Enemy of Nature or Steward of Biodiversity?: The Role of Human Disturbance in Fostering Biodiversity

Enemy of Nature or Steward of Biodiversity?: The Role of Human Disturbance in Fostering Biodiversity

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Today as never before, humans dominate the planet. We number in the billions and enjoy longer and more prosperous lives than in any time in our 200,000-year history. The global economy and communications networks connect us in ways that were unimaginable to earlier generations. Yet melting ice caps, growing deserts, rising temperatures and increasingly ferocious storms have given many of us pause. For generations we had been led to believe that the upward curve of scientific progress would enable us to become better and better managers of our environment and escape the apocalypse environmentalists predicted. Now it seems that these predictions are about to come true, as we are entering a period of climate change and a cycle of extinctions driven by human activity. While such news would seem to paint modern humans as the primary enemy of the natural world, archaeologists have uncovered plenty of evidence linking less developed societies to environmental upheaval and localized extinctions. In this paper, I argue that extinctions are not solely a product of modern consumerism. Instead, the seeds of extinction can be found in the underlying relationship between human activity and biological diversity. Drawing on fieldwork in New Guinea, this paper presents an ethno-ecological perspective on the potential of traditional activities to foster or destroy biological diversity.

Indigenous naturalists have been accumulating their knowledge unencumbered by the philosophical shifts of western thought. They have been developing a dynamic view of nature that incorporates connectedness, disturbance and recovery as a normal course of events in the natural world. Since western science has only recently moved toward this non-linear view, the indigenous view of nature has, in a sense, been ahead of the emerging scientific consensus. In this paper, I argue that the ability to foster or destroy biodiversity is inherent in traditional land use. In fact the natural history of traditional inhabitants contains clues to the fate of the natural world. However in order to decipher these clues, one must first shift perspectives.

The required shift in perspective will move us from the linear, mechanistic world of our forefathers to the chaotic, connected, non linear world of the twenty-first century. It is a move away from the traditional western view of the universe as a stable, machine-like system that has been designed to be predictable, balanced and ultimately controllable by humans to one that recognizes that the linear world-view was borne of our inadequate knowledge of the universe. This shift acknowledges that our attempts at managing the planet have been frustrated by the complexity of the task and recognizes that after centuries of cataloguing nature’s parts we have much more to learn as managers.  It recognizes that natural systems have proven to be extremely complex and are rarely, if ever, in a state of equilibrium. Finally, our shift will jettison generations of received wisdom encapsulated in phrases like “the balance of nature,” incorporating our latest understandings in evolutionary biology, non-linear mathematics and ethno-biology to create a better understanding of our potential to steward or destroy our biological inheritance.

I became interested in the relationship between tradition and biodiversity during my initial fieldwork with the Hewa of Papua New Guinea (PNG). PNG is one of the world’s most significant centers of biodiversity and contains large tracts of intact forest (Meyers et.al. 2000). The Hewa live in one of PNG’s most important wilderness areas, the headwaters of the Strickland River in the Central Range (142 30’E, 5 10’ S; elevation 500-3000 meters). They number fewer than 2,000 people and inhabit roughly ca. 65,000 hectares of hilly and sub montane forest in the uppermost Strickland River. Their region is located on the eastern verges of the ‘Great Rivers Headwaters,’ a rain-soaked upland zone in the center of New Guinea that recent analyses have identified as the richest in biodiversity in this island (Beehler 1993). Within New Guinea, this region of the Central Range has been identified as a ‘major terrestrial unknown,’ and a conservation priority (Swartzendruber 1993).  The Hewa describe their traditions as playing a significant role in shaping the environment by creating a mosaic of habitats of varying diversity. In other words, they are a source of environmental disturbance. In an effort to find a use for their traditional knowledge in the modern world of conservation, I have recorded their traditional knowledge of the impact of human activity on biodiversity. The Hewa view of the natural world not only provides insights into the potential of indigenous people to conserve their resources, but also reveals the slippery slope all of our ancestors engaged as they shaped their environments to meet the needs of growing populations.

In what follows, I attempt to build an argument for a shift in perspective from a linear to a non-linear world. I will do so by examining the evidence of non-western societies role in extinctions; the role of disturbance in fostering biological diversity; and the insights I have gleaned as an ethno-ecologist during my work with the Hewa.


The idea that indigenous societies have developed a harmonious relationship with their natural surroundings is rooted deeply in the history of western civilization.  Like many western traditions, the idea may have originated with the Greeks (Maybury-Lewis 1992:24).  First Greek, and then the Roman philosophers, began to portray their societies as civilizations that had degenerated from the “Golden Age” of their distant ancestors (Diamond 1992:318).  Both Homer and Ovid contrasted the honest nature of primitives with the treachery and conflict of their own times (Maybury-Lewis 1992; Diamond 1992).  The seventeenth and eighteenth century European explorers inherited the notion that primitives are innately good and representative of humanity’s better past  — i.e. the tradition of the “Noble Savage.” While the idea of the noble savage was most fully developed by Rousseau, many authors and explorers spoke of the American Indians and the Polynesians that they encountered as remnants of the “Golden Age” (Diamond 1992: Redford 1991).  These societies seemed to be free of many of the ills that plagued contemporary Europe.  While Europeans were greedy and destructive, the aboriginals were collective, communal, humane and respectful of nature (Redford 1991).  They seemed to live in veritable gardens of Eden, easily satisfying their material needs from their pristine (by European standards) lands.

The preindustrial societies contacted by Europeans were subsequently transformed or eliminated, but their reputation as societies able to live in conformity with nature has survived.  In fact, the myth of the noble savage seems to be one of the few traditions that modern western civilizations have inherited intact (Redford 1991).  As our environment seems increasingly threatened, we often look back to the American Indian either with nostalgia for a time when man lived in harmony with nature (Strickland 1970; Jacobs 1972) or for help in developing a modern conservation ethic (White 1984; Callicut 1989).  There has been a tendency in human ecology research to assume that traditional societies have not appreciably altered their environment (Clarke 1971:190).  In fact in a cursory review of the literature it would seem that even western science has accepted the tradition of the Golden Age populated by noble savages. Regardless of the environment to be conserved, there seems to be someone willing to champion the traditional inhabitants as the people most capable of conserving it (see Kottak 1993; Padoch and Peters 1993; Maybury-Lewis 1992; Russell 1992; Posey 1992, 1985, 1984; Clay 1990 & 1988; Nations 1990; Newman 1990; Taylor 1990; Bodley 1988 & 1976; Dasmann 1988; Gardner & Nelson 1988; Wright 1988; Klee 1980; Martin 1978).  Consequently, contemporary literature is riddled with references to the ability of preindustrial societies to manage their environment.  A closer look at such claims, however, is needed.

The Archaeological Record

The archaeological record is packed with evidence that implicates humans in prehistoric extinctions (Simms 1992; Martin and Klein 1984; Ehrlich 1981).  Catastrophic extinctions have occurred world-wide in the wake of human colonization.  The pattern of extinctions begins in Australia and New Guinea between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago (Burney 1993: Murray 1984; Bulmer 1982).  North and South America next experienced a series of extinctions, coinciding with the appearance of humans between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, that have been described as a  “blitzkrieg” (Martin and Mossiman 1975). Finally, another wave of extinctions occurred as humans colonized the oceanic islands.  The Greater Antilles, New Zealand, Madagascar and the Mediterranean islands all experienced extinctions between 1,000 and 6,000 years ago (Burney 1993; Anderson 1984; Cassells 1984; Olsen and James 1984; Trotter and McCullough 1984).

