RED BOOK for Endangered Cultures
A Proposal for a New System of Cultural Protection

[Left:  Hieronymous Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights, Right:  Confusion of Tongues (Tower of Babel) Gustave Dore, 1865]


Why We Need a Cultural Red Book for Endangered Cultures, NOW

© David Lempert, Ph.D., J.D., M.B.A., E.D. (Hon.)


Abstract:  Social anthropologists and biologists/ environmentalists have taken two very different legal and political strategies to deal with the parallel concerns of disappearance of cultural and biological diversity, with the environmentalists having greater success in drawing attention and funding.  In terms of international legal protections, the laws and mechanisms for protecting human diversity are probably stronger than those for species.  The reason is not due to anything inherent in the areas of concern, but more to the effectiveness of organization of the biologists and ecologists, their ability to present their concerns in a scientific way, and their use of a tool – the Red Book for Endangered Species – that offers an accessible way for non-specialists to understand the threats.


This article describes the emerging legal mechanisms in the international community through which human cultures could be more effectively protected, both by legal enforcement and by awareness, through the use of a new policy and screening tool.  It describes some of the efforts that have taken place in anthropology, among linguists and others, to begin such a systematization.  It begins the process of creating a format and standard for such work by offering ideas on a systematic framework.  And, it suggests the processes of organizing a united effort among the community of anthropologists and others (linguists, sociologists and other social scientists, lawyers, and human rights professionals) to offer this professional and tangible measure of the threats to cultures. 




Are centuries of accumulated human wisdom really less important than beetles or weeds? 


Among academia, the international development community, and many segments of the global public, the answer would be “Yes” if evaluated in terms of many current categories of efforts and funding. 


Both anthropologists and biologists/ environmentalists commonly place the blame for disappearance of cultural and biological diversity on the colonial ideology of international development agents and on forces behind globalization, but the strategies and impact of the two groups on these two parallel concerns have been quite different and offer an unstudied lesson.  Biodiversity is not inherently more valuable or easier to promote than human cultural diversity.  In terms of international legal protections, the laws and mechanisms for protecting human diversity are probably stronger than those for species.  Yet, there is a difference in the way the two sets of disciplines deal with these forces in efforts to protect these two types of diversity, with the biologists/ environmentalists demonstrating greater success.


Environmentalists are now increasingly effective in drawing attention and funding to the issues of biodiversity and have become important political actors in the international community, while we as anthropologists are rarely heard.  The reason is not due to anything inherent in the areas of concern, but more to the effectiveness of organization of the biologists and ecologists, their ability to present their concerns in a scientific way, and their use of a tool – the Red Book for Endangered Species – that offers an accessible way for non-specialists to understand the threats.


As an anthropologist and an attorney who has worked in the development field for the past 25 years on five continents on projects of both environmental protection and minority and cultural rights, my observation is that we as anthropologists need to learn from the experiences of our environmental colleagues and the examples of our colleagues in linguistic anthropology and put a wider human face to the concept of culture.  What we need to promote the goal of human diversity is the same kind organized monitoring and advocacy for the globe’s “6,000” (or more) human cultures that there is for the millions of species. 


It is now 40 years since the International Union for the Conservation of Nature began to publish its Red Book for Endangered Species.  About ten years ago, the first Red Book for Endangered Languages appeared, partly on that model, and also partly succeeding in moving resources and attention towards language conservation.  But there is still no systematic attempt to classify the world’s human cultures by their risk of disappearance and their need for special protection.


The threats to species are continually monitored in the Red Book for Endangered Species and the lists appear before the faces of officials and development agents in every country.  In some cases, they can stop major development projects that would do harm and they provide the professional backing for legal challenges that turn what is now seen as something “political” into something that is of scientific concern and backed by real legal protection.  Plants, bugs and now cultural monuments have organized advocacy letting the world know they are at risk and by what degree, but human cultures are mostly left to fend for themselves.  When it comes to human diversity, there is still no such list.   As difficult as it is to compile and as imperfect as it may be, an imperfect tool is better than no tool, and most of the human cultures on the planet need it NOW.


This article describes the emerging legal mechanisms in the international community through which human cultures could be more effectively protected, both by legal enforcement and by awareness, through the use of a policy and screening tool,.  It describes some of the efforts that have taken place in anthropology, among linguists and others, to begin such a systematization.  It begins the process of creating a format and standard for such work by offering ideas on a systematic framework.  And, it suggests the processes of organizing a united effort among the community of anthropologists and others (sociologists and other social scientists, lawyers, linguists, human rights professionals) to offer this professional and tangible measure of the threats to cultures.  Though this approach is more challenging and potentially more political than that for biodiversity, there are also ways of seeking to avoid political confrontation and disciplinary stalemates in order to reach consensus for assessing the status and needs of clearly identifiable cultural groups that are at risk.




How Current Approaches to Protect Cultural Diversity Need to Link Accepted Principles with Available Data and with the Law, to Have Real Impact:  The irony of current efforts to protect human cultural diversity is that though international agreements and law are increasingly recognizing its importance and more groups are organized to promote this goal, results have been weak.  What is missing may be an organized coda from the profession – i.e., from anthropologists -- with the profession taking on the responsibility to measure the dangers to cultures and to make that information available in a way that policy makers can use and courts can enforce.


On countless international projects for the U.N., the U.S., and for agencies and countries that have signed on to the principles and legal mechanisms for cultural protection, countless practicing anthropologists and I have made the case for protections for dozens of different cultural groups, often including the majority cultures of countries receiving aid and whose own cultures are at risk.  The usual response to such advice is, “That’s just your opinion.” Though the ready answer is, “That is a professional judgment, and is also consistent with international law and treaties,” the usual response that follows is, “Then footnote other professional sources.” 


Our environmental colleagues face the same questions, but they offer something we can’t.  They cite the Red Book of Endangered Species and the CITES treaty, with the seal of IUCN and a board of ranking environmentalists.  In our case, the best we can do is lead them to anthropology textbooks and one or two ethnographies; often our own work.


The environmentalists may or may not win the point, and they would say that their success rate is far too low and far too slow.  One reason they can’t always change the policy, even though their arguments can stand, is because their legal position in representing species is weaker than if they were representing human beings.  Species don’t have legal rights. 


What is different for cultural diversity is that there are legal protections against genocide and discrimination that are designed to protect cultural diversity.  Cultures may or may not have standing in courts in their own countries or in international courts, and the exact definition of genocide or discrimination is not fully determined.  But these legal rights can potentially be expanded by cases brought by experts, backed by a standard that is set by the experts; if the experts set a standard.  A uniform codification of cultural health and threats to it is the missing piece needed to have that impact.


Below in this section is a review of some of the global principles that already support cultural diversity but that are misapplied in ways that undermine global interests due to the lack of professional advocacy from those who understand and design these standards (largely anthropologists), an assessment of the current efforts among anthropologists and endangered cultures in direct advocacy along with a review of the types of ready data that are missing and that would strengthen that advocacy, and a review of the legal mechanisms that are waiting to be used in combination with a base of professional information and standardization.


Anthropology’s Universalized Principles and their Misapplication, and How We Anthropologists Can Better Sell Accepted Principles to Our Own Culture, Following the Lessons of Environmentalists in Promoting the Paradigm of Biodiversity:  Anthropologists are probably split on whether we think international political actors – governments, international agencies, and the mass public – do not apply principles of protecting cultures because they do not perceive their importance, do not understand how to apply the principles even if they do, or whether we think there is a “deep structure” of power and homogenization that is inherent in the way national and international systems run that has a real goal of destroying diversity despite rhetoric to the contrary.  This is an argument we probably won’t be able to resolve.  Nevertheless, if we examine the reasons that principles are currently misapplied, there is good reason to assume that powerful actors are actually acting against their own long term interests and could be convinced to change if anthropologists made a stronger case; particularly on why the benefits of trade and stability that many actors are seeking actually require a commitment to cultural diversity.     


The biologists and environmentalists have made the effort to systematically classify and protect the diversity of the globe’s species because they immediately make the first and second assumptions about governments, international agencies and the mass public.  They assume that humans are “bio-philic”, that there is something human about loving nature and its diversity, and that while there is a natural urge to protect against the harms of nature there is also an instinctive urge to identify with its diversity and the struggle of all difference for life.  What is important to note is that biodiversity, itself, is not an appeal that is easily linked to economics or human well-being.  Climate change is the real issue that affects people.  Nevertheless, the idea of irretrievable “loss” and of diversity itself has an intrinsic motivating element.  What environmentalists are suggesting to anthropologists about human nature is that we also have an instinctual love of human diversity and find “opposites” attractive and compelling as part of our intrinsic curiosity.  They would reaffirm what Spike Lee tells us in film, that “Jungle Fever” is inherent in our genes even though societies sometimes make these urges taboo to enforce certain social orders.  They would tell us that the political acceptance of the principle of human cultural diversity is a real human desire and that there is a yearning is for a group of experts to help us to protect this diversity in ways that don’t threaten our safety and security.


