Linking culture and conservation in the Caura River Basin

Due south from the lower Orinoco River, in Venezuela, a major tributary reaches 250 miles through raw wilderness to grip the ancient mountains of the Guiana Shield. This expanse is the Caura River Basin, one of the few pristine tropical watersheds on Earth. Tropical rain forests, such as those of the Caura, hold most of the world’s biological richness, accompanied by much of its cultural diversity. In many remote rain forests, indigenous people have hunted and gathered and planted crops for centuries. Yet, despite these impacts, vast tracts of adjacent wilderness remain. Instead, it is industrial society, with its voracious appetites, that rapidly chews up natural habitat, including tropical rain forests. On the ground, however, the proximate causes of rain forest destruction are often blurry. In many cases, it has begun with an accelerated erosion of indigenous culture. Change, generally gradual, is intrinsic to culture. But if the bottom falls out—with sharply diminished knowledge transfer between generations, for example—the tenuous balance between indigenous people and their environment can radically tip.

Countless losses—of irreplaceable knowledge, of forests and wildlife—have been visited upon indigenous peoples and the ecosystems on which they depend when economic development in rain forests proceeds solely governed by crude frontier market forces. Our projects, designed in collaboration with native peoples, are intended to avoid the cultural erosion caused by the onslaught of relentless mass marketing that now reaches every corner of the globe. But we can adapt modern tools to the task of helping to maintain cultural practices and the sustainable use of natural resources.

The hard work involves identifying and stabilizing crucial links—both traditional and novel—between culture and conservation in the Caura River Basin. By fortifying people’s health, helping them to strengthen their cultural traditions, and collaborating with them to create low impact ways of improving their economic well-being, we can maximize the long-term potential for conservation of the Caura River ecosystem.