The exact nature of prehistoric man’s role in these extinctions continues to stir scientific debate.  Critics of the blitzkrieg model point to the circumstantial nature of the evidence.  Marshall can find only fourteen cases with convincing paleontological evidence of man’s role in a big game kill in North America (Marshall 1984:790).  Angebroad, surveying North American sites occurring after 15,000 yr.  B.P., finds evidence of human participation in only twenty-nine percent of the discovered large mammal skeletons (Angebroad 1984:103). The data that do exist suggest that paleolithic humans killed relatively few species – mainly mammoths – with no indication of a role for humans in the demise of species such as the giant beaver (Grayson 1984 & 1987).  Skeptics also point out that while Eurasia had a longer history of man/animal interaction, it also experienced a wave of extinctions (Vereschagen and Baryshnikov 1984; Ehrlich 1981). Part of the problem with determining man’s role in the megafaunal extinctions is the age of the sites.  However, as we get closer to the present and examine the archaeological evidence of island extinctions, man’s role becomes much clearer.  There is evidence for human-induced extinction prior to European contact for practically all of the Pacific islands between New Guinea, Easter Island and Madagascar (Case and Bolger 1992; Cassells 1984; Olsen and James 1984; Dewar 1984).  Although the details would have varied for each island, the evidence of man’s role in one particular extinction, that of the moa, may be instructive.

Moas (large birds resembling an ostrich) were found throughout the islands of New Zealand (Anderson 1984).  Evidence suggests that the ancestors of the Maoris landed in New Zealand approximately 1,000 years ago (Cassels 1984; Anderson 1984).  However, by the time that Europeans had arrived (approximately 700 years later), all moas were extinct (Cassels 1989; Anderson 1984; Trotter and McCullough 1984).  Archaeologists have found over 100 Maori hunting sites, containing between 100,000 and 500,000 moa skeletons, suggesting that the Maoris hunted moas intensively for years (Anderson 1989). 

The spectacular size of some moa species and the rapidity of their extinction focused the attention of archaeologists on hunting by Maoris.  However, as we know, the Maori were also horticulturists and whose gardens shaped their environment (Trotter and McCullough 1984).  The side effects of these agricultural activities may have been the greatest threat to the conservation of biodiversity by human cultures.   Pollen analysis indicates that the Maoris were also clearing New Zealand’s forests (Trotter & McCullough 1984).  Within 700 years, the Maoris had cut and burned all of the areas to be cleared prior to European settlement (Trotter and McCullough 1984).  Since moas were forest dwellers, habitat destruction probably contributed to their extinction (Trotter and McCullough 1984). The archaeological evidence from three societies – the Anasazi, the Maya, and Easter Island – underscore this point – large-scale habitat alteration by preindustrial societies radically changed their worlds and contributed heavily to their eventual collapse.

The Anasazi farmed the Mogollon Rim area of the southwestern U.S. for one thousand years (Simms 1992).  They cut the juniper and pine forests for fuel and to build the buildings that survive as reminders of their former occupation of the area (Kohler 1992; Orcutt 1991; Kohler and Matthews 1988; Bentacourt et.al.1986; Cordell 1984; Bentacourt and Vandevander 1981).  However, by approximately 1100 A.D. the Anasazi had deforested the lands surrounding their pueblos and were importing timber from seventy five kilometers away (Kohler and Matthews 1988; Bentacourt et.al 1986).

The Anasazi could conceivably have developed a more sustainable harvest rate by cutting fewer trees or by spreading their population more evenly over their territory, but they did not.  Eventually, the forests could no longer sustain this rate of cutting (Bentacourt and Van Devender 1981).  By the time the Spanish entered the southwest, the Anasazi had converted what was once a pinyon and juniper forest into a desert and abandoned their pueblos.

The Polynesian settlers of Easter Island played out a similar scenario in the eastern Pacific from 400 to 1500 A.D. (Kirch 1984).  Pollen analysis reveals that they drastically altered the environment of Easter Island by clearing the forests (Kirch 1984; Fleney 1984; Fleney and Ring 1979; McCoy 1979).  By 1500 A.D., the human population had risen to 7000 persons (Kirch 1984).  However, the island’s forests had been so depleted that there was a shortage of both raw materials for canoes and fertile land for gardens (Kirch 1984).  Human-induced environmental degradation led to poor crop yields and conflict over the dwindling resources (Kirch 1989; Fleney and King 1979).  When the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeven arrived in 1772, Easter island’s population had dropped to 4,000 persons, the islanders had stopped carving the stone statues they are now famous for, and the landscape had become a barren grassland (Kirch 1984; Fleney 1984; Fleney and King 1979).

Mayan civilization dominated Guatemala and southeastern Mexico for one thousand years (Schele and Freidel 1990; Coe 1984; Gallencamp 1985).  The Maya were skilled agriculturists.  They built terraces to prevent erosion, constructed canals, and toward the end of the Classic Maya period, practiced intensive agriculture (Culbert 1988:98).  The Maya had developed an encyclopedic knowledge of their environment’s biodiversity and a sustainable agroforestry system of multi-cropping and tree tending (Attran 1993; Gomez-Pompa 1990, 1989,1987). Yet this system and the knowledge that accompanied it were unable to stem the tide of environmental degradation that followed the growth of Mayan civilization.  Between 800 and 1,000 A.D., Mayan populations experienced a drastic decline (Culbert 1988).  The reasons for the collapse of Mayan civilization continue to be hotly debated (see Low and Heinen1985; Harrison and Turner 1978).  However, there seems to be a consensus that the environmental degradation played a role (Culbert 1988; Rice 1978).  While the traditional Mayan system of crop management had been successful for 900 years, it was developed under a less intensive agricultural regime (Culbert 1988:99).  Some archaeologists have speculated that by adopting more intensive methods of agriculture, the Maya traded a short-term gain in crop yield for the long-term instability brought on by a decline in soil fertility (Attran 1993: Culbert 1988).

Thus, archaeological evidence casts considerable doubt on the existence of a “Golden Age”.  Prehistoric man altered his environment in a variety of ways.  He hunted for meat and decoration, cleared forests for raw materials and gardens, and used fire to shape ecosystems.  Archaeologists have not only discovered evidence not only of man’s ability to kill large game species, but also clues to the type of prey (by age and sex) primitive hunters may have preferred (Simms 1992:190).  Several North American sites indicate that whether their prey was bison, mule deer or bighorn sheep, hunters favored animals of prime reproductive age and showed a slight bias toward pregnant females (Frison 1978; Simms 1992).  When hunters hunt for meat and roam large territories, the urgency of providing food may override any conservation concerns (Simms 1992).  Hunting females in their prime probably makes good sense nutritionally (Speth and Spielman 1983).  However, killing pregnant females of game species is not what we expect of a people concerned with conservation (Simms 1992).

Since healthy animals that are in their prime are more difficult to prey upon than the old, sick or young, one might expect prehistoric hunters to have experienced some difficulty in killing their prey.  Yet, Jared Diamond’s research in the Gauttier Mountains of New Guinea gives us a glimpse of the reaction that prey might have to humans in areas relatively recently invaded by man (Diamond 1984).  The Gauttier Mountains are isolated, surrounded by swamps and so difficult to reach that animals living here have rarely, if ever, seen humans (Diamond 1984).  Diamond was therefore able to approach animals that are elsewhere shy and have been drastically reduced by hunters using primitive weaponry (Diamond 1984).  He suggests that primitive man, armed with weapons that archaeologists consider superior to those found in New Guinea, may have had a devastating effect on game if their unwariness resembled the species found in the Gauttier (Diamond 1984).