Fifteen years ago, in 1992, the United Nations system committed itself to this fundamental principle that we teach in anthropology and that underlies the system of international human rights.  The Rio Declaration on Environment and Development affirmed the very measures of cultural sustainability that come out of biology and that we have used in anthropology to define the viability of culture: continuity over multiple generations; the balance of consumption, production and population in an eco-system; and the importance of the relations of human groups to their environments.  Though the Rio Declaration didn’t define these principles for all human cultures and instead applied them to nation-states -- the entities that signed the declaration -- the very basis of the declaration was to affirm our fundamental measures of survival of human difference, even though just for States.  Potentially, they also applied or could apply to sub-populations in conjunction with previous international legal treaties.  Here they are.


Principle 3.  to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.

Principle 8.  To achieve sustainable development and a higher quality of life for all people, States should reduce and eliminate unsustainable patterns of production and consumption and promote appropriate demographic policies.

Principle 13.  States shall also cooperate in an expeditious and more determined manner to develop further international law regarding liability and compensation for adverse effects of environmental damage caused by activities within their jurisdiction or control to areas beyond their jurisdiction.


Despite the seeming clarity of these principles, it seems impossible to find a development plan commissioned by a government, international agency, or NGO, that actually applies them, other than an example of one written with a team of undergraduate students in < xml="true" ns="urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" prefix="st1" namespace="">Ecuador three years before the Rio Declaration, that is now a textbook (Lempert et. al., 1995 and 1998).   The Rio principles of sustainable development have been lost in development planning.  The result, familiar to anthropologists and to human cultures throughout the world, is the continued loss of human diversity in this “inevitable” phenomena of globalization. 


A common assumption among anthropologists is that the goal of globalization is efficiency of resource extraction and homogenization and that it follows a logic of colonialism from the 16th to 20th centuries.  But, here again, our assumptions may be wrong, as some environmentalists working with nature have started to suggest in ways they now work with the business community.  A second drive of business (and empire) -- to promote “comparative advantage” in the contexts of “stable environments that protect long-term value” may also be misinterpreted.  Both of these goals could actually promote diversity and open the door for anthropologists to fit cultural diversity principles more effectively into our own culture. 


The idea of comparative advantage is, itself, based on the promotion of diversity rather than uniformity (certain regions produce things better because they specialize in them, either by environment or by virtue of “culture”, though other disciplines like to call it “social capital.”)  Further, stability itself doesn’t require homogenization, it only requires balance.  This is why many businesses, the engines of globalization, are now signing on to the agenda of environmentalism and bio-diversity and are defining their long-term interests in ways that incorporate environmentalist arguments.


Even if globalization is “inevitable” (an arguable proposition), homogenization is not necessarily a sustainable path of globalization.  It may just represent an uninformed approach to globalization that isn’t really in the interests of those who are promoting the process.  They may just not understand a better way that fits their own ideology.  Many anthropologists and now economists have been arguing that strengthening culture (and language) improves economic performance and overall stability (UNDP 2005).


The principles of the Rio Declaration suggest that there is an international consensus on the importance of sustainability and security.  At the same time, there is a desire to promote specialization in a way that increases overall wealth, through trade.  What if the two agendas of security/ wealth and sustainability/ human diversity really are fundamentally compatible in such a way that the real priorities are reversed.  In other words, what if the stable human cultural diversity were recognized as the real key to sustainability and to growth, and not vice versa?  What if the real human desire is for a system of cultural (and biological) diversity that would be the foundation for security and for exchange of ideas and growth, but that the priorities were wrongly set in part because the anthropologists had been ineffective in explaining how the real order of principles needed to work for overall human survival?  What would be the consequences for humanity if we failed to make this case because we assume that the current reversed priorities are “inevitable” and can’t offer the tools that can be used to promote our beliefs within our own culture? 


It is worth more closely examining the underlying principles of these two drives, for greater wealth (through trade) and for greater stability, because it may be that cultural diversity has been omitted out of ignorance rather than by design.


§         Trade:  The current approach to international trade is in fundamental conflict with cultural diversity and begins without any measure at all of the impact of trade on sustainability.  By definition, culture is the ability of humans to integrate with their environment in a given niche.  Once a culture begins to specialize in production for those outside of its niche and relies on production and decisions from outside its own members, its sustainability within the niche no longer exists and it is only sustainable within the trading system.  The culture is dead, by definition.  In this sense, trade disrupts the essence of diversity and is the very enemy of cultural diversity.


But what kind of trade is this that destroys these cultures, pushing them to promote coffee for export or to strip the local forests or mines for foreign consumption, or to fish out the shrimp, or produce handicrafts or build hotels for the tourist market?  In most cases, it is something short term and unsustainable that is quickly depleted.  The resource is quickly exploited, the handicraft designs or tourist product are static and lose appeal, and what remains after an amount of time is a growing population stripped of its culture and now in competition with millions of other semi-skilled laborers in the world, hoping for foreign investment in new factory production, with the ideas coming from outside.  It is unsustainable.  The very goal of trade to create future wealth ends up killing it.


In fact, it is the death of the cultural innovation and/or its stewardship of a resource (including the resource of a specialized skill, along with that of a natural or cultural resource) that kills off the wealth.  In many cases, the maintenance of the culture and its sustainable development (including ways that promoted the intellectual development of its art, local technology, or resource stewardship) would promote greater stability along with greater future productivity.  Reversing the priority order to start with diversity actually produces the greater long-term wealth and more closely fits the goal.


§         Stability:  Similarly, there’s no good explanation for why the international community would circumvent its own principles and promote agendas that are unsustainable and are really just poverty “postponement” rather than poverty reduction, other than that they really don’t have the expertise to measure long-term results..  Although the U.N. system committed itself to sustainable development as its goal, with the understanding that sustainability was for future generations, that agenda has shifted to 10-year “Millennium Development Goals” (MDGs) in which the main goal is “poverty reduction” in the short term.  The reason may be that international actors see this as a short-term solution to bring about “stability”, without understanding the nature of stability of human systems and why the Rio principles, to protect and stabilize cultures, through a sustainable development agenda, is the cheaper and more effective approach in both the short and long term.


Currently, the main thrust of U.N. programs, in combination with those of other major international donors, is “productivity.”  Though Principle 8 of the Rio principles makes it clear that productivity increases would need to be sustainable and would need to be balanced with sustainable consumption and with demographic programs, no country development plan of the UN system, the World Bank, or of USAID, seems to focus on anything other than production (usually GDP) as a way to target poverty.  Environment is one of several of the MDGs, but UNDP consistently praises countries that show productivity gains and poverty reduction, even when they make little real progress on the environment.  Human cultural diversity is not on this agenda.  It is also the right most threatened by the agenda.  Once new technology is introduced into a culture that was once “balanced” within its eco-system, the resulting population increases create a demand for continued infusions of technology and change.  The result is to urbanize rural and indigenous peoples and to destroy their cultures on the pretext of “saving” them from “poverty.”


With a focus on productivity and no demographic or consumption planning, and with little real investment in ways to keep productivity rising with population and consumption, the recipe of international development is mostly a future disaster of overpopulation, overconsumption, lack of resources, and inability of poor countries to generate wealth because of reliance on borrowed technology rather than any investment on developing their own.  In the country where I currently do research, Cambodia, this seems to be the same recipe that led to the country’s civil war and the death of more than a million people in the 1970s, and similar conditions are being created again.


The usual assumption among anthropologists for why international actors act to destroy and urbanize cultures in the name of “poverty reduction” is usually described as narcissism; that there is an urge to make others like “us” and to eliminate conflict.  But that contradicts the very attraction of difference that brings many to other cultures and that reflects the overall human fascination with diversity.


In fact, the belief that short-term productivity increases promote “stability” in ways that stop the international flow of poor people to wealthy countries, is also a problem of measurement.  What development professionals do not understand is the actual long-term cost and instability that they are creating.  Perhaps there is a deeper structure and an underlying logic such that homogenization does create some kind of stability and benefit, and perhaps that was right for the 16th to 19th century.  But today, those costs are very different and the Rio Declaration established the principle but never offered the clear measures that convinced actors to follow them.


There are now countless World Bank, UNDP, and donor projects throughout the world that are called “planning” and “decentralization” or “democratization,” but the reality is that none of them do planning consistent with the Rio Principles and none of them promote decentralization or democratization in ways that are consistent with recognized cultural rights.  The common flaw of these projects working with minority peoples is to mistake “investment plans” and “poverty reduction/ social welfare planning” for “sustainable development plans”.  Money is pumped in, in the form of outside technology and “investment”, to lead to predictable and easy gains in productivity, as if the minority regions are factories of producers whose value needs only to be ratcheted up with outside know-how.  These projects increase population and consumption in fragile environments, resulting in destruction of the forest and resources.  These roads and new consumption patterns destroy the cultures in the area and their traditional practices for maintaining harmony and balance, without shifting them towards any sustainable alternative.  They also reinforce majority political structures that erode or replace local political and social institutions in ways that undermine cultural integrity and survival.


