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A sample page from the Book Project


As the sole speakers of their language, the Hewa are the gatekeepers of millennia of observations about the natural world embedded in their language and culture. The biggest difficulty faced by researchers and outside interests in working with a population that speaks a unique language, is communication. In this case, the problem of cross-cultural communication was complicated by my desire to establish a common understanding between Hewa and western naturalists concerning the relationship between their traditional lifestyle and biodiversity.  Although the Hewa territory was designated a conservation priority, Papua New Guinea’s national government expects conservation initiatives to be generated entirely by local landowners.  If the Hewa were to work successfully with western scientists, we needed to develop a communication tool that would overcome language difficulties and present their traditional knowledge in a way that promoted cross-cultural communication. We hoped that the Forest Stewards initiative would become the basis for a local conservation plan.

Ultimately, the Hewa understanding of birds has provided a way to use traditional knowledge to facilitate cross-cultural communication. Birds are an established indicator of biological diversity (Schodde 1973; Coates 1985; Beehler et al. 1986). By recording traditional knowledge of birds and the impact of human activity on them, we have established a common ground on which to build a conservation initiative for these forests.  This was what enabled me to establish my initial contact with Bruce Beehler.  Because we were able to describe the impact of human disturbance on the birds of the forest, we were able to portray a dynamic that a seasoned naturalist would understand. We were now speaking a common language and establishing a framework for cooperation.

Cross-cultural communication of this sort is somewhat unusual. By producing a book containing the basics of avian ecology (in effect a bird finder) we hope to conserve this knowledge for future generations; develop an educational tool for the first generation of literate Hewa schoolchildren and encourage the conservation of biocultural diversity by educating outsiders to the richness of traditional knowledge. If our first collaboration is a barometer, we believe that by making Hewa TK more accessible, we will expand the interaction with western scientists.

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