Therefore the “virgin” lands encountered by European explorers were in reality lands that had been extensively changed by their aboriginal inhabitants (Simms 1992).   Most importantly, prehistoric man, while he or she probably possessed the vast environmental knowledge that survives in some traditional societies, undoubtedly had difficulty responding to short-term fluctuations in resources caused, for example, by temporary rainfall shortage or long-term declines prompted by a shift in global rainfall patterns (Diamond 1992:337; Brown and Brown 1992).  As evidenced by the current debate over the possible effects of depletion of the ozone layer and global warming, this is a difficulty we continue to experience in modern societies. Likewise, as humans encounter novel circumstances, a reliance on traditional methods may only worsen the situation.  In the case of prehistoric man, traditional methods of hunting and gardening had carried him through countless short-term fluctuations in game populations or harvests.  Intensively applying these methods when hunting game not accustomed to human predation, or planting crops in soil whose fertility progressively declined with each crop, might have led to environmental degradation and extinction of useful resources.                       

Contemporary Traditional Societies

The 1854 speech attributed to Chief Seattle – “For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man.  All things are connected” (Maybury-Lewis 1992:59) — is often cited as evidence of the kind of ethos that preindustrial societies developed, an ethos that enabled preindustrial man to do a better job of conservation than their western counterparts. Did the modern descendants of past exploitative cultures learn the error of their ancestors’ ways and eventually develop lifestyles that allow them to live in harmony with their environment?  Many researchers have come to the conclusion that native lifestyles are designed to conserve their environment because they appear to live below the carrying capacity of their lands and almost universally profess a reverence for the land and its creatures  (Maybury-Lewis 1992:58; Hames 1991:173).  However, we now know that such societies have contributed to extinction of (1) the wolf, bear and beaver in Britain; (2) aurochs in Europe; (3) the ostrich, lion, tiger and leopard in the Near and Middle East; and (4) the wolf and sea lions in Japan (Diamond 1984).  Brightman, citing their “proclivity to kill indiscriminately in numbers beyond what is needed,” has questioned the conservationist nature of indigenous Canadian hunters (Brightman 1987).  More recently, Ehrlich reports that the introduction of the rifle and powerboats totally changed the hunting patterns of the Aivilingmiut Eskimo (Ehrlich 1981).  Rather than paddling their boats close enough to spear seals, hunters took pot-shots that resulted in nineteen of twenty resulting kills being lost as the wounded seals slipped off the ice flows and sank before the hunters could get to them (Ehrlich 1981:136).

Some see the above as evidence that the conservation ethic is absent in primitive man (Hester 1984; Dimbleby 1974).  However, in a perverse way, these examples have served to strengthen the reputation of natives as conservationists (Hames 1991:173).  Proponents of the ”primitive conservationist” see technological introductions such as the rifle as non-native.  Such implements were too new to allow a society to evolve and adjust to them.  Here, according to Hames, “the exception proves the rule: instances of non-conservation are the result of a loss or disruption of aboriginal culture or western acculturation” (Hames 1991:173).

New Guinea

 The island of New Guinea represents one of the earth’s last great stands of rainforest. However preindustrial man has been shaping the environment of this island for thousands of years (Burney 1993; Hope 1977; Loffler 1977; J.Smith 1977).  The wave of extinction that followed man’s appearance here included the local extermination of the giant echidna, tree kangaroos, dugongs, megapodes and several species of bird of paradise prior to the colonial period (Bulmer 1982:61).   Nonetheless in New Guinea, as elsewhere, the evidence of man’s effect on wildlife is largely circumstantial and we can make only generalizations concerning the relationship of man to the New Guinea environment (Hope 1977:25).  Besides hunting, traditional subsistence patterns in New Guinea involve the felling of trees (for gardens and building materials), burning grasslands, and the harvest of a variety of wild plants. Such activities have produced a mosaic of landscapes as well as a patchy distribution of animals across their traditional ranges (Bulmer 1982:61; J.Smith 1977:202-3). Historical ecologists are making similar connections between the activities of prehistoric New Guineans and a simplification of the environment following their arrival in the highlands (Haberle 2007). For example, hunting and clearing has eliminated wallabies in the man-made grasslands of the highlands (Hope 1977:25).  Rock wallabies that are rare on the hunted slopes of Mt. Wilhelm are plentiful on the more remote ranges (J.Smith 1977:203). As populations increased, the highlanders moved from hunting to progressively more intensive forms of agriculture to feed themselves (Watson 1965; Morren 1977).  With the introduction of the sweet potato, approximately 350 years ago, life in highlands began to revolve around a new staple (Watson: 1965). Yet the grasslands that dominate the highland valleys are probably the result of continuous planting and burning over the last 300 years (J. Smith 1977:190).

Unlike other areas of the world, New Guinea was not subjected to waves of colonization and very little of the country was disturbed by the introduction of European methods of farming and forestry.  Since the exploration of the highlands began in the 1930’s, analysts have had the opportunity to observe the workings of traditional societies.  Traditions, both technological and ideological, have not been eroded by the years of outside influence that characterized the rest of the colonial world. Predictably, ecologists and anthropologists have reached opposite conclusions concerning the ability of the natives to steward their environment.  Anthropologists point to the apparent stability of traditional lifestyles and the importance the people put on their relationship with the land as evidence of the ability of indigenous New Guineans to conserve their natural resources (Carrier 1982; Peni 1982; Waiko and Jiregari 1982; Klee 1980; Wagner 1977).  According to some analysts, the traditional peoples of New Guinea have developed the ability to conserve vegetation (De’Ath 1982; Paglau1982).  Others have supposedly developed a complex strategy for game management (Morren 1986:19). 

Once again there are researchers who question the usefulness of characterizing New Guinea’s traditional societies as conservationist (Diamond 1992; Beehler 1991; Bulmer 1982; Dwyer 1982b; Johannes 1982; Powell 1982; Lipset 1985).  In New Guinea, traditional fishing practices have severely depleted stocks of shellfish (Swadley 1977;1982), turtles (Spring 1982), dugong (Hudson 1982; Olivale 1982, Sidu 1982) and the coastal fishery in general (Johannes 1982).  Human population density in New Guinea seems to have the same effect as an increase in human populations in the rest of the world — i.e., the depletion of faunal resources (Dwyer 1982a: 167).  Some groups respond to such depletion by moving or changing their hunting tactics to those that are effective on other species, such as switching from hunting to trapping.  This, in effect, gives their former prey a chance to recover (Morren 1986; Dwyer 1982 a:540).  However, it is difficult to determine the goal of such practices.  Are they aimed at conservation, or merely accessing a new and temporarily more abundant resource (Bulmer 1982; Dwyer 1982a; Dwyer 1983)? Others like the Jimi valley plume hunters studied by Healey, did not switch prey in response to a decline in birds of paradise (Healey 1986:125).  Their hunting has now endangered some species (Healey 1986:123).  It is interesting here to note that Healey’s 1986 findings contradict his 1978 prediction that beliefs and societal rules would act to regulate hunting (Healey 1986:197). In less than eight years, plume hunters had put enough pressure on local birds to force him to change his assessment of the ability of social restraints to promote a sustainable harvest of plumes (Healey 1986).Again, it is difficult for these plume hunters, despite their knowledge of their prey and its environment, to distinguish between short-term fluctuations and a genuine decline in their prey.

