Entering the ethnosphere with Wade Davis

Copyrigh Wade Davis

© Wade Davis

Recently, I had the privilege of attending a CBC Studio One Book Club, where I, along with Daily Gumboot editor-in-chief John Horn and about 40 other lucky souls, spent an inspiring hour and a half listening to and learning from renowned anthropologist Wade Davis. Facilitated by the engaging host of CBC’s North by Northwest Sheryl MacKay, Davis took us on a journey from the hills of Japan to the depths of the Columbian Amazon, exploring cultures that are at risk of being driven out of existence, and reflecting on why such ancient wisdom matters in our modern world. This question forms the basis of Davis’ new book, The Wayfinders, for which he is currently undertaking a cross-country tour as CBC’s 2009 Massey Lecturer.

© Wade Davis

© Wade Davis

Mr. Davis’ accomplishments are exceptional in both breadth and scope: he is an ethnographer, writer, photographer, and filmmaker, and has been described as “a rare combination of scientist, scholar, poet, and passionate defender of all of life’s diversity” by National Geographic, where he is their explorer-in-residence. A self-proclaimed storyteller, Davis spent 90 minutes in the retro-chic CBC studio enrapturing the audience with tales of peril, adventure, and hope. Through these stories, we collectively left with a contrasting sense of urgency and optimism – not what I expected coming into a talk about disappearing indigenous cultures.

© Wade Davis

© Wade Davis

Of the 7,000 languages spoken around the globe, half are not being taught to children and are at great risk of being lost. In Costa Rica, non-indigenous people have rapidly encroached onto indigenous territory: currently, 80% of indigenous territory is in the hands of non-indigenous people. British colonization. Canadian residential schools. The ways in which indigenous cultures have been put in jeopardy by external egregious forces are beyond measure. And still, Davis was able to instil in us a sense of hope for the future – for the inherent ability to respect difference. For the need, in this globalized world filled with the dangers of climate change and limited resources, to find a way to appreciate the diverse ways of thinking and interacting with the earth, and to accept that “traditional” ways of living are not inferior to “modern” ways, but instead reflect different paths taken. In the words of Wade Davis: “Together the myriad of cultures makes up an intellectual and spiritual web of life that envelops the planet and is every bit as important to the well being of the planet as is the biological web of life that we know as the biosphere”. Indeed.

© Wade Davis

© Wade Davis

One of the most inspiring tales of resiliency and strength told by Davis describes his recent journey to the Northwest Amazon of Columbia, whereby indigenous inhabitants of the land thrive in a revitalized culture, made possible by Columbian President Virgilio Barco Vargas (1986-1990), who gave legal land title to this group of aboriginals, among others. One of the most fascinating and wonderfully enchanting facts about the peoples in this region of the Amazon: in order to marry, one must marry someone who speaks a different language than they do. This is done in order to facilitate peace and vitality within the region. Through stories and fact, Davis dispelled the myth that culture is a fragile thing – something that can be broken, eradicated, destroyed. Instead, he paints a portrait of culture as something inherently strong, resilient, and dynamic, if given the change to be.

Margaret Mead, honoured anthropologist, expressed her concern about diminishing cultural diversity, stating: “as we drift toward a more homogeneous world, all of human potential might be reduced to a single modality, a blandly amorphous generic culture”. Within our increasingly globalized world, our duty as global citizens is to embrace the diversity of indigenous cultures, which contribute to the dynamic ethnosphere that makes our world such a rich and vivid place to live. For those readers who haven’t had the opportunity to see Wade Davis speak, I would strongly encourage you to check out his recent talks on TED.com

Profiled: A Canadian Community-Capacity Champion

The cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead was on to something when she expressed the importance of “never doubt[ing] that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has”. In such a way did Martin Luther King Jr. create equal opportunity for African Americans, Harvey Milk provide a forum for gays and lesbians to demand their rights (did you know that in the state of California, tenants used to face eviction if caught having homosexual sex in a rented apartment?), Mothers of East L.A. (MELA) successfully fought against the opening of a state prison, incinerator, and chemical plant close to their childrens’ schools (what the hell, East L.A.?), and Vancouverites triumphed in the abolishment of the HST (there’s nothing wrong with wishful thinking, right?).

In order to effect such change, citizens need to feel empowered to do so – this is often referred to as community capacity. The most basic and necessary component of community capacity is participation. I know you’re thinking that this is fairly obvious – and I agree it is kinda common sense – but far too often it does not occur, and a façade of capacity creates a sham pall over a community.

A Canadian non-profit organization, created by a group of individuals who felt impassioned to make a difference, deserve mentioning on this Obama-endorsed, world-renowned blog (See our established editor-in-chief’s post for details). They’ve successfully embraced the notion of participation within their charitable work in the horn of Africa (primarily, Ethiopia).

rural-water-tap-india-081002Many of their projects focus on bringing clean water and sanitation facilities to Ethiopia. Often, consultations within communities as to what projects or resources are needed are run and dictated by the NGOs, local officials, chiefs, and a few key influential citizens. Marginalized members of the community, such as women and the poor, are often not able to participate in any community decision-making – hence the sham pall. Even if marginalized citizens are able to attend such forums (difficult, given the fact that much of their day is spent working, looking after children or completing domestic chores), other factors such as societal structures and norms (do women feel comfortable speaking publicly in front of men?), and power dynamics (are poor citizens able to express their views in front of their wealthier neighbours?) play a role.

Given all of this, in what way is Partners in the Horn of Africa accomplishing the difficult feat of attaining true capacity? Partners in the Horn is so very different because it works with Ethiopians – many of them women who have come from a disadvantaged background – to gain trust within communities, and obtain information from all citizens (which sometimes means travelling to homes and small villages). They also work with local chiefs towards creating a culture of inclusion and participation – a much loftier and long-term goal. In such a way, they gain community consensus as to what is most necessary within that community. The community then participates even further by helping to see the project come to fruition – by contributing 10-15% of the projects cost (in labour and materials, when available). From start to finish, community members are involved and feel a sense of ownership over the project they’ve chosen. One of my favourite projects involves building pit latrines in rural elementary schools. The absence of latrines means children must relieve themselves on the school grounds – a major reason why some girls stop attending school. Waste from latrines then drain into an underground bio-gas tank, creating methane gas which is transmitted through a copper line to the cafeteria where methane fire burners heat meals AND is also neutralized and applied to vegetable gardens. Really, how cool is that?

Partners was started by a very small group of Canadians who visited Ethiopia and wanted to make a difference. They’ve embraced the notion of participation-founded community capacity, with admirable results. Bravo, thumbs-up, tip o’ the hat, and a round of applause to you, Partners!