If the development agents were to do an appropriate analysis following economic and business principles, what they would find is that it would be far less costly to stabilize the ethnic groups in a balance with their environment and to help them maintain their cultures, rather than ratcheting up their populations and vulnerability, and the planet’s.   In many cases, this is what the donors really want, but they don’t understand how it works because no one has offered them a different model.




When presented with this approach in reverse, showing how starting with sustainable and diverse cultures can increase stability, lower costs, and promote long-term wealth through appropriate trade, the “globalizers” have a very difficult time shifting their paradigm to this new approach.  The typical response is something that comes out of the ideology of 16th century missionaries and the Church that supported missionization as part of imperialism.  What proponents say is that every individual in a different culture (not every culture, for its individuals), has the “right” to greater material wealth and to “equality” or parity with other individuals in other cultures.  From a legal anthropological perspective, it is almost paradoxical that the Judeo-Christian idea of individual rights has merged with the Eastern (and Soviet) communal ideal of “equality”, to promote an agenda that works to destroy cultural diversity in the emerging global system.


Here again is where the paradigm shift that can move us into a 21st century approach to protecting human diversity as the key to stability and wealth, needs to learn lessons from the environmentalists and to shift to the legal arena.  The environmentalists have worked to establish the idea that rights exist on different levels and that each level of rights needs to be satisfied in order for the individual rights of human beings to have meaning.  Environmentalists have tried to link this to humans through the idea that species also have rights and that human rights are dependent on environmental rights being fulfilled.  The value of their approach for protecting human cultures is that by defining species as needing protection, environmentalists have also created an idea of groups, and not just individual members of groups, as having rights.  They have implanted the notion that the survival of individual members depends on the protection of the group.  And they have tried to establish those rights through their codification of species and lists of endangerment.  But this is as far as they have really been able to go.  They are changing consciousness, but they haven’t yet had the legal mechanisms to change the social structures in ways that establish this focus as an operating principle of the global system.


The idea of cultural rights as a separate level, and a precedent level to individual rights, began to emerge in the 20th century with the definition of the crime of “genocide” (also following the idea of biology and the gene, even though the real level of protection is cultural).  But the relation of the different levels is still not part of consciousness when it comes to human beings.  The current “rights” approach of the international system, including the UN, focuses on individual rights in ways that undermine minority cultures (but giving recognition to States).  What is missing is a paradigm shift similar to the one that has occurred for the environment (see Loh and Harmon, 2005), that demonstrates that individual rights are actually rooted in cultures and the best way to protect them is to protect cultural diversity.   Here is where anthropologists can have an impact by seeking to create a new institutional link between the institution of professional anthropology and the institution of the law, in ways that will shift the paradigm and the operations of the world system.




The Current Advocacy Approach of Anthropologists and the Need to Bolster It with Accessible Data:  The current approach of the world’s cultures and of anthropologists to the disappearance of human cultural diversity is one that is both political and ad hoc, with cultures organizing for political influence and with international agents sometimes responding, but in a way that presents the issues as politics, rather than as legal rights measurable in terms of professional standards to which actors can be held accountable. 


What is missing as a tool to support advocacy and policy is – a quick and ready information source that can be used as a screening and monitoring device – that is Internet accessible and that has the best and most current professional opinion on the status and risk factors of particular cultures and all of the aspects that constitute those cultures – language, heritage sites, eco-system, social structures, political structures, and other indicators.


§         Political organization of cultures and pressure groups:  There have been several positive initiatives in the past two decades among minority peoples and their supporters to draw attention to the concerns of cultural diversity.  Organizations like Cultural Survival and international human rights organizations have spotlighted and popularized the issue.  Indigenous people’s networks have gained strength both at the national level in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, and Guatemala, as well as at the table in United Nations conferences and forums.  Several issues have now reached international courts at the instigation of cultural groups, though these are generally those of property rights – environmental damage in the Amazon, health risks, or theft of indigenous intellectual property – rather than on the issues of genocide and loss of human cultural diversity and its value.  Minority peoples organize for collective action and anthropologists sometimes join them.  Overall, however, the approach is political and is treated as political, with a minority positioned against powerful forces and with opposing interests, rather than on behalf of global interests or backed by a professional and legal commitment to the principle, itself, of human cultural diversity. 


§         Response of international actors invites follow up and professional guidelines:  International development agencies and governments increasingly recognize the issues of minority protections and of disappearing cultural heritage.  However, they continue to fit it into their screening and priorities as a low priority (Lempert, 2004) and face little in the way of a professional standard or a mechanism to enforce existing rights laws with real challenges. 


The World Bank, for example, maintains its screening policies for “resettlement” of peoples and has come under criticism from anthropologists for the ways it uses these standards.  The European Union is recognizing minority rights issues, particularly in the Balkans and in countries of the former Soviet Union that are seeking to join NATO.  However, cultural diversity is just one of several “cross cutting” concerns lumped in with social impact such as gender equality, and largely focuses on discrimination and unequal impacts of programs rather than directly on cultural impact. Outside of Europe, the agenda is trade and making Europe a new super-state on the 18th century model, with cultural rights lumped into a category of “democracy-governance and human rights” that also tends to put cultural rights below individual protection against discrimination, and also treats the issues as “cross cutting” rather than fundamental and a pre-condition analysis and guide to interventions before they begin (Lempert, 2004).


If anthropologists offered a different presentation that showed how culture was a precedent condition to the goals of the World Bank and how the other standards were actually the ones that were cross cutting, and linked it with international legal mechanisms, it might have some effect.  But in responding on the basis of one group at a time, we lose the agenda and remain on the defensive, almost as a self-fulfilling prophesy.


UNESCO has been the key international agency that has begun to act on behalf of cultural protections, both in connection with linguists and linguistic anthropologists (described below) and for the protection of global heritage sites.  Cultures, themselves, however, are still not offered monitoring and protection and our profession has not made the case to UNESCO as to why they either should (and if so, how) or why they legally must, under existing international law, though there is a very good case to be made.  At least for now, UNESCO itself has also refused to sponsor even a database list of countries agreeing to monitoring of adherence to recommendations on language protections and the European Union that also backs such laws has been criticized for not enforcing them (see Romaine 2002, Lempert 2004).


An Example of What is Missing:  In both Vietnam and Cambodia, where I have been documenting the historical sites of every culture that has touched the region, from pre-history to today, I have been able to test the UNESCO approach in regard to heritage protection.  This is just one aspect of culture, its physical and religious sites, but one that is relatively easy to document and objective.  In Vietnam, there are some 50 Stateless minority peoples and some 20 of them had States but were conquered either by the Han Chinese (and fled to Vietnam) or by the Kinh Vietnamese and are now under their control.  Many of the burial sites and capitals remain in some form (dirt walls and mounds, tomb sites) and are not documented in any systematic way either by minority peoples, governments, or any international agencies and it makes it easy for UNESCO to overlook them.


The largest of these groups by former territorial extent (but not by numbers) is the Cham, of whom there are more than 200,000 in Cambodia where they fled from the Vietnamese, about 100,000 in Vietnam, and smaller numbers in other countries where they also fled (Hai Nan island in China, Aceh in Indonesia, Thailand and Laos) but mixed with other cultures.  Roughly one third of Vietnam’s territory today was once that of the Cham Empire and some 25 Cham regional capitals/ citadels still exist, dating back to the 6th century B.C.E., most of them endangered.  UNESCO is only aware of about five and compiles no listing of its own.  I visited 10 of the 25 and classified them using Red Book criteria.  Three are endangered.  Two are threatened.  Five are currently safe (largely because they came to be used again by the Vietnamese conquerors.)  What UNESCO protects and documents are Cham towers and art, for tourism, such as a major UNESCO World Heritage site in My Son where there are no Cham now living due to genocide and forced migration.  One of the sites of a former Cham capital (possibly two former capitals), where there are two large citadels, is the area of Hue city and the Huong (Perfume) River in Central Vietnam that is ironically a UNESCO World Heritage Site but where the Cham remains are not internationally protected.  UNESCO has classified the city as a World Heritage site because of the remains of the Vietnamese imperial capital that was established there after the Cham were conquered, but offers no protection or recognition to the Cham capitals in the same area.  This is because the political organization of UNESCO is to respond to the politics of States through the logic of the U.N. system, rather than to global cultures. 


The list that I have compiled could be used as a screening device by governments and foreign donors to ensure recognition and protection of cultural heritage, or a fundraising or legal tool, but instead it now meets the fate of other scholarly enterprises by anthropologists.  At best, once published, it will find its way to a library shelf.  But there, it won’t be easily available to planners or even to the minority groups, themselves.  There will be little awareness of its existence to anyone other than scholars.