Although isolated and relatively unspoiled by world standards, New Guinea’s societies are not immune to the forces shaping the rest of the world.  The present environment in New Guinea is one of rapid change.  The human population is growing rapidly and with the introduction of roads and a cash economy, the demand for food as well as traditional ceremonial items has skyrocketed.  Foreign logging firms have discovered New Guinea’s forests.  These firms entice local people with large sums of money, enter into illegal contracts with villagers and harvest timber at unsustainable rates (Tickell 1993).  In addition to market forces and population pressures, Christianity is now a part of the lives of many of the people.  The impact of Christianity has been mixed.  On one hand, game animals are no longer needed for sacrifices (Dwyer 1982b:183).  On the other hand, the synergism that characterized secular and religious life has been broken (Dwyer 1982b).  Peter Dwyer has observed that the impact of Christianity on highland Papua New Guinea has been largely negative.  According to Dwyer, “God’s impact …will have been to replace old models that may have been conservationist in their result and which were certainly more leisurely despoilers of wildlife resources, with a model which tends not to be conservative and which is certainly more aggressive in its relations with nature” (Dwyer 1982b:183).

In summary, although New Guinea’s environment and cultures are remote, they have not escaped the problems that have plagued indigenous societies in other parts of the world.  Archaeological evidence implicates their ancestors in the extinction and alteration of New Guinea’s flora and fauna.  Change in New Guinea is imminent and the indigenous populations here seem to be no better prepared for dealing with this change than were their counterparts on other continents in the face of growing human populations and world market forces. Hunters using traditional methods and knowledge to harvest birds are using a model based on the past.  A reliance on these methods to conserve natural resources can have disastrous consequences, because these traditions evolved under circumstances that differ from today.


The ability of indigenous societies to live in harmony with their environment is far from resolved.  Researchers have unearthed enough evidence of man’s involvement in extinctions to keep alive the “man against nature versus the man in partnership with nature” debate (Grumbine 1996:79).  Further complicating matters are recent discoveries in ecology, which have begun to undermine many of the traditional explanations for natural phenomena.  This research has profound implications for conservation and requires a reevaluation of the premises underlying the theoretical underpinnings of the “primitive conservationist” model.

Traditionally, western science has taken a mechanistic view of the universe.  The mechanistic world is described as being like a clock in that, “the separate elements are connected by lawful relationships into a working system that produces well-defined controllable outcomes” (Goerner 1994:5).  This view fathered the scientific revolution and is the philosophical basis of much of our ecological research (Goerner 1994:11).  The ecological mechanist assumes that we have inherited a world wherein the “goal” of systems/ecosystems is a state of equilibrium. An ecosystem is said to be in equilibrium when as a result of the biotic interactions between the member species, the relative abundance and composition of species become stable throughout time (Reice 1994:424).  For the mechanist, it is only a matter of time until we develop an inventory of the species in the ecosystem, understand how each species is connected to the others, and maintain this system of internal relationships, i.e. balance. Once this is accomplished, mankind will be able to manipulate nature to suit our needs (Goerner 1994:11). Advocates of traditional societies maintain that cultural practices function to help maintain an ecosystem once it has reached the “goal” of equilibrium between species and available niches (E.A. Smith 1983).

Yet, is the “natural” state of an ecosystem in fact a state of equilibrium?  The assumption that ecosystems tend toward equilibrium is so pervasive that this question borders on heresy.  However our inability to catalogue nature’s parts and articulate the relationships between these parts as well as the difficulty in defining extremely complex systems has led ecologists to abandon the mechanistic view to concentrate on the dynamic components of an ecosystem rather than stability (Pickett et. al. 1991; Dove 1988; Jochim 1981; Ellen 1982).  Many ecologists now recognize the difficulty of adequately defining natural systems, as well as the explanatory poverty that results from simplifying them (Ellen 1982).  Today the flux or transient nature of an ecosystem is emphasized and the balance of nature concept is described as non-scientific (Pickett et. al. 1991:54).  Unfortunately, this shift has gone unrecognized by many anthropologists (E.A.Smith 1983:3).  Authors continue to portray traditional societies as “in balance” or describe a practice as “adaptive.”  Yet, this use of terms drawn from ecology and evolutionary biology is often outmoded (Hames 1991; Palmer 1990; Smith 1983). Over the past twenty years, scientists from a variety of fields have increased our understanding of ecological processes.  Their research has implications for our understanding of the role of humans in shaping tropical forests.  A rigorous application of the concepts of these disciplines may not only expose the flaws in the “primitive conservationist” model, but also present possibilities for designing conservation programs that might help conservationists and indigenous advocates to realize their convergent interests.

Current research has focused on the role of nonequilibrium factors, commonly referred to as disturbance, in the enhancement of biodiversity (Reice 1994:924).  Ecologists define a disturbance as any “relatively discrete event that disrupts a population, community or ecosystem and changes resources available” (Pickett & White 1985).  Disturbance should not to be confused with predation.  Predation is “intrinsic to the life of the prey species, which can and does adapt to it” (Reice 1994:428).  On the other hand, disturbance is unpredictable and nonselective.  It can come in any size, at any time and produce effects that will vary from minutes to centuries in duration. While we typically think of disturbance as phenomena like storms that originate outside of an ecosystem, disturbance can also be generated from the internal dynamics of an ecosystem.  Ecologists have discovered rich, dynamic and unpredictable behavior arising from the internal dynamics of laboratory populations without an external source of disturbance (May 1989:37).  These eruptions are an underlying feature of the population dynamics of these species and can occur without any change in physical or biological conditions (Hastings and Higgins 1994:1136).

For example, computer-simulated histories of Dungeness crab populations demonstrate that the crab population can fluctuate widely without any external disturbance to the system (Hastings and Higgins 1994:1136).  A 1989 New Scientist article by Robert May describes another example of the dynamic nature of life.  According to May, the fate of laboratory populations of creatures such as blowflies have been found to diverge rapidly with as little as 0.3 percent difference in their initial size (May 1989:38).  This divergence becomes even more dramatic as differences in the fecundity between individuals come into play.  When the average number of offspring produced per individual in a generation was less than one, the population crashed.  If the number of offspring is greater than one but less than three, the population reached a steady state.  However, as the rate of reproduction grew beyond a value of three, the population began to go through a series of boom and bust cycles that become more complex the greater the rate of increase (May 1989:36-37).  In each case, what had at first glance seemed to be random behavior was not.  It was the result of simple mathematical relationships that had been understood for some time (May 1989:38).

Population fluctuations are now understood to be the product of internal dynamics as well as external perturbations (Schaffer & Kott 1986:63).  Some populations may, under the right circumstances, achieve a steady state which researchers have labeled “dynamic equilibrium. “ Others may become extinct or suffer a major reduction only to recover and rebuild their numbers (May 1989). Although disturbance may kill or displace individual organisms, it generally creates the patchiness that characterizes many environments. This patchiness creates the niches that present opportunities for colonization by new species (Reice 1994:431).  For example, a windstorm that downs trees in the forest creates gaps.  Although the physical environment of the patch will determine the scale of the disturbance, disturbance clears the way for new species capable of colonizing these gaps, thus increasing the biological diversity of the area (Reice 1994:427). However minor disturbances, such as the internal boom and bust dynamics mentioned above, can also create patchiness and are perhaps as crucial as more dramatic disturbances in promoting biological diversity. For example, a decline in the population of a predator in an ecosystem might open the door for a boom in the population of one prey species, while leading to the decline of another prey species unable to compete in the absence of this predator (Pimm 1991:673).  Such a scenario might be responsible for booms in elephant populations that temporarily ravage African landscapes (Leakey 1995).

