Giving a microphone to the world’s most remote people

February 23, 2014 at 1:01 PM EDT
How can the modern study of global change benefit from ancient knowledge? Special correspondent John Larson reports on the new ways indigenous communities around the world are connecting with one another to share observations and sustain their native cultures.

JOHN LARSON: You’re aboard a motorized canoe traveling the headwaters of the Amazon – on the Urabamba River, of Peru. Now, you travel the Giraffe River, a tributary of the White Nile in South Sudan.

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And now? You are navigating the Stewart of Canada, a tributary of the longest, free flowing river on earth: the Yukon, of North America.

JOHN LARSON: All of the these are among the most remote rivers in the world, and the indigenous people who live along them are being connected, at least in part, by one man.

JON WATERHOUSE: “We had a couple of canoes and we were going to go down the river, and talk to people in every village along the way.”

JOHN LARSON: Back in 2007, Jon Waterhouse, a tribal leader and environmentalist who’s spent the past 20 years in Alaska, was asked to write a report about the Yukon River. the plan was to take a canoe trip, and interview villagers who depend on the river for their survival.

JON WATERHOUSE: “Three weeks before we left I sat down with everybody and said this isn’t going to work. And they said, ‘what do you mean,’ and I said, ‘Nobody else on the whole planet is going to care. It’s just too Kumbayah. People are going to think its a bunch of hippies going down the river.’ So I said, ‘We’ve got to add in modern science’.”

JOHN LARSON: What happened next would play an important role helping define tribal rights along the Yukon, and connect river people around the world. The group brought sophisticated water quality testing instruments – tagging precise locations in the river.

JOHN LARSON: “You were dragging a probe out the back of a canoe?”

JON WATERHOUSE: “Yeah” (laughing)

JOHN LARSON: “Just like your great ancestors. And that probe was to test for what?”

JON WATERHOUSE: “Thirteen different parameters.”

(Sound of Tribal drumming)

JOHN LARSON: Waterhouse’s river trips became yearly events dubbed, “Healing Journey’s” – supported by the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council – the largest international organization of indigenous people in the world. The Yukon Watershed is immense, stretching 2000 miles from Canada to Alaska, an area almost twice the size of California, and rich in natural resources. And while it is pristine by much of the world’s standards, the river is not nearly clean as you might think. Mining operations have polluted the river for decades. Villages are littered with hazardous waste. The US military discarded 100’s of thousands of fuel drums on the banks of the river. And all while, the Yukon Salmon run, which had nourished tribal people here for for thousands of years, began collapsing.

ELLI MATKIN: (YRITWC Science Technician) “But what a lot of our measurements have been, is to get an idea of what is normal for the Yukon River.”

JOHN LARSON: Waterhouse’s team helped train Yukon River villagers to conduct sophisticated water sampling, and each year these remote villagers sent their growing data base off to federal scientists. Ryan Toohey is an environmental hydrologist for US Geological Survey.

RYAN TOOHEY: “On the whole, it was really impressive how good the data was… and these are folks that literally live two days from any road system that are doing this.”

JOHN LARSON: Tribal leaders from around the world began coming to the Yukon for Tribal meetings, and inviting Jon Waterhouse to travel to their own, remote rivers. First, he visited the Lena River in Siberia – home of the Yakut and Navink peoples. And then,

(Sound of river and birds)

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JOHN LARSON: …to the Urabamba River in Peru. The Machiguenga people here were facing some of the same problems the tribes along the Yukon had faced.

JON WATERHOUSE: “They know that there’s something wrong with the fish in the main stem of the Urabmaba river. They would like to understand what the cause of that is.”

JOHN LARSON: Like the Yukon, the Urabamba is also threatened. The area, rich in oil, gas and natural resources, has suffered pipeline breaks, and toxic spills from gold mines . So last year, Waterhouse brought the his testing equipment. His team is now teaching the Machengua in the village of Timpia to gather information on the river

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FELIPE SEMPEN FERNANDEZ: “Many companies have been coming in and polluting. They say they don’t, but they are.”

JOHN LARSON: Machiguenga leaders hope, that with Waterhouse’s help, they can gather scientific evidence that might help them keep the river clean.

FELIPE SEMPEN FERNANDEZ: “They can show us… how to face these companies and the timber industry that have invaded our lands and resources.”