In development consulting work, in attempting to introduce the knowledge of others in attempts to protect a region’s cultures, anthropologists and others who would rely on anthropological work, constantly face the same problem.  Unless they have already read a work about one of the cultures who lives or left remains in an area of a project and unless they have the time and can convince a development agent of the importance of raising the issues of cultural protection, there is almost no way to introduce the concerns.  There is never enough time to do a new and current investigation of the status of a culture or of heritage in an area (even if they are recorded).  Further, most ethnographies are not accessible in a form that offers a quick assessment of the threats to particular ethnic groups.  Making the work even more difficult is that in a given project area there are often multiple groups coexisting, sometimes as a result of governmental design of having relocated peoples in attempts to undermine their links to their environment and their cohesive social networks.  In Southeast Asia, even if existing ethnographies offered information that could be used in connection with protection advice, libraries of developing countries don’t have most recent ethnographies.  French colonial or American war era monographs are already outdated and it is difficult even for a professional anthropologist to try to reconstruct historical information about groups they don’t specialize in, to try to come up with a current assessment.  It is no wonder that any assessments development experts do manage to create and to introduce are greeted as individual “opinion” that lacks sufficient weight and substantiation and is easy to discard.




The Legal Approach and the Place Where Anthropologists’ Expertise is Missing:  There already is an international legal framework to prosecute the crimes of genocide and to protect its classes of victims; races, ethnic, national or religious groups, and it has been in place for almost 60 years.  In recent years, cases of genocide for physical destruction of cultures have begun to proliferate.  At the same time, the specific rights of these classes to language, “practice of culture”, and subsistence, as well as rights against discrimination are now enumerated in additional international documents and sometimes enforceable through international courts, where countries have agreed to international protocols.  Yet, while these mechanisms are in place, the piece that is missing that could expand enforcement and protection are the professional definitions of what constitute “genocide” and “practice.” Without offering any codification, anthropologists have allowed politicians and lawyers to control the agenda of something that it is really our profession’s purview (if not obligation) to define.


The U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (U.N. General Assembly, established on December 9, 1948 that:


Article II.  In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group.

c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part.

Article III.  The following acts shall be punishable:  e) Complicity in genocide.

Article IV.  [punishment includes] public officials or private individuals.


Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word and authored the law, hoped that it would be used to criminalize much more than murder and that it would protect the integrity of cultures in all of its dimensions.  He wrote,


"Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group."  (Lemkin, 1944).


[Raphael Lemkin]

Though there has yet to be significant pressure from anthropologists or the public to hold political actors accountable for acts that fall far short of murder, the genocide law invites it and some linguists have outlined potential cases and charges (see Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000).  International development agents, governments and private individuals could be brought before the courts to account for those acts, that anthropologists could professionally define, that constitute a partial “physical destruction” of an ethnic group. “Physical destruction” could be professionally defined as endangerment of the practice of the culture and not just the killing of its members.  Though international courts have analogized genocide directly to “homicide”, the killing of a person, and assumed that it assumes the “killing” of “genes” or of a group, that has been a political effort to cloud the original intent, and no united block of anthropologists or others has acted to stop this politicization of the approach.  The word is deliberately broad and lawyers who have sought to limit the definition of genocide to killing have violated the principles of legal construction.  In law, the existence of an ambiguous term in place of one that could have clearly been spelled out is evidence that the law is meant to be flexible; broadened and defined by experts.  The genocide law could easily have substituted the words “death of its members” or “sterilization and inability to reproduce” for “physical destruction.” But it didn’t.  Physical destruction means the loss of the practice by the group, as much as it means killing.


The “mental harm” that is envisioned by the genocide law is also broad enough to include the kind of changes to political and social institutions and national feelings that Lemkin envisioned.  Today, lawyers are trying to define what “mental harm” is, with psychologists, and come up with categories like brain damage and “trauma,” usually coming from torture or connected with physical violence, but not necessarily.  As each case is prosecuted, the standard is being extended.  Here, again, anthropologists (and in this case psychological anthropologists) have largely been absent in working to codify the mental harm of cultural disintegration that occurs without physical violence.


A conference at Yale Law School in the early 1990s tried to define the meaning and coverage of the word, “genocide”, and largely put the blame on anthropologists for a lack of clarity; giving political actors the wiggle room to interpret the law on an ad hoc basis for each situation.  A review of the use of the term in Cultural Survival Magazine found it interchangeable with the term, “ethnocide,” that dates to the late 1960s and was created by Robert Jaulin, a French anthropologist, to identify the cultural harms done to Amazonian cultures that differed from killings.  But “ethnocide” fell into disuse, apparently because the two terms can be defined by anthropologists as the same.  Given that anthropology no longer identifies cultures with “race”, Raphael Lemkin’s 1943 term, “genocide” is replaced in anthropology by the more appropriate term for ethnicity.  Another term that has never caught on, that implies the destruction of culture but without killings, is “culturecide.” The term “cultural genocide” has been more popular, but that term has largely been linked to destruction of physical heritage sites rather than to the behaviors and practices that constitute culture and could still be described by “genocide”  (Thion, 1993, page 181 and notes.)  Though the common understanding of genocide is that of “the killing of people on purely ethnic grounds”, this definition does not fit the legal term of “genocide” but is closer to that which is known today in countries like the U.S. as a “hate crime”; a basic crime such as murder but with an added element of discriminatory intent.


The word, “genocide”, was not even used in connection with the Nuremburg Trials.  The standard word for what happened to the Jews – the attempt at physical destruction of all Jews – was “extermination.”  International laws could also have easily used the word “extermination”, but they did not.  That suggests that genocide can meet the “lower” standard of cultural disruption.  (Thion, 1993, page 177).


More surprising is that even among the scholarly community, where the determination of what constitutes genocide should be the professional purview of anthropologists, we have lost the initiative.  What is most visible to the public, in looking for guidance, are the definitions of sociologists, political scientists, and historians, but not anthropologists.  The International Association of Genocide Scholars and its Institute for the Study of Genocide, offers definitions from five scholars, none of them anthropologists.  All of the definitions focus on “mass killing” and none deal with cultural loss.


Though anthropologists have not been active as a bloc on this issue, the international community has given expanded meaning to this definition in the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, enacted in 1976.


Article 27.  In those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion, or to use their own language.


Here, the concept is established that individuals “in community with other members of their group” hold these rights that can be partially enumerated by language, “enjoyment” of culture, and “practice” of religion.  It establishes that the right can be expressed BOTH by the group as a whole (in a class action) or by any individual members.  Some discussions have already begun on the possibility of such damages and suits (see Kirsch, 2001).


The Convention on the Rights of the Child, 20 November 1989, repeats the language almost verbatim but adds “or persons of indigenous origin” and substitutes “a child” for persons.


The covenant and convention are just reporting requirements to committees with no sanctions and no real enforceability unless countries have signed optional “protocols” that allow citizens to go to court to enforce these rights.  But countries are increasingly signing the protocols or similar conventions with protocols, such as the rights doctrines and protocols for membership in the European Union that is required of the former Soviet states now entering the Union.


The Optional Protocol, below, does allow individual members of ethnic groups to take their countries to court for violations.  What isn’t that clear is whether, for example, if a member of an indigenous Vietnamese ethnic group who now resides in France, a Party to the Protocol, could hold the European Union or a French NGO accountable for supporting policies in Vietnam, a country that has not signed the Protocol, where those policies promote destruction of its culture.  Given the wording of the Protocol, it would seem that such suits are possible.  As the world globalizes, “jurisdiction” also becomes increasingly fuzzy, as citizens also become subjects not only of their governments but of multiple sovereigns with whom their government has signed agreements, including the U.N. system, trade blocks, and development banks.


Article 1.  A State Party to the Covenant that becomes a party to the present Protocol recognizes the competence of the Committee to receive and consider communications from individuals subject to its jurisdiction who claim to be victims of a violation by that State Party of any of the rights set forth in the Covenant. No communication shall be received by the Committee if it concerns a State Party to the Covenant which is not a party to the present Protocol.


One might think it is a stretch to try to hold actors in a country like Vietnam accountable for acts when Vietnam has not signed the U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the Protocol.  But, technically, it already has.  Almost every country in the world has now signed on to both the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, that repeats the basic rights from the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and gives them to children as the actors who have standing to enforce them.


In fact, it is not hard to use the courts in the ways outlined above, to hold international actors accountable in their own courts for acts against cultures in third countries.  The U.S., for example, now holds Americans liable for abuse of children in third countries, holding U.S. citizens to U.S. standards, even when the same laws or procedures do not consider the same acts crimes in the third country.  If physical touch of children is now viewed as a foreign cultural invasion, one would think children should also be protected against other cultural impacts that have equal or more severe consequences for their group as a whole.


Though not yet ratified, these principles are stated again in other ways in the U.N. Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, written in 1966, and established in Article 1.  Here, the idea of “subsistence” (i.e., strength of an eco-system) through forcing indigenous peoples out of their eco-systems by destruction or invasion of the eco-system is being offered as a possible means of defining a crime of genocide.