At either extreme of the disturbance continuum, environments that are either undisturbed or wracked by severe disturbances will eventually be dominated by a few species (Terborgh 1992:99).  Therefore, in terms of its ability to generate biodiversity, disturbance is a scale related phenomena.  Too much or too little disturbance produces environments that are not as diverse as those that are continually subjected to minor disturbances.  This ”intermediate disturbance hypothesis” argues that intermediate disturbance promotes the high degree of species richness by creating a mosaic of environments that, in turn, prevents the extinction of competing species (Connell 1978).

Yet if ecosystems are constantly recovering from disturbances, how does one explain the apparent stability of nature?  One factor is that the intervals between disturbances can be very long, giving the impression that equilibrium develops (Reice 1994:434).  Another is that stability is the product of the interaction of the species in a community (Pimm 1991:673).  Species interactions form what is known as a food web (Pimm 1991:669).  Although complex and difficult to delineate, food webs are a common feature of all ecosystems with common properties (Pimm 1991:669-72).  Webs seem to create community level properties resulting from the interaction of species that can act as a deterrent to invaders.  Ecological communities composed of many strongly interacting species, like tropical forests, exhibit community level properties that seem to limit the possibilities for potential invaders (Case 1990:9610).  As a result, mature relatively intact ecosystems are tough to penetrate. The key to this dynamic is whether the ecosystem is mature and intact when a new species arrives.  Not only can mature communities repel low levels of invaders, but they also provide safe havens for species that ecologists describe as inferior competitors.  Research indicates that inferior competitors are capable of resisting invaders when the inferior species is securely lodged in an intact community (Leakey 1995:162).

To scientists of the non-equilibrium school, recovery from disturbance – not equilibrium – is the normal state of affairs in any ecosystem (Reice 1994:427).  Every ecosystem is in varying degrees of recovery from a disturbance.  The eventual structure of any ecological community is determined by its response to continual disturbance.  However, as long as disturbances occur frequently enough to prevent the competitive exclusion of poorer competitors, but do not devastate the ecosystem, they serve to enhance biological diversity.  These less competitive species can continue to survive along with more efficient species (Reice 1994:428). The “noise” often seen in graphic representations of populations is not an inconsequential deviation from equilibrium, but a reaction to constant internal and external disturbance.  Dynamic growth and shrinkage is the nature of existence for populations reacting to disturbance.  The net result for ecosystems experiencing intermediate scale disturbance is relative species richness because competition is buffered by the removal of both efficient and inefficient competitors by disturbance (Reice 1994:428).

Tropical Rainforests

Why then are the tropical forests home to such tremendous diversity? These regions are characterized by their stability.  Temperature and rainfall are much more predictable in the tropics than in the temperate regions. These forests contain tremendous species diversity, the majority of which have narrow ecological niches.  This diversity and web of connections were seen as evidence of a system that had achieved equilibrium.  If biodiversity is the product of disturbance, how did such outwardly stable environments become a “major source of evolutionary novelty” (Jablonski 1993:142)?

The answer to this question seems to be that in the case of tropical rain forests, appearances are deceiving.  Researchers in the Amazon basin are finding these forests more heterogeneous and prone to disturbance than had previously been reported (Whitmore 1990).  These forests are also subject to global disturbances that have produced planetary warming and cooling of the earlier glacial cycles. During earlier ice ages, both Amazonia and African rainforests contracted into isolated remnants (Whitmore 1990:94).  In fact, evidence emerging from Amazonia indicates that this ecosystem underwent Milankovitch cycle induced climate change throughout the last sixty-five million years (Kricher 1997:119). These climate changes have alternately expanded and contracted the rainforest we now associate with Amazonia.  Likewise, Amazonian bird distributions indicate that at least nine major islands of tropical forest refuges survived the driest, coolest periods of the Pleistocene (Kricher 1997).  As the glaciers retreated and rainfall increased, these island refuges expanded until these “islands” were reunited. This process of growth, retreat and fragmentation that has been recorded for the Amazonian rainforest has been equated with the biodiversity-enhancing effect of bringing the islands of the Galapagos together and again separating them over a millennia (Western 1997:202).  Each time the islands collide after a prolonged isolation, some species would become extinct.  However, the isolation, competition and re-colonization have the net effect of species enrichment (Western 1997:203).

Although seemingly uniform when seen from the air, tropical forest habitats are also heterogeneous with respect to their potential to harbor species because of differences in the physical environments found within them (Reice 1994:427). Differences in altitude and soil composition can produce different environments beneath a green canopy.  Canopy heights are not uniform.  The epiphytes, lianas and flowering and fruiting plants present different feeding opportunities for arthropods, reptiles and birds.  In short, the structural complexity of the vegetation within these forests creates a greater number of niches than found in temperate counterparts (Terborgh 1992:59).

In New Guinea, the composition of avian communities provides a good illustration of the ability of vegetative structural complexity to accommodate biological diversity.  Five factors have been identified that allow ecologically similar species of birds in New Guinea to partition the same habitat: body size, foraging level in the vegetation, foraging technique, diet and season of peak activity (Diamond 1973).  Size differences between birds are often a factor when they are competing for the same resource.  For example, fruit bearing trees can have several species of birds foraging simultaneously.  The large birds will eat the larger fruit, while the smaller birds will then forage the smaller limbs that cannot support the larger competitors (Diamond 1973).  Similar examples of partitioning a habitat by size have been found among kingfishers and lories (Beehler 1982:857).  Insectivorous birds often divide the forest vertically, foraging at different levels of the forest.  Beehler cites reports of four species of fantails and three species of whistlers segregating themselves to forage in the upper canopy, open under story, and lower thickets — all within the same patch of forest (Beehler 1982:857).  In a similar fashion, phylogenetically similar birds have been observed partitioning habitats by varying their diet, occupying the same area at different times and employing different foraging strategies within the same habitat (Beehler 1982:858).

Yet, these same highly connected ecosystems, such as tropical rainforests, are also the most sensitive to species loss.  If the disturbance is of sufficient magnitude, the connections between organisms can fray and secondary extinctions will occur (Pimm 1991:673).  Likewise, if a “keystone species,” i.e. a species whose removal has a disproportionate effect on a food web is removed; the existing web can collapse (Pimm 1991:674).  On the other hand, in simple communities where members are dependent on a few organisms for food, the loss of a single plant species can be catastrophic (Pimm 1991:674). The scale of the disturbance is relative to the effected community and the determinant as to whether disturbance spawns or destroys biological diversity.

Recasting The Relationship Between Traditional Societies And Biodiversity

In spite of the evidence to the contrary, the notion that contemporary traditional societies have learned to live in balance with their environment continues to be attractive.  Some anthropologists may see this claim as a way to champion their people (Kottak 1993; Maybury-Lewis 1992).  Others hope that by supporting indigenous land claims, they may be able to stem the tide of environmental degradation and preserve what is left of our natural heritage (Clay 1990; Shiva and Bandyopadhay 1990; Nations 1990; Taylor 1990).  Both conservationists and indigenous rights activists have been quick to seize upon their “convergent interests” (Clay 1990).  The journal Cultural Survival has dedicated an entire volume to the possibilities of conservation through the exercise of the traditional lifestyles of indigenous peoples (Cultural Survival 1985).  With the exception of Redford and Robinson, none of the authors in this volume indicate that there may be a conflict between the goals of tribal hunters and conservationists (Redford and Robinson 1985). Since the fate of much of the earth’s remaining cultural and natural heritage is at stake, the focus of the “primitive conservationist” debate has begun to move beyond assertion to recording the actual behavior of tribal societies and their specific mechanisms for regulating interactions with their environment (see Redford and Padoch 1992; West and Brechin 1991; Morautta 1982; Klee 1980).  This research has underlined the fact that western science still knows very little either about the environment that it is being asked to conserve or about how traditional societies interact with their environment.

