The most famous example of the linguistic theory known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the multiple words Eskimos have for snow. Similarly, Micael Olsson uses the theory to provide insight into his research and collaborations with the Barai people of Papua New Guinea. The Barai have 30 different words for “yam”—one of their staple crops—but only one word for any piece of furniture with a flat surface (i.e., bed, chair, table, bench, desk, counter, and cupboard). To the Barai, who spend most of their time out of doors, “furniture is simply unimportant,” Olsson wrote in a paper on intercultural meeting styles. “The heart of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is that the language we hear continually from birth into adulthood deeply influences the ways we think and perceive, and that the ways we think and perceive deeply influence the ways we act. The Barai have complex ways of acting with respect to yams, but almost none with respect to flat-surfaced furniture.”
Olsson has spent more than 30 years immersed in the culture of the Barai and other tribes native to Papua New Guinea (PNG). As a doctoral student in theoretical linguistics in the late-’60s, Olsson was the first to translate the Barai’s oral language into print. In the mid-’80s, Olsson helped save the country’s coffee crop when he designed a literacy program to introduce concepts like coffee rust disease and pruning. Today, Olsson is working with the Barai and nine other tribal groups to develop “eco-enterprises” that will protect PNG’s rainforests from massive logging and, at the same time, raise the people’s standard of living. While helping the clans organize an agricultural cooperative, Olsson finds himself translating such abstract notions as “consensus building,” “sustainable development,” and “market pricing.”
An emphasis on language and literacy has been at the heart of Olsson’s evolution from academic researcher to community organizer and environmental activist. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis speaks to the tension at the center of these efforts: How can outsiders like Olsson and his partners lend their considerable expertise to the clans of PNG without interfering with their traditional culture? Olsson has developed a process, which he calls “learning for informed participation,” that is designed to elicit the consensus of indigenous people while incorporating information and counsel from outside experts.
Olsson’s approach serves as a contrast not only to international timber companies eager to mine PNG’s Managalas Plateau, but also to many environmental activists working to protect the region. “A number of outside environmental groups have come into PNG to speak for the groups of the Plateau and to speak against the government and industry,” says Olsson. “I try to do quite the opposite. We work to bring everyone together at the table—including government and industry representatives—and create consensus for moving forward. The clans are not against development, and they don’t mind being partners with outside companies. But they won’t let someone come in from the outside and dictate to them.”
Laying the groundwork for genuine informed participation is, in essence, a literacy challenge: “We work with marginally literate, multilingual people, and we try to engage everyone at their own level of literacy,” says Olsson. “The more literate a person is, the better able they are to form an opinion. And the more opinions you can bring to the discussion, the greater the collective knowledge.” Quoting Paulo Freire, Olsson speaks fervently of “literacy that matters. You teach literacy by focusing on hot topics, topics that matter to the daily lives of these people. There’s just no point addressing literacy without addressing issues of sustainable, economic development.”
In the mid-1980s, Olsson saw the perfect opportunity to address both when coffee rust disease threatened to wipe out PNG’s coffee crop. Olsson, working for the prime minister of PNG, was put in charge of teaching the country’s coffee managers and farmers how to fight the disease through pruning and limited pesticide use. “The pruning could increase production threefold, but it was a tough educational challenge because growers needed to start pruning before they could see the disease. How do you find language to explain the disease and why the pruning makes a difference? We organized literacy classes and created readers with simple computer graphics and a glossary of terms.”
The classes quickly proved more popular with preliterate people of all ages. “A lot of older people started turning up for our classes because they were about something that mattered to them: coffee. They were either going to lose all of their crop or they were going to produce twice as much,” Olsson explains. “That proved to be a potent vehicle for teaching people to read.”
Today, Olsson is using his literacy-based strategy in PNG for increasingly ambitious goals and projects. With funding from the Norwegian Rainforest Foundation, Olsson and a local community group, Partners with Melanesians, are helping to organize the 10 tribal groups of the Managalas Plateau into a micro-enterprise that will jointly harvest, market, and export local crops.
