Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lessons from Kalam



Interests in traditional pharmacopoeia and medicinal practices of peoples in Latin America, Asia, Indian communities in North Americas and the Pacific were generated, largely due to the interests by pharmaceutical companies in discovering new drugs, spread of life threatening diseases, and the environmental concerns over large scale forest exploitation. Another approach is taken by linguists, anthropologists, and ethnobotanists in their research on biolinguistic diversity and cultural knowledge systems.

One of the most interesting research work carried out to transfer cultural knowledge from a Papua New Guinea language to a permanent form was the work done by late Ian Dr. Saem Majnep with the linguists Andrew Pawley. Their work was carried out among the Kalam people of Papua New Guinea. Dr. Majnep, from the Kalam society, had earlier worked with the anthropologist and ethnobiologist Ralph Bulmer. After Bulmer’s death Majnep collaborated later with others to document the cultural knowledge of the Kalam language group in Papua New Guinea.

Saem Majnep was fully aware of the changes around him. He realized the increasing pressure on the land, the conflicts that arise out of the social change in his society, and was quick to point out the difficult times the Kalam are going through in their history. The Kalam developed a deep knowledge of the forest and creatures that live there.

Majnep grew up on the edge of the forest, learning hunting and food gathering skills at an early age. This knowledge remained the basis of survival for the Kalam in the forest of Schrader Range since time memorial: “Much of their expertise was accumulated by the ancestors and handed on, but of course much of it was also gained by personal experience” (Majnep and Pawley 2001).

The case of Kalam is similar to many small Papua New Guinea language groups. Most of these communities are so isolated. They still live in their traditional lands where they cultivate their crops. They live off the land as their ancestors have done in the past. Many of these small communities are faced with the challenge to go with the younger generation who are attracted more to the modern ways than retaining the traditional knowledge and practices of the people.

The younger population move more freely in and out of their communities and the modern urban centres. Population increase, urban development, and increased social mobility are affecting the way of life for many people in our rural areas. Many of the older generations are finding it difficult to maintain their language and cultural knowledge.

With increased external influence and introduced developmental activities such as cattle ranging and modern road systems, the land is wasted and people are in constant conflict with each other. This according to Majnep is wrong. It has the potential of completely disabling the society. In his own words Majnep talked about ecological zones in Kalam:

“Now I would like to say something about how people in my area regard the landscape and wildlife of the Schrader Range. Our language has various terms of particular parts of the land and the forest, in which you will find certain kinds of plants but not others, and certain kinds of animals but not others. I suppose some of these terms refer to what ecologist would call “vegetation communities,” “ecological zones,” and “microenvironments.” I don’t fully understand some of these technical terms of English, but I want to stress that in thinking about the natural world Kalam pay close attention to all sorts of details about relationships between particular plants and animals and particular conditions of climate and soil and topography.”

Ian Saem Majnep
 “The reason we are interested in such details is because the gardens we plant, the wild plants we collect and the animals we hunt provide the essentials for our existence. It is vital for us to know where our crops will thrive, where wild plants that are important to us grow, which plants are found together, which plants are the food or sleeping places of which animals, how certain birds and other animals spread seeds, and so on,” Majnep said.

The knowledge of plants, animals, and land held by the Kalam is gradually disappearing as more and more of them move out from the villages to participate in the modern political, social, and economic activities in Papua New Guinea.

There is no guarantee that the Kalam will return to their old ways or to a past that is isolated from the rest of Papua New Guinea. At this present time more and more young people are flooding into towns and cities seeking education, employment and opportunities to improve their lives. It is difficult to persuade the younger generation to return to their villages and the traditional ways of life.

Many things have changed over the years, but many of the “traditional knowledge of the natural environment is still intact in my community because there are many people around who grew up in the old days and who continue to follow most of the old customs.” The pull factor of the modern world and life in Papua New Guinea has dramatically changed Seam Majnep’s people.

Most people no longer hunt or collect wood in the forest. People have moved closer to the modern road linking their village to the urban world. Schools and employment in the cash economy has forced their people out of the village society.

 “In order to pay for school fees for their children and high bride-prices for wives men must work hard at their gardens and also plant coffee and sell some of their livestock and quite a lot of young men go to work in the towns and on the coast. Some people buy radios and play cards instead of going hunting. This story is being repeated all over Papua New Guinea” (Majnep and Pawley 2001).

Majnep is right in saying that the same is happening all over Papua New Guinea. Dramatic change in many Papua New Guinean societies has displaced many people in various places outside of their traditional communities.

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