The apparent the compatibility of traditional land management practices with biological diversity has spawned interest in understanding these management systems (Barrett et. al. 2001) , collecting TK (Ludwig et. al.2001) and potentially using traditional land management practices as a templates for biodiversity conservation (Posey 1988 ) While cross-cultural comparison can be difficult, by concentrating on behavior, analysts have developed several themes.  First, traditional societies are storehouses of information concerning their environment.  The depth of their knowledge often surpasses that currently held by western science (Posey 1992, 1985, 1984).  This knowledge can provide insights important to the success of any conservation program (Altierri 1992; Drijver 1992; Eaton 1992; Johnson 1992; Kula 1992; LeBlanc 1992; Lees 1992; Posey 1992,1985; Brokensha et.al.1980).  Second, traditional societies do not passively blend with their environment.  They shape it through their lifestyles (Hudson 1989; Dove 1984; Ellen 1982; Hamilton 1982; Lewis 1982; Harris 1980).  Such interaction can have significant (although not necessarily catastrophic) effects and produce a “spatiotemporal mosaic of negative impacts, harmony, temporary balance and imbalance” (Simms 1992:186). Shaping the environment can go beyond clearing forests, burning grasslands or selective hunting.  Some societies have developed sophisticated agroforestry techniques that they use to shape the forest to their needs (Altierri 1993; Posey 1992, 1990, 1984; Gomez-Pompa 1990, 1989, 1987; Clarke 1971).

Yet the underlying assumption of much of the research into the relationship between traditional societies and their environment has been that non-western societies have learned to minimize their impact and not disturb the balance of nature.  However, if ecosystems are rarely in a state of equilibrium and greater species diversity is found in systems that experience disturbance, there is no sense in searching for clues to man’s ability to balance a system that has no inherent tendency toward balance.  Instead traditional activities should be examined as possible sources of disturbance.  The diversity enhancing effects of disturbance are related both to the scale of the disturbance and the species in question.  A minor change in conditions, such as a drop in soil fertility, a change in forest composition or rainfall patterns, can be so slight as to not initiate a response from humans.  Such changes can represent a disturbance of sufficient magnitude to theoretically send the ecosystem spiraling off in a new and unpredictable direction. Traditional activities that at one time were sustainable and produced an increase in the number of species could, under slightly different conditions, diminish biodiversity.  It is therefore understandable that traditional societies could both promote biodiversity and cause extinctions using the same traditional activities under varying conditions.  We now have plenty of evidence that preindustrial societies are capable of pushing their environments past the point of no return using traditional techniques

Once again our attempts to conserve the forests of Amazonia have provided fresh insights into the relationship between traditional societies and biodiversity. Although Amazonia is often described as wilderness, these lands are no longer viewed as pristine. Instead, the Amazonian landscape has been described as a tribute to the “immense transformative power of prehistoric humans,” best understood as an old fallow rather than pristine forest (BalÈe1995; Graham 1998).  Societies, both present and prehistoric, have manipulated these forests, intensely managing their lands produce a mosaic of habitats (Possey 1985; Johnson 1989; BalÈe 1994). They create and then manage the various vegetative zones using techniques that go beyond clearing and burning (BalÈe and Gely 1989; Anderson and Posey 1989). While the biological diversity of any plot may initially plummet as it the land is cleared for gardens, this decline in diversity is not necessarily permanent and in many cases will eventually be part of a mosaic with greater diversity than the original landscape (BalÈe1998). 

The issue here is one of intent (Parker 1992) The realization that indigenous societies were actively shaping Amazonia and that their traditional lives could be compatible with biological diversity opened the possibility of cooperation between two groups that might seem to be natural allies –conservationists and indigenous people (Nabhan 2001). This in turn led to the suggestion that traditional life might serve as a template for the conservation of Amazonia (Posey 1984). All of this speculation has been fueled by the underlying assumption that traditional societies, through their long association with the land, have learned to minimize their impact on the land (Smith  1985).  Yet once it became apparent that their work was being cited as evidence that traditional societies had been conserving biodiversity, historical ecologists were quick point out that such assumptions might be faulty (Sillitoe 1996).  In general, traditional systems seem to be incapable of conserving game (Redford 1991). Although traditional forest manipulation must be incorporated in modern forest management, one cannot assume that these management practices will be compatible with conservation (Posey and BalÈe 1989). The non-critical acceptance of the compatibility of traditional life with conservation, combined with the importance of local involvement in conservation, may have blinded advocates to the realities of traditional life. These realities– that biodiversity is the result of small scale disturbance by indigenous people shaping the landscape to their needs and not the product of a cultural balancing act aimed at producing ecosystem stability — has in my opinion doomed many conservation programs.

The circumstances of the remaining preindustrial societies opens any study to charges that either the people in question have not had the time to adjust to their new circumstances or that the findings are applicable only to the subjects of the study (Hames 1991).  Yet as forests continue to disappear, there has been a backlash among some observers who can usually be counted on as advocates for indigenous peoples. Prominent conservationists are openly questioning the compatibility of indigenous societies with conservation (Soule  2000). . Others have pointed to the discrepancy between the western perception of a traditional conservation ethic and reality (Salim et. al. 2001); questioned with the usefulness of tradition in the face of global change (du Toit et. al. 2004; Terborgh 2001); and questioned the unworkable assumptions concerning local participation in the face of national laws that negate local input in the conservation process (Pierce and Wadley 2001). Yet biocultural diversity  –the continued coexistence of traditional cultures with biological diversity (Maffi 2001), has forced conservationists to reconsider our notions concerning the nature of wilderness (Mittemeyer et. al. 2003). By factoring disturbance into the relationship between tradition and biodiversity, we are moving beyond the stereotypes, unraveling the evidence of humanity’s role in both historic and prehistoric extinctions and painting a more nuanced picture of the relationship of traditional societies to biological diversity. (Diamond 1986; Denevan 1992). 




With forests that are the largest and most diverse in the Pacific, the island of New Guinea is one of the world’s most significant centers of biodiversity  (Meyers et. al. 2000).  Although large areas of this island can be described as wilderness, they are the property of indigenous landowners (Robles Gil 2002). The nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG) occupies the eastern half of this island. Because the rights of traditional landowners here enjoy constitutional protection, the removal of landowners in PNG to create a western-style park is not an option.  PNG does however present an opportunity for indigenous people to participate in the conservation of their lands. In PNG local landowners are expected to request that the government generate conservation plans for their homelands (Firth & Beehler 1998).  With few resources dedicated to conservation, the government is committed to using indigenous knowledge to conserve this nation’s biological inheritance (Swartzendruber 1993). Since many of the most important regions remain unexplored by western scientists, this is an ideal setting for examining the role that traditional knowledge (TK) might play in conservation planning.

In 1993, a nation-wide Conservation Needs Assessment (CNA) identified the Hewa territory on the western edge of New Guinea’s Central Range as a conservation priority for PNG (Swartzendruber 1993). These forested slopes are the catchment of the headwaters of the Strickland River, which is part of PNG’s largest watershed, the Strickland/Fly River complex,. It has been identified as one of PNG’s “major terrestrial unknowns” (Swartzendruber1993).  In spite of its value to conservationists, the Hewa territory currently has no formal conservation status and there have been no previous biological studies of these forests. (Swartzendruber1993).