JOHN LARSON: Back on the Yukon, Tribal Leaders last year did just that. They used their years of water quality testing to create a detailed Yukon Watershed plan. The plan included a disarmingly simple vision: “…To be able to drink water directly from the Yukon River,” something no longer possible in many places along the river.

JOHN WATERHOUSE: “Our responsibility now is to capture those water rights. We have talked to the federal governments and put them on notice, this was at the direction of our leadership, that we expect government to government consultation.”

JOHN LARSON: The plan put Canadian and US governments, City landfill, sewage and power authoritIes, as well as and oil, gas and mining companies – on notice.

JON WATERHOUSE: “One of my first phone calls was, ‘Just what the hell do you folks think you’re doing?’ I said, ‘We’re asserting our rights’.”

JOHN LARSON: “If i’m a gold miner that sounds like a threat. In other words, I can’t operate my mine and dump it into the river the way I used to.”

JON WATERHOUSE: “You can do whatever you want as long as you’re not infringing on our rights to clean water. And, maybe it is a threat, but dumping it into the river is a threat.”

JOHN LARSON: The United Nations, the US and Canadian governments have all stated that tribal people have legal rights involving clean water – rights which will likely be tested in courtrooms in coming years.

JOHN LARSON: “To what extent is this a David and Goliath story?”

JOHN LARSON: “Tens of thousands of Davids, starting to talk to each other?”

JON WATERHOUSE: “Well, When you put it that way, tens of thousands of Davids, that’s a pretty strong voice. Those tens of thousand of voices, they have been ignored, over the years, they’ve been disenfranchised. But as they’ve come together there’s been some realizations along the way. There’s a realization that it is their legal right to have clean water.”

JON WATERHOUSE; (Walking on beach) “We get requests from countries all the time.”

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JOHN LARSON: When I met Waterhouse and his wife photographer Mary Marshall in Alaska this winter, they had received a second grant from the National Science Foundation for what they call, “The Network of Indigenous Knowledge.” The Network will connect river people in Alaska and Canada with tribes in Siberia, Peru, and soon South Sudan, and Botswana – allowing them to share scientific information and cultural histories.

MARY MARSHALL: “There are so many voices, so many unheard voices in this world. There are indigenous people who live very far away from any city or place that we are familiar with. For them, to be found and recognized, and to be handed a microphone is just huge.”

CHRIS RAINIER: “And then, when its time to record you push the red button like this.”

JOHN LARSON: Chris Rainier, a National Geographic Explorer, has made a living documenting the lives of the world’s most remote people. As part of the Network, he’s now helping teach the Machiguenga how to gather and upload their stories.

CHRIS RAINIER: “So we’ve brought in computers, cameras video cameras to give them an opportunity to share the stories of the forest, of the river, fishing… to kind of create a connection, to Alaska, to many of the indigenous cultures around the world.”

JOHN LARSON: Machiguenga stories include this a Valley of Death, where they believe the Devil came to earth.

JOHN LARSON: And, this: the Pongo de Mainique – a six square mile preserve with more species of life than any other similar sized place on Earth. The Machiguenga believe this is birthplace of all life, and the gateway to the next world.

(Sound of prayers at the waterfalls)

JOHN LARSON: And this is where an important, additional element of Network of Indigenous Knowledge comes in. Scientists are becoming increasing receptive to what’s recognized as “Traditional Knowledge” – the extensive collection of environmental observations, and wisdom passed down among indigenous people. People who have lived in one environment, in many cases, for thousands of years.

RYAN TOOHEY: “There’s just a wealth of information in that indigenous knowledge that can help western scientists focus their research questions even more.”

(Sound of field researchers) “Alright, its connected.”

JOHN LARSON: Especially, as the world’s scientists attempt to understand the effects of climate change. For example, Yukon Tribes are now helping US scientists measure melting permafrost – the layer of underground ice that we used to believe was permanently frozen, but not anymore.

PAUL SCHUSTER (USGS): “In order to asses the effect the climate is having on the environment, we have to have long term data.”

JOHN LARSON: And its that idea – of the long term – how the modern study of global change could benefit from ancient knowledge. This year – Waterhouse will return to Siberia and Peru for the results of water quality tests, and to collect the gathered stories – helping some of the most remote people on earth talk with each other – about the health of the world’s rivers.