestyle and all in all, do our best to keep their authentic culture. When it comes to helping vulnerable groups or societies, several issues should be taken into consideration if we’d like to reach the best possible effects. We have seen numerous well-intended efforts done to empower the vulnerable, but they turned out to be a barrier to their growth.

Here in this article, it has been tried to clarify some critical points regarding ‘development’ and ‘cultural diversity’; what is the desired approach to development? what is Cultural Diversity? what are the principles of preserving cultural diversities? Then, we show the ways Iran Nomad Tours is trying to help Iran Nomads develop without impairing Nomads’ local cultures.

A Culturally Sensitive Approach to Development: A Key Dimension of Development

A widely-held view is that if a group or society is undeveloped, it is because of their culture which impedes their progress. So, when organizations or other developed groups decide to help them, they make the situation even worse because they try to change the only authentic feature the indigenous people have: ‘their unique culture’. Therefore, the question of how development should be implemented is really important. For example, throughout the history of Iran, different groups have decided to improve the nomads’ life, but in reality, they made it even harder for the nomads. Thus, if any measure is to be adopted to improve the nomads’ lives, it needs to be based on their cultures. Back then, forced sedentarization of nomads under the pretext of improving their lives, with insufficient cultural awareness have resulted in tragic, irreparable consequences. So, the key to any development is awareness of cultural and diversity factors[1]. Otherwise, the development would be doomed to failure. Their culture should be acknowledged. They need to know and keep who they truly are. As former World Bank president James Wolfensohn has said (quoted in Gould, 2007):

 “…We are starting to understand that development effectiveness depends, in part, on ‘solutions’ that resonate with a community’s sense of who it is.”

So far, we’ve talked about the leading role of local people, and how important it is to help them preserve their authentic culture. We’ve seen that if any effective change is to happen, it should be culturally appropriate. So, when it comes to Nomads development, making them settled cannot be the best solution, because by doing so, in fact, they are being deprived of the most iconic element they have: ‘Kuch’ [2]

Cultural Diversity: Openness to Other Cultures

When a variety of cultural or ethnic groups exist in a society, it is said that it has cultural diversity. All around the world, there are numerous societies and groups, and each has its own distinctive culture. Some aspects of culture are obvious; such as differences in languages, or their clothing styles or the special traditions which are common among various groups. There are also some implicit aspects which are also as important as the explicit ones. If humanity is to survive, cultural diversity should be preserved.

Sophocles once said: “There are many wonderful things; and nothing is more wonderful than man.” When a group of men gathers together, a unique local culture is made which is also wonderful, and needs to be preserved, because culture is the very epitome of any developments. The active role of local people is of vital importance if anything helpful is to happen. There is no fixed linear approach in development projects. But, one thing is for sure. No development can be achieved if the culture is not taken into consideration. In Article 1 of the Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, it is mentioned that “…cultural diversity is as necessary for humankind as biodiversity is for nature”[3]

Cultural Diversity & the Environment

There is a direct relationship between human needs and the environment. Men have interactions both with themselves and the natural environment they live in. Culture is not only the manifestation of men’s interaction with each other but also their interactions with nature. So, it can be concluded that nature and culture are also directly related. If the natural environment is not protected, or if anything harms it, the cultural heritage is also affected. So, one way to preserve cultural diversity is the preservation of nature. For example, when an earthquake, flood or drought happens in cultural centers, all aspects of life will be affected. In the case of severe drought, people may leave the place to move to more fertile areas. Such population displacements for sure affects cultural continuity and diversity. The same process may happen in rural areas with terrible livelihood conditions, etc. Therefore, it can be said that for many indigenous or local people, culture is quite ‘place-based’. Their homes, songs, stories, myth and the material they’ve used in their houses are all one way or another tie to the place they inhabit. Therefore, when they are forced to leave their homes, after a while they lose whatever cultural heritage they’ve achieved during centuries. So, any kind of “forced displacement can be culturally devastating”[4]
Following, we will see how the practical knowledge of local people can be of great importance in the preservation of the environment.

After talking about the essential role of the locals and the points we need to observe while thinking of developing them, it’s the time to see how the locals’ knowledge of the nature, which they know by intuition, can come to our help in preserving the environment. A combination of their tacit knowledge and scientific knowledge can hopefully result in great changes.

When Local Knowledge of Indigenous People Paves the Way for Preservation of the Environment

Local, rural or indigenous people have learned a great knowledge of the environment over time. They know how to manage the environment, and they know how to adapt themselves to environmental changes. Moreover, the innovative solutions they come up with are quite thought-provoking. That’s why when it comes to protecting nature, making use of their experiences and implementing their local knowledge can be quite helpful.
“In view of the considerable challenges our world currently faces, the time has come to draw on the riches of our cultures to find approaches to sustainable environmental management, as well as adaptation and mitigation in the face of natural hazards and climate change. The best way to proceed in this regard is to empower peoples whose local knowledge and experiences have long enabled them to conserve much of the earth’s remaining biological diversity (Posey, 1999)
But the problem is that their knowledge is tacit, and there is a language barrier in between which needs to be overcome. When such knowledge is combined with modern techniques, effective changes are to happen. So, there is no single knowledge. There should be a combination of different knowledge; “cross-culturally, inter-generationally and differentiated by gender, occupation and ethnicity.”[4]

How Iran Nomad Tours is Helping Cultural Diversity Preserve

Like all local people around the world, Nomads of Iran have their own unique way of dealing with nature. Their understanding of natural processes, shepherding and animal breeding is going to vanish if we don’t do anything to make it explicit. Their active participation in environmental protection is little by little fading away due to many reasons.

What Iran Nomad Tours is trying to do is: first, to make them more conscious of their vital roles in nature preservation. We want to let them know how worthwhile their transhumance is. The fact that when they move large numbers of grazing animals in pastures, and when the animals dung and urinate all over the pastures, and then trample on the fields, the Carbon of the soil is preserved, because it acts as a good cover over the soil, and keeps it rich.
Second, to make them known how we appreciate their lifestyle and their traditional knowledge. This would give them the self-confidence to preserve their authentic lifestyle. Meanwhile, on the one hand, we will learn their traditional knowledge, and on the other hand, we will tell them the importance of their way of living. In case there is a scientific point nomads need to learn, Iran Nomad Tours tries to help them know the new findings regarding the environment, shepherding or nature.

1. Investigating in Cultural Diversity[1]
2. pronunciation: /ku:t∫/- Seasonal migration of the nomads, Transhumance[2]
3. UNESCO[3]
4.Investigating in Cultural Diversity[4]

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