  1. All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.
  2. All peoples may, for their own ends, freely dispose of their natural wealth and resources without prejudice to any obligations arising out of international economic co-operation, based upon the principle of mutual benefit, and international law. In no case may a people be deprived of its own means of subsistence.


Cultural heritage is also protected by a convention – the 1954 Hague Convention, applied to destruction in times of war – and not specifically by an enforceable law.  But, since children have a right to their heritage in the Child Rights Convention, the protection is technically enforceable through individuals by these mechanisms.


There is an interesting comparison here with biodiversity.  CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna, proposed in 1963 by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and entered into force in 1975, is also only an international convention and there is no convention that prosecutes a crime of species genocide.  The attention that biologists have brought to the issue has been outside of courts, with mechanisms like the Red Book that cannot yet be linked to court action.


When the door is opened, as it is, to the testing and enforcement of a right, what is needed are precedents and standards to establish that right.  So far that is missing.  The injured parties and their lawyers recognize that there is no existing international standard that they can use to convince the courts that actions other than killing also result in physical destruction of human cultural diversity.  That is why it is up to lawyers and professionals to work together to move that standard forward. Anthropologists and cultures have lost the agenda because we have let other indicators become the standards.  We can’t hold countries or actors accountable if we don’t have baseline measures to monitor their impacts.  Our own indicators of cultural viability may be fuzzy, but few impacts of any kind are measurable with absolute certainty.  


For now, rights are on the agenda, but there is no monitor and no set of clear professional indicators backed by the profession as a whole, on cultural strength and viability.  That means that the rights debates focus on body counts (genocide) or on economic indicators for individual members of groups.  Or, individuals raise issues of “discrimination”, an approach that leads to the irony that destroying all minority cultures “equally” leads to no guilt, no punishment, and no incentives to stop the cultural destruction. 


Criminal prosecutions of individual heads of development agencies or international businesses on charges of genocide require, of course, higher standards of proof than rights violation cases seeking intervention and compensation.  International prosecutors may also now be unlikely to take on such cases for political reasons.  But, even if prosecutors don’t act, there are legal mechanisms by which citizens can compel prosecutors to act to enforce laws called “writs of mandamus” and private attorney general actions.  These could enter into wider use in international law.


Even if the probability of enforcement of such a standard is now low, just imagine the impact of identifying a development policy approved by a World Bank or UNDP or USAID country director or an NGO administrator as an act of genocide, endangering a culture in ways documented in a cultural Red Book.  The very notion that policies could constitute the basis for criminal action under the Genocide Convention would have an impact in itself.  It would concentrate the minds of these actors and force a rethinking of development policies in ways that protect cultural diversity.  Just sending an article like this, in print, to the desk of one of these officials with a note from members of the endangered cultures, or to journalists, begins that process.


The idea of a Red Book is to establish a baseline of cultural health measures so that liability can be imputed for worsening conditions.  If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there monitoring the cutting, no one can be held accountable.  It is our role to set the standards as professional witnesses.




The Types of Efforts Underway to Link Scientific Determinations with Legal Protections and Policy Tools of “Red Lists”:  Anthropologists have three good specific precedents to guide us in the effort to measure cultural health and to standardize and codify the threats to cultures; the Red List of Threatened Species (from environmentalists), the Red Book of Languages (from linguistic anthropologists), and the Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire (by anthropologists), as well a fourth good related attempt (probably representative of others, also by anthropologists) to begin to list Endangered Peoples of the World.  Though each is adapted to a specific field of study, they each offer insight that can be applied in a Red Book of Endangered Cultures.  There is also an approach coming from political scientists (see the Minorities at Risk Project) that partly usurps the efforts of our field and that makes it all the more important for anthropologists to act.


§         Red List of Threatened Species:  The IUCN Red Lists are now almost universally known.  To professionalize the work, biologists and environmentalists formed what they called the IUCN Species Survival Commission with international standing.  They established categories for each species on the list, and developed objective factors to lead to determinations in their categories of Extinct or Extinct in the Wild, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened (were it not for a conservation program) and of Least Concern.


Compared to culture, measures of species survival are easy.  Species are quantifiable in terms of numbers of members in given eco-systems and the rates of decline of the eco-systems and the population size.  Culture, by contrast, is measurable not only by a critical mass but is defined on the basis of transmission of specific traits and ability to exercise those traits or adapt them.  The analysis needs to include multiple categories.  But, the idea of measures is a good one and it has led to efforts on one cultural measure; language.


§         UNESCO Red Book of Languages:  If languages are a good proxy for culture, then about 90% of the world’s cultures will have disappeared by the end of the 21st century as  97% of the world’s people converge to about 4% of the world’s languages and their cultures, and the Red Book of Languages states its case emphatically.  (UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Unit’s Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, 2003).  In fact, the situation for culture is probably more alarming than for languages.  Many cultures are retaining their languages but globalizing in ways that disrupt or destroy their culture.  What the linguists also tell us is that most of the world’s language heterogeneity, and by implication its cultural diversity, are under the stewardship of a small number of people, with some 96% of language diversity in the fate of 3% of the world’s people; the very people who are the most vulnerable to globalization. In 1992, a UNESCO document already defined 60-70% i.e. 3500 to 4000, of all the languages of the world as “endangered” given that children whose parents spoke he language were no longer using it.


For about the past 15 years, linguists and linguistic anthropologists have sought to apply the Red List approach from biology to cultures.  Not only do they see this effort as parallel, but they see it as linked because of the definition they use for culture.  It is implicit in the work of groups like “Terralingua”, started by anthropologists to preserve languages.  In their words,


“Conservation biology needs to be paralleled by conservation linguistics. Researchers are exploring not just the parallels, but the links between the world's biodiversity and linguistic/cultural diversity, as well as the causes and consequences of diversity loss at all levels. This connection is significant in itself, because it suggests that the diversity of life is made up of diversity in nature, culture, and language. This has been called biocultural diversity by Luisa Maffi; and Michael Krauss has introduced the term logosphere to described the web linking the world's languages (analogous to biosphere, the web linking the world’s ecosystems;  Maffi, Krauss, and Yamamoto 2001: 74).”


Under the leadership of Stephen Wurm, head of the International Council of Philosophy and Humanities Studies (CIPSH), and with support from UNESCO, Wurm and colleagues produced the first Red Book of Languages, for Europe in 1996, followed recently by another book by Tapani Salminen.  Parallel efforts popularized their work calling attention to the “extinction of the world’s languages” (Nettle and Romaine, 2000), and have led to a number of international efforts to fund language protection, documentation and restoration.  However, these approaches are still uneven.


Wurm and others have also linked their efforts in spirit to those of cultural protection and to arguments for changing economic development approach so as to promote economic savings and stability.  They argue as follows.


It was pointed out, on the basis of experience in North and South American countries and elsewhere, that it was much cheaper for governments and authorities to spend money on language maintenance (and culture maintenance associated with it) than to care for human derelicts who had lost their language and culture and had turned to drink, crime and drugs, with a disproportionate number of them spending much of their lives in prison, at very high cost to governments. This is an argument which seems to be understood remarkably quickly by governments and authorities, as experiences with Amerindians and Arctic peoples have shown.  (Wurm, UNESCO and CIPSH Project on Endangered Languages of the World, from the UNESCO website, probably from a 1992 conference.)


The measurement approach that they have taken is sophisticated (Maffi, Luisa, Michael Krauss, and Akira Yamamoto, 2001 and UN Conference in Language Vitality and Endangerment, UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage Unit’s, Ad Hoc Expert Group on Endangered Languages, Approved 31 March 2003 by the Participants of the International Expert Meeting on the UNESCO Programme Safeguarding of Endangered Languages, Paris-Fontenoy, 10–12 March 2003).  While it cannot really be “copied” and applied to culture, the factor of language can itself be one of the major indicators in a determination of endangerment of a culture.  There are parallels. 


Culture is about transmission of a number of strategies – economic, social, political – that are transmitted through different social structures that socialize the young and that are encapsulated in different social forms including religion and language.  The transmission process of language and the factors that influence that transmission are similar to the transmission and socialization of other strategies.  Thus, similar techniques can be used to see if those other strategies are being transmitted across generations.


The “Language Vitality Assessment” that linguists use considers six factors: 1) Intergenerational Language Transmission; 2) Absolute Number of Speakers (a partial measure of critical mass); 3) Proportion of Speakers within the Total Population (another partial measure of critical mass, in terms of the power of the message to be transmitted given competition or “noise” from other messages); 4) Trends in Existing Language Domains (the social structural settings where language transmission occurs and the actors that would transmit it, such as different family members and different times and places during the day); 5) Response to New Domains and Media (a measurement of the competitive “noise” from competing influences and institutions like State schools, media, and environmental surroundings); and 6) Materials for Language Education and Literacy (a technical evaluation of the ability to transmit the message, after assessing the potential).  For each of these categories, they identify “six degrees of endangerment”:  safe, stable yet threatened, unsafe, definitively endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered, and extinct (more recently expanded to nine). 


