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Can Blockchain Preserve the Heritage of Endangered Populations? – Cointelegraph Magazine

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Around halfway between Hawaii and northern Australia, the Marshall Islands are a long way from anywhere. It would be hard to find a place more remote. And in the glory of the sun, the Marshall Islands seem to be a tropical paradise.  

But the sprawling array of coral atolls in the Pacific Ocean is characterized by stark and tragic contrasts. With its coconut palms, white sands, turquoise waters, coral reefs, and friendly people it should be a major tourist hub. Yet many of the 1,156 islands are uninhabitable, and the isolation that makes The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) so attractive to adventurous tourists also made it the perfect place for extensive U.S. nuclear bomb testing between 1946 and 1958.

Poisoned and displaced in the past, the citizens of the Marshall Islands face an even more uncertain future. At an average elevation of just two meters above sea level, rising tides caused by melting ice caps are on course to swallow up the atolls in the next two or three decades, submerging the islands and leaving its 59,000 people homeless. 

Marshallese poet and climate change activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner chillingly stated:

“I wanna tattoo this number to my forehead: Marshall Islands as a nation actually contributes 0.00001% of the world’s global emissions. And yet we are the ones set to disappear first.”

Life, for the Marshallese, is brutally unfair.

The Global Fight for Survival

Aware of the fate that awaits them, the Marshallese government and former President Hilda Hiene have been active in promoting climate change action. Marshall Islands and other Micronesian students have also spoken at UN gatherings to highlight the peril that countries at low elevation face. 

“The dangers are literally on their doorsteps,” says Sean Stelten, a tropical weather forecaster living in the RMI. “We’re already seeing the effects of it in certain areas. There’s one island near me where we keep seeing palm trees dying and falling at the end of the island due to erosion caused by higher seas.”

“It sort of puts a shot clock on our existence,” former chief secretary and advisor to the Marshallese president Ben Graham told National Geographic. “It’s not a 30-second shot clock, but a 30-year shot clock.” 

And it’s not just a Marshallese problem. In fact, some 200 million people around the world face the prospect of losing their lands to rising tides by 2100. The majority of these are in impoverished countries with booming populations such as Bangladesh, India, Nigeria, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

If we lose the fight to climate change, more of the world’s terrain will be claimed by the oceans. Other countries will face severe droughts, famines, and intense hurricanes.

While the Marshallese will survive, their country may not. What will become of their culture, heritage, language? What will remain of their identity when their connection to their home is gone? Will they even be Marshallese any more? 

Can Blockchain Save Populations in Danger of Extinction?

Clearly, there’s a very big difference between the words “save” and “preserve.” Blockchain technology cannot save the Marshall Islands.

But it might help to preserve the Marshallese identity.

According to the latest statistics by Ethnologue, there are some 7,117 spoken languages in the world today — of which 40% (2,926) are at risk of disappearing. “A language becomes endangered when its users begin to teach and speak a more dominant language to their children,” the publication explains.

“Native languages are slowly being forgotten by younger generations due to fast-paced modernization,” says Larrimar Tia, Lead Developer of Indigen, a company that aims to preserve the heritage of indigenous cultures by creating immutable storage of their historical data on the blockchain. “Once we start forgetting our native tongue, we will also start to forget our traditions, arts, and history,” he warns.

A Free Association compact with the United States has resulted in the congregation of around 4,300 Marshallese in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. It’s the single largest concentration of RMI citizens outside of the homeland and, both physically and culturally, almost as far from the islands as one could be.

Blockchain and Cultural Heritage

In 2018 the Global Heritage Fund argued that distributed ledger technologies could be used to preserve endangered heritage sites by tracking antiquities and documenting unique historic locations. Not only for populations in danger of extinction, but for all humanity.

The records of such artifacts would then be stored on an immutable ledger. They would remain — in their digital form at least — preserved on a decentralized blockchain which should theoretically help to protect against losses caused by centralized technical or human failures, suggests the Global Heritage Fund:

“Especially in today’s tumultuous political climate, such promises are appealing. Who knows how many antiquities can be saved from looting or how much trafficking in cultural artifacts can be decreased through the widespread adoption of blockchain-based solutions?”

