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Getting into the spirit of ecology.

History shows that indigenous Indian cultures generally have had the best record of developing sustainable agriculture while conserving fragile tropical soils. But translating their recipes for success into something others can adopt often takes more than skilled linguists, according to Darrell A. Posey of the Universidade Federal do Maranhao in Sao Luis, Brazil. His decade-long study of the Kayapo in Brazil's Amazon Basin indicates that "they use language differently than we do,c because their "science" is not objectively divorced from spiritualism. To understand their agriculture and ecology, he says, one must first understand the function of their spirits.

Like the Mryka ak. This creature, believed to inhabit rivers, lakes and streams, is known as the guardian of small fish. The Kayapo describe the beast, seen only by village shamans, as resembling a gigantic electric eel. Posey says it's not the beast's size that garners unchallenged respect so much as its reported ability to "zap and kill at a distance of 1 kilometer."

Ecologically, belief in the beast functions as a means of protecting spawning grounds and fish hatcheries, Posey says. Moreover, since Mryka ak is also held responsible for eroding riverbanks and changing the course of rivers, Posey says it may "function as a concept of geological change." Conceding he doesn't know what Mryka ak is, he says he understands why people respect it.

A second mythical creature, known as Bepkororoti, is described as the spirit of a shaman that lives in the sky. Killed long ago in a fight over the division of meat from a tapir, Bepkororotiis said to be able to return to earth and send lightning storms or disease to punish those who do not share. Since sharing is essential to the survival of a communal, agrarian society, Posey says Bepkororoti serves an important function. And the portions of honey and combs left out in old beehives to placate the sweet-toothed spirit allow many of the local stingless bees to recolonize their hives the following season.

This indigenous people's successful farming of poor forest soils relies on a complex web of interrelated practices--many of which might not, at first glance, appear "agricultural," Posey says. To identify the spiritual practices and social factors that function ecologically, Posey has set up a multidisciplinary Laboratory for Ethnobiology in Gorotire, the largest of the northern Kayapo villages.
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Title Annotation:agriculture of Brazil's Indians has spiritual basis
Author:Raloff, Janet
Publication:Science News
Date:Jan 4, 1986
Words:388
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