The term “Hewa” refers to a group of shifting cultivators who inhabit the forests of the northern fringes of Papua New Guinea’s Central Range. This region is located on the eastern verges of the ‘Great Rivers Headwaters,’ a rain-soaked upland zone in the center of New Guinea that recent analyses have identified as the richest in biodiversity in this island. (Beehler 1993). This Headwaters region is where the four great river systems of New Guinea converge (Sepik, Fly, Digul, Idenburg). The Strickland is the major tributary of the Fly and the Hewa inhabit the forests where the Strickland meets the torrential Laigaip River. Within PNG, this region of the Central Range has been identified as a ‘major terrestrial unknown,’ and a conservation priority (Swartzendruber 1993). 

This study focused on the Hewa territory bordered by the Laigaip River on the north, the Strickland River on the west and the Pori River on the east (142 30’E, 5 10’ S; elevation 500-3000 meters). They number fewer than 2,000 people and inhabit roughly ca. 65,000 hectares of hilly and sub montane forest in the uppermost Strickland River. A wall of limestone cliffs that rise abruptly to over 2300 meters in the south effectively separates the Hewa from the Duna, Paella and Ipili cultures. The slopes of these mountains are steep and dominated by stands of Araucaria (members of a family of trees resembling pines), Castanopsis acuminatissima and true oaks, Lithocarpus (Johns 1982:321). There are extensive and possibly anthropogenic grassland to be found along the western edge of this territory along the Strickland River gorge (Beehler 1986:19).

Unlike their highland neighbors, the Hewa do not occupy fertile valleys and are instead scattered throughout the mountains.  Although an airstrip was constructed in the 1990’s, no roads connect this area to PNG’s highlands. Their rugged environment and low density settlement pattern has discouraged road building and today.This  makes it difficult to provide government services. Without variable access to medicine, infant mortality and life expectancy approach pre-contact rates (Gillett 1991:22). In addition, the Hewa do not grow coffee or significantly participate in the modern cash economy. They remain subsistence-oriented horticulturists and traditional environmental knowledge (TK) is still an important aspect of their culture. These circumstances make the Hewa a good opportunity to explore the relationship between traditional lifestyles and the conservation of biological diversity in New Guinea.. The old garden/old garden true distinction described their perception of the differences between secondary forest growth that was younger than twenty years (old garden) and secondary growth with more than twenty years (old garden true). The information obtained in interviews was then checked against four months of field surveys.

The microclimate associated with altitude and terrain effectively confines Hewa horticulture between the altitudes of 500m at the riverbank and the base of the mountain wall at 1500m., with the majority of these gardens below 1000m. The Hewa raise their gardens, relying primarily on sweet potato agwe (Ipomoea batatas), yams (Dioscorea sp.), banana Kan (Musa sp.) and to a lesser degree cassava (Manihot esculenta) and pumpkin (Cucurbita maxima) as food crops.  Scattered throughout the area are several species of Pandanus Ogal and Pangium edule trees that the Hewa claim individually.  The seasonal ripening of these trees, as well as gathering other wild foods and hunting, provides the Hewa with some sustenance. However gardens are the primary source of food.  Each year the typical household clears and plants an average of four 100m2 gardens. This gardening cycle is the most important factor in shaping this environment. In fact, the patchwork the Hewa create of new gardens Agwe , grasslands Poghali, successional Agwe yalim and primary forest No Makal increases the number of environments and hence one measure of the biodiversity of this territory. At the present scale of forest transformation, the Hewa are actually a positive force for biological diversity.

New Guinea is known for its spectacular array of birds, with approximately 740 species of birds found in PNG (Coates 1985:22).  In addition to their individual habitat and niche preferences within each habitat, New Guinea’s birds are distributed along an altitudinal gradient.  Lowland and mountain communities below 1500m.are the richest bird communities, with an average of 150 species (Beehler et. al. 1986).  Such avian diversity is second only to sites in western Amazonia, where local lists commonly exceed 350 species (Beehler et. al.1986: 27). While there may be fewer species of birds, New Guinea is richer in avian frugivores, nectar-eaters and ground dwelling forest birds, with roughly twice as many as a comparable Amazonian lowland forest community (Beehler et. al. 1986:28).  This disparity is due in part to geography. Because New Guinea‘s birds fill many of the roles taken by mammals on the western side of Wallace’s line, there has been an extraordinary radiation of species of birds to fill the niches.  These fruit and pollen eaters are essential players in the dispersal of seeds and pollen in the forest.  The interaction of the Hewa with these birds is, therefore, an essential part of forest dynamics and an important consideration in developing a conservation strategy for this area.

In exploring the role that the Hewa play in shaping this landscape, I wanted to produce a study that would facilitate communication between the Hewa and those interested in conserving their lands. Although this study, like all ethno-biological studies, had to deal with the cultural gaps created by the vernacular and the genus species system of western science (Berkes and Folke 1998; Diamond and Bishop 1999; Sillitoe 2000), I, like others, believe that TK is poised to assume a pre-eminent role in applied anthropology, but that in order to assume this role we must produce data that goes beyond the typical species inventory (Sillitoe 1998; Nabhan 2000 ). In this study, I hope to use TK to portray the relationship between tradition and biological diversity in a manner that will be intelligible to both the Hewa and the conservationist by examining the impact of traditional activities on birds. Since birds are an accepted indicator of ecosystem diversity, I believe that by presenting the Hewa TK of each bird’s habitat preference, I can portray the dynamics of human-forest interaction in a manner that is mutually intelligible to both indigenous people and outsiders (Azevedo-Ramos, De Carvalho and Nasi 2002).

Birds are the primary agents of seed dispersal in New Guinea’s forests. As such, avian conservation in New Guinea has long been recognized as vital to forest conservation (Schodde 1973). The Hewa have an extensive knowledge of local birds, understanding that both avian diversity and soil fertility are linked to the age of  the forest, i.e. older primary forest is more biologically diverse and contains soils that are more fertile. It is this dynamic — the need to cut the forest to establish gardens, the importance of secondary forest to soil fertility and the effect of gardening on avian diversity — that has the greatest implications for the conservation of biodiversity. The Hewa knowledge of this dynamic provides an important opportunity for traditional knowledge to contribute to the conservation of both cultural and natural resources, by unraveling the relationship between tradition and biodiversity.

The Study

Using a combination of structured interviews, transects, and station surveys, the Hewa traditional knowledge concerning the birds was recorded. Working with the field guide, Birds of New Guinea (Beehler 1986 et.al.) each was informant was asked to identify the birds to be found in their territory, as well as the altitude and habitat each bird favored. Habitats were broadly defined using the indigenous categories for garden, grassland, old garden, old garden “true” and primary forest. The old garden/old garden true distinction described their perception of the differences between the bird life to be found in secondary forest growth that was younger than 20 years (old garden) and secondary growth with more than 20 years (old garden true). Later, during the vegetation transects (see below), informants were asked to identify the not only the plants but the birds that fed on the flowers and fruit of each tree. Habitats were broadly defined using the indigenous categories for garden Agwe, grassland Poghali, old garden Agwe Teli, old garden ‘true’ Agwe Teli Popi and primary forest No Makale.