Several projects began to appear around this time exploring the ways in which blockchain could safeguard archaeological artifacts, oral history, languages, and other shared cultural elements. It would never be the same as marveling over the physical historical objects themselves. But it would ensure they couldn’t be erased from memory, accidentally lost or even deliberately destroyed.

“One of the limitations of traditional data storage,” says Tia, “is that it is very centralized to a single entity that manages the server. The reason why most historical data gets lost is due to lack of immutable and decentralized record keeping. Usually they limit access to a few trusted parties. But using blockchain, the records will be widely available and will never be lost.”

A Look at Blockchain-Based Solutions

In China, Tsinghua University began to research how museums could store their cultural items in digital format using 3D computer models to guarantee their integrity before securing them onto a ledger. 

The TransRossica Russian publishing company has also implemented a similar scheme for storing data on the Credits public blockchain. The aim is to create a specialized archive of documents on significant people throughout the history of Russia.

Andrew Arkhipov, Head of Communications at Credits, said “The joint service allows storing documents and materials about various historical persons on the blockchain, which will be a reliable source for preserving the cultural heritage, real historical chronicles, and facts. The project makes it possible to ensure the uniqueness, authenticity, and integrity of archives.”

Blockchain has also proven its worth when it comes to authenticating objects, such as indigenous art. In 2019, for example, the Australian government began a pilot project to label and track precious historical items in a bid to halt the trading of inauthentic indigenous art.

A whitepaper published to promote a project named KAPU explained the lofty goal of changing the way that archaeological and heritage data are stored using an “archaeological blockchain.” The promises of the website and whitepaper are certainly compelling:

“KAPU wants to use the blockchain to preserve the teachings of history and ensure that our present will be remembered by our children – in the future. This is our goal: to make traceable, accessible and usable – by anyone – everything that has contributed to building and enhancing the history of humanity.”

However, the project’s social accounts are long-abandoned, and requests for comment were never returned. 

Preserving Indigenous Communities

Based in the Philippines, where the capital Manila is also at risk of being permanently submerged in the coming decades, Tia’s Indigen project aims to be “blockchain for the indigenous.” While that includes the preservation of languages, he says that languages are just one facet of the project that has raised funds for local schooling and kickstarted a #SaveTheRiceTerraces of Ifugao campaign.

“The indigenous people are usually the unintended victims of industrialization and globalization,” he says. “Therefore, Indigen was designed with a primary purpose of protecting the rights and property of the indigenous people.”

Part of the work carried out so far involves encouraging indigenous groups, charitable institutions, historians, anthropologists, universities, and legal professionals to donate their historical documentation for permanent preservation on a blockchain. In doing this, Indigen can “create indices which are easily accessible to be studied and used as reference points for students and researchers”.

Of course, with some 370 million indigenous peoples in over 90 countries, Tia recognizes the enormity of the task. But more projects like these in local communities could really make a difference in ensuring that vast culture sets are not lost.

“Since the scope of our project is wide, and the ethnic groups are numerous, it’s not easy to tap into a number of groups at the same time that would support our project,” he says. “So what we plan to do is tap on a single indigenous group first and make it our subject to further the development of our project. One of the major challenges is of course the expenses to conduct outreach programs with these groups.”

The Blockchain Unabridged Indigenous Language Database

The biggest undertaking using blockchain by Indigen so far is its B.U.I.L.D. project (Blockchain Unabridged Indigenous Language Database). “We are using distributed ledger technology (DLT) as the repository of data due to the immutable nature of blockchain and the ability to time stamp information and to keep track of historical records,” he says.

“Furthermore, once the data have been recorded on the blockchain, we will apply Artificial Intelligence (AI) or machine learning technologies to allow real time translations between native languages or tribal dialects. This way, we hope to bridge the gap between various tribes and eliminate the thought of cultural differences and language barriers. Through BUILD, we hope to gain back the interest of the younger generation and help preserve their unique identity. Besides the preservation of cultures, arts and languages on the blockchain, I believe another crucial feature that needs to be incorporated is a unique identity system specific to the indigenous people.”

Creating a Unique Digital Identity 

For endangered peoples the true key to their preservation beyond historical artifacts or languages, as Tia points out, is the construction of a digital identity that can facilitate everyday needs such as cross-border tracking and financial transactions.

One compelling story emerging for the Marshall Islands is the development of the sovereign (SOV), a digital national currency. It’s currently being developed by SFB Technologies using Algorand technology. The Marshallese have previously used the U.S. dollar as the national currency.