In truth, it would boggle the mind for anthropologists to try to apply all of these categories to each area of assessing a culture (i.e., to political structures and strategies; social structures and strategies; and economic structures and strategies).  It is not easy for most anthropologists to precisely identify specific economic or social “structures” or “strategies” and say these are fundamental to a culture, in the same way that language use can be identified.  But, several anthropologists studying the same culture and asked to qualitatively apply these indicators to those categories, would likely produce a consistent outcome about threats to particular institutions and strategies, in the same way that the linguists come to conclusions.


What is also valuable about the work of the linguists is that their discussion of “domains” for language transmission also offers a measure of the strength of existing social institutions in the culture and whether they are being replaced.  In other words, the linguists are already providing a second category of analysis (of key social structures and strategies of socialization) that will provide a good indication of “cultural” strength in parallel with language strength in the populations they study.


What this effort doesn’t yet do, but could do, is link each of the factors to specific causes.  The “factors” offer measures of threats, but they are really measurement factors and not causal factors.  They are better described as signs of impact of causal factors that threaten cultural strategies and institutions.  What a next step could do, and something that is important to do in a Red Book for Cultures, is to identify the specific causal factors that are undermining culture (and/or language) and to assess the damage and risk that each one is creating.  The purpose of doing this is to link the assessment not just to actions to “restore” culture or language but to actions to stop the damage and to punish the actors causing the harm.  That is the next step in this process; linking the assessments to legal solutions that strengthen protections.


Language is a good proxy for culture but it isn’t synonymous with it.  Linguists indicate that languages develop in geographic isolation after about 1,000 years, and are reflective of isolation of groups in specific niches.  But cultures are defined by transmission of strategies that can occur over three to five generations; usually in a minimum of 200 years. 


A Red Book of Endangered Cultures should be larger than the 6,000 linguistic groups identified in the Red Book of Languages, but potentially not much larger. 

- Rural and urbanized populations of the same language group, and sects would appear. 

- National groups that are not defined by language but are by borders would appear, including Palestinians, Jews (half of whom have lost Yiddish and European languages and do not speak Hebrew), along with Moldovans, Canadians, Australians, and other nationalities. 

- Groups that exist in social niches but not in ecological niches would also appear.


Though UNESCO supported this effort and supports efforts to protect world heritage sites, the two efforts are not now linked under the rubric of cultural protection in all of its dimensions, either collectively or individually.  (The problems of cultural heritage protection, particularly when cultures are now physically disconnected from their geographic and historical origins, are noted above.)


The work of our colleagues in linguistics is probably also invaluable for other reasons.  What they are telling us is that an enterprise that frightens some anthropologists and on which we have lost the initiative for some fifty years is not only an invaluable part of our work but is also feasible.  Almost every anthropologist today recognizes that “identity” and culture has some elements that are “social constructed” and that the borders of culture are flexible and fuzzy.  Some might even throw out the enterprise of measuring levels of cultural endangerment because of some potentially subjective elements of classification.  What our linguistic colleagues tell us is that even though they encounter some of the same classification problems (between language and “dialect”) – in fact, similar to the problem that biologists sometimes have in distinguishing species and subspecies – that they work towards a common definition and still go ahead because more than 90% of the cases are clear cut.


In moving from distinctions of language to culture, we have AT LEAST the same number of cultures as languages, and we have other distinguishing objective diacritical markers – like economic strategy in a niche – that are measurable and offer clarity for line drawing. 


§         The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire:  In 1991, Lauri Vahtre and Jüri Viikberg compiled what appears to be, thus far, the only red list of endangered cultures.  It was followed two years later by a single volume, by Cultural Survival (1993), that drew attention to the issue on a global basis but that did not lead to a regular and systematic monitoring.  The Russian effort has also not been updated and it has apparently not been followed or further systematized by efforts elsewhere.  If such efforts have been undertaken, they do not appear on Internet searches.  That, today, makes them tantamount to invisible.


Vahtre and Viikberg took a bit of a reverse approach in compiling their list.  Instead of starting with all cultures in a region and assessing their relative health in a spectrum, they only made two distinctions:  healthy and endangered.  All of the 85 groups they present in their book are “endangered.”  Their approach also correlated with that used by linguists.  They defined endangered by population size (below 30,000) and by loss of language (less than 70% retaining their mother tongue).  They also used the “critical mass” approach that the linguists used, incorporated in three factors:  scattered settlement, minority on their territory, and lacking technical institutions to transmit culture (school, literature or media) (Vahtre and Viikberg).


In doing this, they turned their Red Book from something that could be used as a monitoring device to measure (and to seek to criminalize and prevent) specific harms, and turned the work into an ethnography handbook of disappearing peoples.  In other words, they used the drama of the idea of a Red Book, but lost its value as a scientific and legal/policy tool.


What is most valuable about their effort and that leads to the next step, of a systematic and professional Red Book monitoring device for cultures, is that they pointed to the source of the harms and also to the potential for revival.  They also offered a definition of physical “life” and “death” of cultures that establishes a strong professional standard that could easily be used in genocide trials.  Probably a majority of anthropologists would affirm their statement (substituting “culture” for “nation”):


“a nation is alive when the national economy, social organization and culture constitute a whole. This in its turn means that all the manifestations and forms of national life are in compliance or, at least, in the process of adaptation with the imperatives inherent in that particular culture. Viewed in those terms almost all the peoples in this book [i.e., people whose cultures are endangered are identifiable as endangered and] have ceased to be nations and have instead become just groups of people sharing some ethnic peculiarities — be they linguistic, anthropological or customary. The Chukchi are no longer Chukchi if some force other than nature should cut them off from whale and walrus hunting. Divorced from their natural mode of life, their traditional dress, (fairy) tales and (traditional) wisdom lose much of their meaning.” (Prologue)


Vahtre and Viikberg point to some of the factors that need to be monitored, here political and economic:


The cultural revolution and the gigantic economic projects have inflicted serious damage on all national cultures, the Russians included, by severing their roots, forcing enormous crowds to migrate from place to place, and tearing the life-web of cultural contacts between generations.


They also note that endangered cultures that can be restored and point to the importance of legal and policy intervention to offer the cure.  In other words, there is a legal remedy, that can be sought through courts to reverse the harm.  This is one of the key reasons why the enterprise of a Red Book has real potential value in leading to solutions.  It is because court processes and monitoring imply the existence and the solicitation of remedies.  Vahtre and Viikberg note what most anthropologists would also likely be able to testify, but that has yet to be documented in an accessible way that the international community and endangered cultures can make use of it.


To a certain extent a mutilated culture can be cured. Limited damage sustained over a short period may be healed by the culture itself if the conditions are favorable. There are possibly several nations that would find their feet again if they were immediately allowed to resume their as yet unforgotten traditional lifestyle. In a number of cases, however, this would require the departure of migrants from their lands, the shut-down of derricks and an end to pollution. … it is conceivable that even oil-wells could be operated without causing too much pollution and without creating impassable obstacles to the path of reindeer.


§         Endangered Peoples of the World Series – The approach of this series, published by Greenwood Press, is similar to that of Vahtre and Viikberg, but in eight regions rather than just one.  Their approach is that of “sampling” cultural diversity and picking a total of 120 cultures that are endangered and evolving in different ways. 


In many ways, what the approach here seems to do is to show why it is that anthropologists need to come together and establish a uniform standard if we are to protect cultural diversity.  The series starts with the proposition that there were some 12,000 to 14,000 cultural groups on the planet, 500 years ago, and that we have lost more than half of this diversity (Sponsel, 2000).  The series doesn’t use the “Red Book” term, but does reinforce the category of “endangerment” (though without any gradations of endangerment).  It also offers a clear list of categories in which to examine threats or endangerment factors:  demographic decline, current events, environmental crisis, and socio-cultural crisis.  Yet, the processes that are described are listed as “ethnocide, ecocide, and genocide” that are three undefined and possibly conflicting terms.


Here is a capsule form prototype for looking at cultures:  people, setting, subsistence strategy, social and political organization, religion and world views, but without defining the actual “strategy” or heuristic logic (the deep structure) that defines or holds the cultures together and makes them each unique. 


The books start to set up the analysis but then back away from offering specific measurements of the threats, the actors to blame, and the ways that cultural health can be determined.  The books don’t really take a stand on what disappearance is, and the textbook questions at the end of each chapter seem to turn the harms done to these cultures into classroom exercises for discussion of whether cultural loss is “acceptable” rather than offer a firm stand from academic experts that conforms with law and professional responsibility to protect cultural diversity.


In Related Fields:


§         The Minorities at Risk Project – Political Scientist, Ted Robert Gurr, who has long studied political violence, has recently worked to establish a website at the Center for International Development and Conflict Management at the University of Maryland that offers data on nearly 300 groups across the world who are politically active and at risk of “genocide”. 


