Preserving world's endangered cultures

The meeting took place in a stone amphitheater near the cliff dwelling where an Anasazi civilization had lived until 700 years ago, then mysteriously vanished.

There, almost 200 people from 32 nations discussed ways to preserve the world's cultural sites and the indigenous people whose life styles are endangered.

The threats to these valuable cultural areas range from acid rain to vandalism, from commercial development to agriculture and erosion. The effects of urbanization can be seen at the ancient Phoenician ruins at Carthage National Park near Tunis and at the ancient castle and villages along the Bosporus strait in Turkey. Poaching, tourism, and weather are taking a toll on the pre-Columbian Copan ruins in Honduras.

At the First World Conference on Cultural Parks, historians, archaeologists, anthropologists, and preservationists from five continents gathered at the invitation of the United States National Park Service to discuss how to increase the use of the sites by visitors without harming the resources.

There are about 120 nations that have national parks or other protected natural areas. Most of these countries now also protect sites of historical, prehistorical, archaeological, or cultural significance. The People's Republic of China (PRC), with its ancient heritage, has established 44 National Historic Scenic Spots and has 3,000 others under state and province supervision.

The interest in such sites has been stimulated by the World Heritage Convention, which 71 nations have signed. The convention, proposed by the US in 1972 and organized under the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, states that some areas are of such outstanding value to the world that their protection requires the attention of the international community.

In attending Colorado conference, the PRC overlooked its customary refusal to attend a meeting where the Republic of China (Taiwan) was represented. Other participants included Australia, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Scotland, Ecuador, Yugoslavia, and Thailand.

Despite such heightened interest in preserving national heritage, conflicting land-use issues and growing pressures for economic development are eroding preservation efforts. Mexico, for example, has many laws to protect historical and archaeological sites and natural areas. But Manuel Esparza, the country's representative to the conference, explained that ''national values do not support the protection of nonrenewable resources - not only natural resources, but also the material, cultural remains of the nation's indigenous people.''

Beyond concern for physical properties and parkland, representatives said the priority in many countries was to maintain the life styles of peoples in these parklands - people such as the Ju-wasi Bushmen of Namibia, who face having the only habitable portion of their homeland in the Kalahari Desert declared a game reserve.

This last semi-autonomous group of Namibian Bushmen will not be allowed to carry on subsistence farming because of complaints that it would hurt the environment. But Robert J. Gordon, a University of Vermont anthropologist who was born and raised in what is now Namibia, said no studies have been done to show whether the land and wildlife would actually be harmed.

In addition, the Namibian government plans to enhance the area's attractiveness to tourists, mostly from South Africa, Dr. Gordon said.

''If tourists wanted to see the wildlife, they would go to one of the established parks, which have far more and varied game,'' Gordon explained. ''In Bushmanland, the draw card will not be game, per say, but rather, 'wild' Bushmen of the variety packaged in South African movies.''

Another example of encroaching development comes from Panama. In the northeastern part of the nation, the 30,000 Kuna Yala Indians, who live in 38 communities on coral islands and in a dozen coastal settlements or along inland rivers, are threatened by colonization and deforestation on the borders of their reserve. Tribal leader Aurelio Chiari told how the autonomous Kuna people had for centuries conserved their forest lands, considering the primary forest habitat sacred.

The completion of the first road to cross the mountain divide to the coast (built through US development funds without assessment of the environmental or cultural impacts) will bring in settlers seeking to clear forests to start farms along the border of the Kuna reserve. He also complained about the impact of tourism: Cruise ships frequently send ashore more than 1,000 tourists at a time, who swarm into the small villages.

Brian Houseal, a Panama-based American who is assisting the Kunas, said the tribe is seeking establishment of a 148,000-acre Kuna Wildlands Reserve, to give the people a protected habitat. The autonomous Kunas want to manage their land as a biological reserve, he said.

Canada is taking steps to give native groups more of a say in matters that affect their life styles. Agreements have been made recently between Parks Canada and native people concerning four new national parks being established in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, said Tom Kovacs, an official of Parks Canada.

Natives will have exclusive rights to harvest wildlife by traditional tribal methods. They will be appointed to boards advising the government on park matters, will be given preferential employment and business consideration, and will be allowed to guide the course of development and tourism to ensure that their culture, values, and communities are not disrupted. At the same time, the natives have agreed to reconcile local interests with Canada's international obligations for preservation and to uphold the standards of national parks.

In Taiwan, the aboriginal Yami people of Orchid Island, 90 miles southeast of the main island, were relatively untouched by the modern world during their 50 years under Japanese control (until 1945); their island was protected as a cultural reserve. Living a subsistence life style in six coastal villages, they harvested taro and fashioned magnificent fishing boats that required a three-year building process.

Since the 1960s, the Yamis' traditional culture has eroded. The Republic of China provided them with public housing, built a harbor and primary schools, and allowed Taiwanese industry to construct two tourist hotels and introduce daily tourist flights from Taiwan, bringing 100,000 visitors a year. Only the older people remain in the traditional housing and maintain cultural traditions, as the younger Yamis leave for Taiwan to take low-paying jobs in service and construction industries. A government planner, Chang Lung-sheng, said efforts are now under way to preserve the traditional Yami life style by proclaiming Yami Island and the villages as a cultural reserve and historical site.

There is concern for native cultures in the United States, as well. Spokesmen for four American Indian tribes told of problems their traditional cultures have experienced: uncontrolled tourism; desecration of sacred sites; overgrazing of land; vandalism; poaching of animals; and strip mining and oil drilling, which harm the land they hold sacred.

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