In order to check the information obtained in these interviews, I surveyed the vegetation in six plots of 20+ years of secondary growth to determine the existence of foodstuffs that might attract bird species not predicted by my informants to be found in such habitats. The age of each plot was determined relative to 1975, the date of PNG’s independence, and a benchmark date that all informants could remember. I chose the six plots because that gave me two samples within each of the three altitudinal zones described by the Hewa. Plant censuses were conducted along the paths by counting species of trees that were at least ten centimeters dbh (diameter at breast height), four meters on either side of the path. This procedure follows protocols described in Beehler 1987 et. al., Blankenspoor 1991 and Bernstein 1995. Plant specialists at the University of Papua New Guinea identified each of the trees using leaf samples.  

My informants and I also conducted transect bird counts along two fixed routes on forest paths from 700 to 1250 meters above sea level by establishing ten stations along 50 meter altitudinal intervals and recording the birds either seen or heard at each station during three minute stops. Transects were conducted from 0700 to 1100 hours, six days per week from September 1996 through January 1997. Each route followed a ridge that threaded in and out of primary and long fallow secondary forest. This protocol was adopted from Beehler 1987 et. al.. Both the transects and vegetation surveys confirmed the information obtained during the structured interviews concerning the effects of habitat disturbance on avian diversity.


Like western ornithologists, the Hewa associate each species of bird with altitude and habitat. Informants indicate that some of the species are associated exclusively with primary forest and that others can make use of only of the Hewa conception of the oldest secondary forest growth, i.e. forest that has been growing for 20 or more years. Experience has taught the Hewa that cutting the forest will eliminate 61 species that tradition holds can only live in primary forest, or the roughly 34 percent of the birds. The effect of gardening on particular species should be of interest to conservationists. According to the Hewa, their gardens create an environment that is hostile to the fruit-doves (Ptilinopus sp.) and some species of lorikeets (Charmosyna sp.), species that are vital to forest regeneration. Human disturbance also creates environments that are especially hostile to many species that are identified exclusively with New Guinea. The vulturine parrot, pheasant pigeon, blue-collared parrot, brush turkey, hornbill, flame bowerbird and purple-tailed imperial pigeon are just a few of the species that the Hewa say will find succession growth incompatible with their needs. Finally, according to the Hewa, frugivores are rare in gardens and secondary growth that is younger than 20 years.

Traditional knowledge can also yield fine-grained data concerning the impact of human activity on biodiversity. For example, the Hewa predict that birds such as the Dwarf cassowary (Casuarius bennetti) and Zoe Imperial Pigeon (Ducula zoeae) can be found only in primary forest and secondary growth of 20 years or more. More importantly for those interested in the marriage of conservation and sustainable development, shortening the fallow period for the Hewa gardens is predicted to produce an environment that will be inhospitable to another 45 species. Those birds can only make use of primary forest and the secondary growth that is older than 25 years.

The Hewa actually increase the biodiversity of their lands when they cut gardens.  By felling the forest, they create a mosaic of primary forest, secondary forest, grasslands, gardens and the various phases of succession growth (gamma diversity).  They also create habitats for organisms that cannot survive in the primary forest (alpha diversity).  For example the birds in Table 1 inhabit the grasslands and successional communities created by the Hewa.  Therefore, by cutting a garden in the forest, it is possible for the Hewa to increase two measures of biodiversity (alpha and gamma), while creating areas that are lower in biodiversity (beta) than the surrounding forest.


In Collapse, Jared Diamond  summarizes the situation perfectly:

Past people were neither ignorant bad managers who deserved to be exterminated or disposed, nor all-knowing conscientious environmental stewards who solved problems that we can’t solve today. They were people like us, facing problems broadly similar to those that we now face (Diamond 2005).

Diamond cites five factors that he believes provides a comprehensive framework for understanding the ecological failures of societies — inadvertent environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, decreased support of friendly neighbors and the respective societies’ response to the problems (Diamond 2005). 

While I agree with his analysis, I want to take it one step further. In my opinion, humanity’s ability to either steward or destroy biodiversity ultimately hinges on an underlying mathematical reality that until recently we had neither the historical perspective nor the scientific tools to appreciate. All humans have been faced with a non-linear world, full of linkages and limits that remain beyond our full comprehension. This is a world in which the disturbance we cause has the potential to both increase and eliminate biodiversity. Since our lives are so short and our understanding of our relationship to the natural world so culture bound, the loss of diversity was until recently chalked up to progress and those societies that had escaped the simplification of their environs were glorified as wiser, yet poorer, more prudent stewards of their environment. In spite of the popular notion of the primitive conservationists, today we know that the seeds to a more biologically diverse world, as well as our destruction have been sown long before these cultures came on the scene.

To me this is clearly an instance where social science has not kept pace with ecology (Smith 1985). For reasons ranging from ignorance to a desire to champion the cultures that they have worked with, social scientists have been slow to recognize that human disturbance is one of many naturally occurring phenomena that can enhance biological diversity (Smith & Wishnie 2000). Scientifically, the Hewan traditional knowledge of the reactions of birds to forest disturbance aligns them both theoretically and practically with the scientific community. Rather than portraying themselves as capable of balancing their needs with the needs of the other organisms in their environment, the Hewa describe traditional activities as a source of disturbance. This human generated landscape contains more organisms (greater alpha diversity) and more habitats (gamma diversity) than an unaltered landscape. However, a comparison of the biodiversity found within each of the succession regimes created by gardening (beta diversity), shows that each stage of forest regeneration is less diverse than the primary forest.  Fallow gardens are environments that are not used by most of the fruit and nectar eating birds this forest depends on for regeneration.

Moreover, because my informants provided information on the effects of forest disturbance on avian diversity that is similar to conventional studies conducted by researchers working in other regions of the world, they are not some outlier but part of an emerging body of literature concerning disturbance and biodiversity. For instance, studies in forests ranging from Africa (Gabon) to South America (Peru) also indicate that disturbed areas and secondary forests harbor fewer species of birds than primary forests in the same locations (Terbourgh & Weske 1969; Brosset 1986; Blankenspor 1991). More recent studies have found that not only does the primary forest support more species of birds, but also more specialist species than secondary growth (Harris & Pimm 2004). The Hewa knowledge of the disturbance dynamic provides an important insight into the ability of traditional societies to use the environment without compromising the biological diversity.

A forest containing the type of small-scale gardening currently practiced by the Hewa is a mosaic of many types of biological communities. The combination of gardens, grasslands, the various stages of forest re-growth and primary forest are more biologically diverse than the climax forest alone. The Hewa are better adapted to take advantage of the succession stages of forest growth produced by disturbance. Their knowledge of this dynamic provides an important insight into the ability of indigenous man to use the environment without compromising the biological diversity. As one might expect of a small, mobile society with a surplus of land, the Hewa have developed few cultural mechanisms to limit habitat disturbance.  At some point that neither the Hewa nor western science have determined, the scale of this disturbance will mean that the Hewa will cease to be a force for the biological diversification of their land. Instead, the scale of human disturbance will be of a magnitude wherein the Hewa will have begun to simplify their environment. Similar population changes have produced anthropogenic grasslands throughout New Guinea and the tropics (Smith and Wishnie 2000). Much of this environmental simplification was accomplished before the arrival of Europeans and under the traditional rules of land tenure.  

Regardless of one’s ancestry, the Hewa are an example of the type of small, mobile society that pre-dated the larger more complex societies of today. They provide a glimpse of the road to extinctions and the environmental simplification that presumably followed an increase in population or permanent settlements for all societies. They also embody a past when human populations and their activities led to a planet clothed in a biologically diverse mosaic. Currently they are neither willing stewards nor destroyers of their biological inheritance. They are merely another force in shaping this landscape. Their willingness to share their knowledge and help us to understand the role of traditional activities in fostering biodiversity may enable us to conserve our biocultural heritage along with our remaining wild lands. 



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