While the intentions of this effort are those that anthropologists would support, any anthropologist looking at the data and its sources (international press accounts) would likely conclude that it politicizes issues of genocide and usurps the territory of anthropology and real cultural risk analysis with what is really a political discrimination analysis.  In Vietnam, for example, the many ethnic groups in the Central Highlands are lumped into the category of “montagnards”; the term used in the international press.  In Cambodia, the only group mentioned as at risk is the “Vietnamese” minority and much of the data is outdated and not supplemented with any field accounts.




What a Red Book for Endangered Cultures would Look Like:


Based on some of the previous models, I suggest a protocol with the categories suggested below, in boxes, followed by short explanations.  The work should also have an overall statement such as the preamble below.


Preamble:  We produce this Red Book not because human diversity is moral and just and a reflection of universal human values, not because it is a pretty thing, or because it enlivens and enrichens our human experience.  We do not do it because the mix of ideas and approaches is the very engine of economic value that fuels human productivity and technological growth and because our wealth as a species derives from the different expertise of different human cultures “comparative advantages” of specialization that they offer for humanity.  We do not do it because a stable earth depends on diverse cultures protecting different eco-systems and resources.  It is all of these things, but that is not the reason for this list.  We do it is because HUMAN SURVIVAL DEPENDS ON DIVERSITY OF APPROACHES.  Homogeneity is death for our species and makes us vulnerable to extinction.  An adaptive quality in groups and its protection are our essence and the key to our survival.


We do not seek to freeze human cultural diversity into a 20th or 21st century catalogue of existing cultures since we recognize the needs for cultures to evolve, change, form anew, and sometimes to die.  But we also recognize the right of each culture to make that determination with the full set of protections that it needs to do so in ways that are consistent with its own past and experience.


We also see these protections as essential to and in harmony with other human rights.  Most other human rights and much of the source of individual differences (ideas) spring from cultural diversity.  Cultural diversity and the right to its protection are higher order rights and pre-conditions to the existence and strength of many of the other human rights enumerated in international covenants on civil and political rights, and on economic and cultural rights.



Global Status:  (Presumed Extinct, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened, Evolving Sustainably by choice with essential characteristics, Least Concern, Data Deficient)

Classification of Culture: (Eco-system dependent culture in a particular habitat;  Non-Eco system dependent culture – either Niche or Non-Niche Dependent; Imperial-Expansionary Culture that Must Evolve)

Discussion of the Culture as a Viable Entity:

- Physical Genocide Watch alert or status

- Cultural Genocide Watch alert or status

- Cultural Heritage Watch alert or status

- Potential Adaptations consistent with cultural preservation/ Recommendations for interventions  (quick)


The idea is to start each listing directly with an overview assessment of endangerment status and concerns.  Next are some key assessment factors at the global level.  Each of these is then repeated for the smaller populations of the group within each country or community where it may be important to have more specific assessments.


The idea for discussion of a culture as a viable entity is to recognize that some cultures may have a “right to die” or may simply not be viable human choices.  This is a very difficult determination, but it is clear that a slave sub-culture in an imperial niche may not be a viable entity and may need to change as much as an imperial culture that cannot live sustainably on its own resource base is also not viable as a human culture once it has reached the limits of expansion.


Overall Assessment of Risk Factors:

- Disease or other demographic:

- Neighboring population expansion:

- Threats to resources:

- Climate change:

- Political:

- Trade and its impact:

- Development aid interventions and impact:

- Other social and cultural factors:


CULTURE NAME:  Subculture Group – (Rural “Non-Evolving” form of the culture; Sectarian Subcultural group; Geographic subcultural group by country, Geographical subcultural group within each country, etc.)

Status:  (Presumed Extinct, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened, Evolving Sustainably by choice with essential characteristics, Least Concern, Data Deficient)

Discussion of the culture as a viable entity.

- Physical Genocide Watch alert or status

- Cultural Genocide Watch alert or status

- Cultural Heritage Watch alert or status

Potential Adaptations consistent with cultural preservation/ Recommendations for interventions (quick)


The goal here is to recognize different sub-components of cultures that are evolving to new cultures or that are part of the overall culture in a different expression of it, and to allow for the same kind of analysis and protections, followed by the same analysis of factors as shown above.  This would be placed in a data base for several levels of analysis and accessible by country, by type, and by the culture name.


Note here that cultural heritage sites could require a separate listing where they may be in another country of groups that no longer occupy their ancestral lands.  At the same time, there may also be cultural heritage sites of colonial cultures that are on lands where control is now taken by the previously colonized group.  These sites are not now currently protected in the world (such as French colonial architecture) because they are of dominant cultures, but they also merit listing in all countries where they exist.  So, French culture would have listings for each of their former colonies, even though the listings might only include a status of the cultural heritage there.


CULTURE NAME:  Assessment summary by categories


Racial Genetic Adaptations to Eco-System, if relevant 

Unique Attribute of this culture

Current status/ vulnerability to risk factors in defined time intervals (scores of health and continuity/ ability to sustainably evolve)


Population Strategy and natural carrying capacity in habitat

Unique Attribute of this culture

Current status/ vulnerability to risk factors in defined time intervals (scores of health and continuity/ ability to sustainably evolve)


Economic and Technology Strategy (Economic Subsistence) Central to Culture

Unique Attribute of this culture

Current status/ vulnerability to risk factors in defined time intervals (scores of health and continuity/ ability to sustainably evolve)


Political Strategy and Organization Central to Culture

Unique Attribute of this culture

Current status/ vulnerability to risk factors in defined time intervals (scores of health and continuity/ ability to sustainably evolve)


Social Structure, Kinship and Strategy Central to Culture

Unique Attribute of this culture

Current status/ vulnerability to risk factors in defined time intervals (scores of health and continuity/ ability to sustainably evolve)


Language (from the Red Book of Endangered Languages)

Unique Attribute of this culture

Current status/ vulnerability to risk factors in defined time intervals (scores of health and continuity/ ability to sustainably evolve)


Religious and Ritual, Custom Attributes reflecting and reinforcing economic, political, and social strategy

Unique Attribute of this culture

Current status/ vulnerability to risk factors in defined time intervals (scores of health and continuity/ ability to sustainably evolve)


The idea of these seven categories is to seek to establish key defining variables for particular cultures that then set baseline measurements for assessing the vulnerability (i.e., the amount of endangerment and loss) to which the cultures are subject by any of the risk factors for change.


The racial category may strike anthropologists as strange given that we now try to minimize race and genes and to look at human choice, but the goal is to prevent discrimination by recognizing that cultures may have both physical and genetic characteristics that suit them to eco-systems and that climate change and migration or forced relocation may impose a genetic hardship as well as a cultural one. 


Of course, the categories, themselves, are sometimes complicated to define.  Frames of “equilibrium” are difficult to establish.  Yet, that is our professional task as anthropologists and what is needed in order to protect cultures under threat.  We should be able to establish mechanisms whereby we reach a professional determination and continue to improve upon it, or leave cases that are unclear with alternative interpretations that still offer a standard by which the culture can be protected.  It is better that we should try and come to some kind of agreement that might be only partly correct, than to either do nothing or to allow those without the training to try or to substitute their determinations based on “cultural and social capital” or “total numbers” or “genetics.”  


The focus on change over time rather than on absolute numbers is a major shift away from the “deaths” model of genocide and the “population health” model now used by development aid actors who simply look at the size of populations and then conclude that minority cultures are well off.  We know that to say there are 2 million Native Americans today, compared to less than a million two centuries ago (down from an estimated 10 million) is not an indicator of the “health” and viability of Native American cultures in the United States.  The numbers, themselves, are not the relevant indicator.


CULTURE NAME:  Assessment of Cultural Heritage Sites from historical past and for contemporary use, including past colonial history and contact in non-indigenous areas


By Type and Name of Site:  Status by category and by individual site:  (Presumed Extinct, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, Near Threatened, Evolving Sustainably by choice with essential characteristics, Least Concern, Data Deficient)


Categories of Sites:

Capitals, urban centers, military centers/ citadels

Cemeteries and tombs

Religious shrines and monuments

Art and Architecture



One value of linking this classification of sites with living cultures is that it creates the kind of holism of protection that is now lacking in the work of UNESCO; where there are separate approaches for sites (determined by nation states, not by peoples) and recognition of languages.  This kind of classification will also help to recognize the large number of peoples that were once States but are now Stateless (and often just viewed as “primitive tribes”) and seek to have some connection with the memorials and archaeological record of their past.  The idea here is to protect the historical record of their States for examination of human choices, success and failure.




General Discussion:  Though there are several technical issues to be addressed in cataloguing cultures and measuring the threats to them, three concerns are likely to be raised at the outset that relate to the validity of the whole enterprise:  how classification is handled; how to protect the assessments from political or value judgments and to maintain professionalism; and how to fit this potentially reductionist or measurement approach within the framework of a discipline that has competing approaches to documenting cultures.  These issues are healthy for discussion and reaffirm the importance of the enterprise.


