Cultural diversity is a huge part of what makes the world and travel inside it an interesting place, yet many of the most unique cultures on our planet that have existed for thousands of years are being wiped out by globalisation, technology, climate change, a rapidly changing economic landscape and a certain type of tourism that has sought to package cultures into see-able bites without sensitivity to their differences and needs.
Some of such change is inevitable. A little like saying goodbye to a friendship that is no longer serving us, a culture may actively want and need to change its ways to move forward in the world to their own advantage. Cultural commentators lying cosy in their (often western) homes may bemoan the demise of their interesting ways, but not so them – particularly when moving on means, perhaps, a more comfortable, nourishing and supported life.
The Mongolian pastoral herders who make up one of the world’s last remaining nomadic cultures, for example, are slowly moving to urban areas as severer winters and poorer pastures have made their lives harder and harder. Who is anyone to say that they shouldn’t want their children to be educated and to secure jobs in cities, believing that pastoral nomadism is no longer a secure or sustainable way of life?
That said, the richness of our global heritage is mind bogglingly beautiful, and it’s generally agreed that we should all do everything we can to sustain it. From the Drokpa nomadic mountain people of Tibet to the Wakhi villagers of the Wakhan Valley in Afghanistan, from the Hamer Tribe of South Ethiopia to the Kaqchikel Mayas of the Solola District of Guatemala or the Samoans of Savaii Island in the Pacific – our world culture is graced with extravagance and beauty, with colour and ornament, with poetic customs and hugely varied and different ways of life.
There are many inspiring individuals and organisations all over the world seeking to record lost cultures and safeguard those in danger. Jimmy Nelson is an astonishingly good photographer and has his own foundation to support disappearing cultures. His book Homage to Humanity features his iconic photography with personal interviews with the portrayed individuals, compelling travel stories and infographics. Read more.
Then there’s Hungarian photographer Attila Lóránt, the founder of The Disappearing Cultures Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing a visual document of traditional and native cultures. Lóránt told NOW: ‘As the world becomes smaller and easier to navigate, cultural differences are worn out by year after year, starting with visual appearances, as small ethnic tribes leave their costumes and attributes behind, followed closely by their traditions, customs, languages and religious beliefs.’ To track such changes, Lóránt has produced a number of startlingly illustrated books on different cultures all over the world, and is currently working on a project charting Cultural Diversity and Religious Tolerance.
Russian photographer Alexander Khimushin has also been travelling the world to document the disappearing indigenous cultures that he meets along the way. On the road for the past eight years, he has visited 84 countries, and his latest project, The World in Faces, has taken him to remote tribes in Siberia and China which are down to their last few hundred peoples. ‘I want to tell their stories before it’s too late,’ he says. ‘Without cultural diversity, our world will become faceless.’
Case studies have also shown that, as well as contributing to global diversity, cultures with ancient, traditional skills and knowledge contribute to the wellbeing of both developed and developing worlds, by teaching us other ways of thinking, doing and being in the world, yet indigenous communities continue to form the largest minority in the world and are among the most underserved and impoverished groups in nearly every country.
‘In this era of rapid change, indigenous communities with rich cultural heritages urgently need the world’s attention’, says a spokesperson from The Vanishing Cultures Project, an organisation that works with indigenous groups worldwide to try to safeguard cultural values and practices. And time – as usual with everything to do with sustainability – is of the essence, for anthropologists estimate a tribal elder dies every two weeks with the last remaining knowledge of his or her people’s language, as well as many other living expressions of a heritage, from crafts and customs to skills and beliefs.
To be travellers who care about sustaining ourselves and the other people on our shared planet, we need to travel with tolerance, be open to new experiences, resist a judging mind and do our research so that we understand as deeply as possible the cultures we might experience. ‘We are all guests at the destinations we visit, yet we usually think we know better,’ says Attila Lóránt. ‘Instead we need to enjoy the differences we come across, without judging or comparison, and know that no cultures are better than others. We are all different, but in the end we are all equal.’