The challenge is particularly daunting because the 10 tribal groups are traditional enemies. Olsson and his partners are trying to move the groups beyond the “big man ethic” that has dominated their relationships in the past. Traditionally, each tribal group was lead by a “big man” who represented them in negotiations and battles with other big men. Now, the groups are coming together, partly in opposition to a common threat as outside pressure mounts to mine the resources of the Plateau. A year ago, 14 timber areas (one of which includes the Managalas Plateau) were targeted for aggressive commercial logging. The tribal groups on the Plateau organized strong opposition to the proposed logging and successfully asserted their rights to control development of the region. (PNG’s constitution is extraordinary in recognizing that long-term use of land vests local people with de facto ownership of their forests and natural resources.)
The project began by developing a three-tiered and cyclical strategy, working first with extended family units, and then with the 10 zones of the Plateau (each with 50-70 families), and finally with the whole district. The focus of this work is on creating income-generating activities that don’t require massive destruction of the region. The project has brought all the groups together to write a set of development guidelines for the Plateau. One of the guidelines, for example, is that they don’t want large outside corporate interests to come in and run regional development. Another guideline is that their young people must be the ones who benefit economically and through jobs from whatever development takes place. If they don’t know enough to do the jobs, they must be trained.
The project is gaining the support of the tribal elders through promising experiments in the marketplace. The first eco-enterprise of the Managalas Plateau is the harvesting and marketing of the Okari nut. In the past, each clan harvested the nuts only for their own use. Now they are joining together to bring the nuts to outside markets. “They are still very reluctant to share information and resources,” says Olsson. “But they’re beginning to see the benefits of harvesting the nut together. If they can collaborate in the harvesting, they can bring the nuts to city markets when the price is highest. And if they take that a step further and begin drying the nuts, they can create sufficient volume to fill a whole ship and ship the nuts to Japan or Los Angeles, depending on the highest price.”
Olsson and partners are pursuing that ambitious goal with multiple strategies—ranging from mentoring emerging community-based organizations (CBOs) to planning transportation systems, health extensions, and new literacy programs. Olsson is also employing the multichannel learning approach that his EDC colleagues have used in developing countries around the world. The local CBOs are creating and managing information centers, which use a variety of media to educate the people about the issues at stake. They produce posters, information packets, and radio programs, as well as making use of the long tradition of oral communication, which Olsson calls “the barefoot extension service.”
Each strategy requires rigorous attention to cultural details. For example, Olsson has spent years developing an approach to meetings between the Plateau people and outside experts—an approach that allows the tribes to learn from outside experts without being controlled by them.
“Our whole Western way of conducting meetings is offensive to them,” says Olsson. “The Western style is all about efficiency and speed. Chop chop. In their culture, they let the young men speak first—the ones eager to make a name for themselves. They will get up and beat their chests, and then the meeting will progress. The last person to speak is the one who knows the most. He’s the one who speaks for everyone, who expresses the collective wisdom of the group. Westerners would come here and start speaking quickly, say what they want to say, interrupt each other … and then they’d listen to a few of the local speakers, the ambitious young men with little standing, and quickly adjourn the meeting. They’d declare it a success without ever realizing they hadn’t heard from the most important people.”
Olsson calls this approach “consultation,” which he contrasts with the “structured participation” he favors. “No one took the time to share experience, to listen to people within their own customs and on their own terms. To dance, eat, engage in the smoking ceremonies. There was very little attempt to understand their processes, or learn from their knowledge and wisdom! It takes a lot longer to build a structure for real participation—to seek out the elders who are responsible to the community and to really listen to them.”
Olsson has employed some version of this approach in many different corners of the world—including Thailand and Mozambique—and when mediating environmental disputes between the Comanche and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In each case, says Olsson, the key lies in honoring each contribution and in overcoming barriers that exist between stakeholders of different socio-linguistic backgrounds.
“When people come in and engage in genuine dialogue, listen, and write down everything that’s being said, it has an effect,” Olsson observes. “During the first round of the meeting, nobody attacks another’s position. We listen intently, and we take the time to capture and rework the nuances in the translations. And when we do all that well, there’s inevitably an ‘A ha’ experience. When it works, it can be like a conversion experience. Old rivals come out of it very proactive and willing to collaborate.”
Originally published on June 22, 2006