Classification Problem:  The key question to ask about the classification of cultures is whether disagreements or mistakes in classification will help or hurt human diversity, not about whether complete scientific accuracy is possible.  We agree in our field that there is no such thing as complete accuracy given multiple perspectives even on science and classification, itself.  But here, the goal of the Red Book is not to establish a definitive scholarly encyclopedia.  That academic enterprise is separate from this one.  It is to take larger works done by scholars and to put it into a measurement framework that can be used legally for protection.  In other words, for the purposes of the Red Book, which are not absolute scientific truth, but improved protection based on scientific standards (!), the hair splitting is not really that important.  The protections would still apply and benefit groups no matter how they are precisely defined because the processes that are at work on “mountain peoples of Southeast Asian sub-regions/ eco-systems,” are destroying the cultures whether they are 5 in a sub-region or 18.  The loss of forest, the introduction of State political systems and education, the loss of population control, the forced migrations and immigration, have a similar impact on all and the solutions are similar for all even if the boundaries between the individual groups are not clear.


In a way, this question is similar to asking, “Does it matter if an endangered eco-system has 3 endangered species or 30?”  The answer environmentalists largely give is no.  The issue is the same.  The strategy that several different environmental organizations have actually taken to good effect moves towards a focus on the causes of the problem.  Birdlife, for example, focuses on species of birds.  But to save birds, they preserve habitats since species cannot live outside their habitats.  They use birds as a visible indicator of the endangerment of a habitat.  Similarly, Flora and Fauna International identifies mammalian species that have human appeal, such as langurs or elephants. 


Similarly, the question of whether many States today represent cultures – whether the United States is a “culture”, whether Moldova (carved off from Romania over a few generations) is really a “culture” or a country – are not really relevant to the Red Book because these population entities do not really need protection from anthropologists and the world community. Even if “Moldovans” are classified as a subgroup of Romanians and don’t particularly care for that grouping, the cultural protections and pressures on them are analyzed in the same way whether they are a Romanian sub-group or an independent entity, in the framework above.


What is important is to establish process – a mechanism for consensus among professionals.  We do it all the time with tenure committees and article review panels.  Such processes are imperfect.  On easy cases we do well but on hard cases we often fail.  What we need to do is establish a static part of the process that offers legitimacy and a dynamic part that opens it to ideas and to change.


Values Problem on Viability and Endangerment:  The issues of “viability” and appropriate evolution of cultures do require professional value judgments on protection and change.  We cannot assure perfect judgments on these issues but what we can assure, again, is a professional process that raises the issues in an appropriate way and that incorporates ethical concerns.


In a sense, all diversity is really “problematic” given what are promoted as “universal” human rights standards.  The paradox is that probably no diversity could exist if all cultures were really held to the international declarations of human rights.  We know there are slave cultures, cultures that promote different kinds of internal violence that we as professionals do not approve of, and types of stratifications and inequalities that do not fit the emerging world order.  What we can do is make the issues of conflict very clear and force open the debates in an open way, rather than hide them and leave the processes to politics and elimination of these cultures.  We know the conflict between our standards of what we believe in as “universal” rights and our commitment to neutrality. 


Are Native American groups that subsist on casino income a viable culture?  This is the kind of determination we need to make, based on “fit” with previous strategies and the different factors of economic, political, and social functions and recognizing the political implications and impact on individuals of such determinations.  This is where the categorization of “eco-system” dependence and “social system” dependence helps to show that the evolved culture is really something very different and recognizes an extinction of the culture even though it may preserve the genotype of the group!


Perhaps the Red Book should leave open pages for us to comment on the value of protecting and preserving those practices that violate what are now promoted as “universal” norms.  We can use it to try to move towards better international standards within a framework that we can manage.


Methodological Problems of Classifying Cultures and What it Means for the Discipline:  Some anthropologists might object to the use of a categorical classification scheme for cultures, fearing that this approach forces anthropology into a framework of structural functionalism.  Once again, it is important to note that this is not a definitive cultural data base and is only a device for the purposes of political protection of groups.  As such, it is little different from other approaches listed above and of the Human Relations Area Files.


The project may push cultures to define their characteristics or to be defined in order to be protected, but the exercise may actually contribute to discussions among groups under pressure to think about what defines them and what is important to their identities in ways that are helpful to their survival and evolution.




Who Needs to Do It:


It is great to propose an idea for a major professional undertaking, but without appropriate organization, a medium or format, and the labor of the anthropological community, this approach will die along with cultural diversity.  In fact, anthropologists have excellent opportunities and models for organization, format, and for organizing our labor to do this.


§         The Organization:  We should restrict our board to professional anthropologists and seek to ensure representation of those who work in development anthropology and have some awareness of the actors who can be involved in solutions as well as to those anthropologists who have backgrounds in law and rights promotion.  Perhaps this will happen through self selection.  At the same time, we should invite some outside disciplines – human geography, environmentalists who have worked with the Red Book, rights watch groups, perhaps Indigenous Peoples groups to be affiliated with it.


The Professional commission could be part of the American Anthropological Association, but universalized to include more foreign colleagues and possibly those from related disciplines (law, linguistics, human rights, other social sciences), and linked to an international umbrella such as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.  It might make sense to be housed alongside an existing data base such as that of the Human Relations Area Files, though they may not wish to take on a second function and their own data base is currently limited to only a fraction of the world’s cultures.


The Format:  Advances in technology now allow us the opportunity to establish an interactive data-base format such as that of the Wikipedia; open to change by members and to comments by outsiders and for viewing by everyone.  We can have a registered entry system for professionals, with a lock, freezing content and making it additive until a professional board makes determinations at set intervals.  Each page can be open to discussion and new data for inputs and challenges to be supplied by public.


§         How We Can All Supply the Labor as Part of Our Professional Activities:   This year 2008 and the period 2007-2009 have been declared by the U.N. the International Year of Planet Earth, organized by the International Union of Geological Sciences, and the U.N. system is raising $20 Million for study of the issues relating to the planet and ten themes.  This is one of many potential funding opportunities that would establish this initiative as part of the global system.  If we act now, we can partner with our colleagues in human geography and seek to produce an early version of this work for 2008.  Anthropologists can ask that 1% of the funds for the earth be devoted to our effort for the human cultural diversity on the planet and its classification and protection in a Red Book.


As for labor, we can all supply it in an organized way, with each of us part of this enterprise in our areas of expertise.  There is no other way and it is our obligation to do so.  And we already have the space and the international recognition of the value of our time to do so.  There is already a day on our calendar every year where we have the obligation and recognition to do this work. 


On International Human Rights Day, December 10, every year, we need to set aside the full day to do any of the work that we have neglected throughout the year and that needs to be done to protect the rights of minority cultures we work with and know about.  This is the day we can declare as the day to enter new information into the data base of the Red Book of Endangered Cultures.  This is the day we can dedicate to read entries and check them for professionalism.  This is the day that we can take political action on behalf of endangered cultures by writing letters, by launching lawsuits, or by contributing funds and speaking out.


We have had this day since 1948, when the U.N. signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we have let it become a day for celebrations and speeches but not for action.  In 2006, the UN, through the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbor, turned the theme of the day into the “fight against poverty” in promotion of the UN efforts that actually undermine cultural diversity.  Politicians have distorted the meaning of the day and we have let them.


In Western culture, with celebrations for Christmas, Hannukah, and Kwanza that have become commercialized and where it has become a ritual to question whether the “meaning” or “spirit” of giving have disappeared, we have an opportunity to make a cultural statement and establish a real ritual of giving that is right in the heart of the holiday season, between the American holiday of Thanksgiving, the harvest ritual, and the rites of the start of winter and of Christmas and rebirth.  December 10 is a day that we can give a gift to populations in the world that rely on our professional help and commitment.


We also have three other days in the year that can highlight these issues and that can be those of voluntary commitments and follow-up or preparation for work on International Human Rights Day.

Ø      May 21 is the World Day for Cultural Diversity for Dialogue and Development, since 2001. This is a second day in the year that the U.N. has recognized for this issue and it conveniently falls in the middle of the year, giving us two days of the year to devote to this important work. 

Ø      July 29 is the recognized day for Socio-cultural Diversity and the Fight Against Positive Discrimination.  This day is not officially recognized.

Ø      August 9 is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous People.





At the current rate of language extinction extrapolated to cultures, the world is losing some 30 cultures per year.  Every month we wait, two to three cultures are lost.  That isn’t just the death of cultural diversity.  It is also the death of our profession, meaning the loss of some 30 subjects of study per year; turning our living profession over to historians and museum specialists.


If we have a tool that might work and don’t act, we impoverish both the earth of human cultures and our profession.





Arbor, Louise, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, statement on International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2006.


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 For more discussion of this proposal, contact Professor Lempert at:

Earth, from Apollo 17 (NASA free image)