SFB Founder Barak Ben-Ezer is immensely enthusiastic about the SOV as legal tender. “I think this could be the model for the future of money,” he states.

But the SOV isn’t just another form of currency, or even cryptocurrency. Through its blockchain, it provides a way of preserving the Marshallese’ financial and political sovereignty and digital identities beyond the physical limitations of their lands. Anyone transacting in SOV will receive a digital identity on the blockchain “like a digital passport that allows you to hold and trade on SOV” says Ben-Ezer. 

Chief economist on the project is former Secretary-General of the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) Peter Dittus. He also authored Revolution Required: The Ticking Time Bombs of the G7 Model in which he alleged that governments were guilty of irresponsible monetary policies — long before the massive COVID-19 stimulus packages. He says:

Identity will be portable. This will allow people with a low cost to prove who they are. So the possibilities are endless. You can tag on government services to that, you can also add on other financial services, you can also add in voting and think about records like, let’s say, deeds and titles. So there is lots of potential that comes when you have a truly high quality identity that is instantly shareable across the world.”

Egalitarian and Sustainable

In contrast to what we’re seeing today in the shape of unprecedented unlimited money printing, the SOV is implementing Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman’s K-percent rule, which means that the money supply will grow by a fixed rate every year. And, instead of that money going to “enrich the richer” the 4% growth in supply is distributed per capita to SOV holders.

Ben-Ezer asks:

“Of the $2 trillion printed in the U.S., how much of that is actually going to arrive in the pockets of the average citizen? This is the first time in the world that the new money printed is divided per capita, so equality and UBI [Universal Base Income] are inherent in the system.”

Since many of the RMI atolls are uninhabitable, some of the remaining islands are severely overcrowded. “An island on Kwajalein Atoll (Ebeye) which provides much of the service workforce for the U.S. Army base on that atoll is considered the sixth most densely populated place on earth,” Stelten says. 

The adverse effect of climate change on the country’s main industries coconut and fishing industries, in conjunction with a dearth of natural resources, has resulted in significant poverty in the Marshall Islands, where the GDP per capita is just $3,300 — creating a pressing need for a UBI.

The Marshallese people will receive 10% of the initial supply of the SOV, while the government will be allocated 40% to place into several different foundations including a self-development fund for startups to operate around the SOV blockchain, the Marshall Islands Green Climate Fund, and the Nuclear Legacy and Health Care Fund.

“In The Marshall Islands,” Ben-Ezer explains, “people are measured by how much they contribute to other people, not by how much money they have. This is why we included the principles of egalitarianism, UBI, and frequent democracy.” 

‘Frequent democracy’ means that anyone can vote efficiently on-chain without having to go to a ballot box. So, all elections can be efficiently handled through the SOV chain, “and they can vote for laws all the time, safely stored on the blockchain,” he says.

Will Any of These Solutions Actually Work?

The SOV could certainly bring many benefits to the Marshallese and potentially other countries — if it works. It would allow citizens to preserve their democracies, and their financial and digital identities. But could it also preserve such information as culture and heritage as well? 

Ben-Ezer believes that it’s a possibility, although he’ll admit that the pressing issue right now is getting the SOV off the ground in the first place. He says, “We are developing a set of tools so that anyone can develop a DApp on the chain, and we believe that identity is going to be a key issue for all the major use cases.”

“There are significant upsides for the country if it [the SOV] works,” Dittus remarks, although he recognizes that the chances of success “like any startup” are slim. It’s too early to say whether the SOV will realize its goals, or how successful other projects such as Indigen and TransRossica will be. In fact, Gartner Research predicts that we may still have some five to ten years to wait until blockchain technology begins to mature.

But as the Global Heritage Fund concluded:

The world’s vulnerable historic places cannot rely on a solution that will “one day” preserve and protect heritage. Although blockchain may eventually be an effective tool in the fight for heritage preservation… in the interest of benefiting endangered heritage sites and cultural traditions, we cannot place all our eggs in blockchain’s basket.

If blockchain solutions do begin to make headway, perhaps we could realistically preserve some aspects of the cultural identity of civilizations that are at risk. 

It may be scant consolation to those whose physical connection to their nations will be severed: but perhaps the footprints they once left in the earth won’t be forgotten when they are claimed by the sea.

 



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