Tuesday, January 22, 2008

SIL on-line database on the Agta

The faith-based academic research non-profit organization SIL (Summer Institute of Linguistics) International recently made available on-line, in cooperation with lead researchers Dr. Thomas N. Headland and his colleague-wife Janet Headland, the extensive raw database on the 3,800 Agta indigenous peoples of the Philippines. The Agta are a hunter-gatherer indigenous cultural community (ICC) in the Philippines, which the Headlands have studied and worked with since 1962. Due to several requests and the permission of their Agta study partners/subjects, they published online in November 2007 the Agta Demographic Database: Chronicle of a Hunter-Gatherer Community in Transition. The publication includes data on 3,800 individuals, including 600 surviving Agta.

The release of the database opens up avenues for more analysis of the socio-demographic data. Hopefully, society can understand more the Agta and look at how research and action-research may assist them in their quest for social justice, autonomy, cultural survival, and prosperity.

On the other hand, what are the implications on privacy and human subjects rights with this publication (despite the Agta giving permission)?

Here's the verbatim blurb from the website with the links:


Agta Demographic Database: chronicle of a hunter-gatherer community in transition

Authors Headland, Janet D.
Headland, Thomas N.

For the past half-century Thomas and Janet Headland have studied demographic change among the Agta, a hunter-gatherer population in the Philippines. Since the 1998 publication of Population Dynamics of a Philippine Rain Forest People, numerous scholars have asked for the raw data on which the Headlands based their study. Now those data are published with the full permission of the Agta people. This database consists of the records of 3,800 Agta individuals, 600 of whom are alive today. Of these, 284 are members of the San Ildefonso Agta, a subpopulation living on a peninsula separate from the larger Casiguran Agta on the mainland. Included in these records are the names, facial photographs, family histories, genealogies, and ancestors (dating back to the late nineteenth century) of today's Agta. The data are complete with every birth, marriage, divorce, death, and in- and out-migration since 1950 for the 284-member San Ildefonso Agta subpopulation.

The Agta population has vital statistics that are extreme compared to industrialized humankind. These will be of interest to anthropologists, students of human history, and demographers. Today's Agta have an infant mortality rate of 230/1000 (vs. 7/1000 in the USA), a high total fertility rate of 7.0, and a life expectancy of just 23 years (vs. 78 years in the USA). Readers may use these data to check these and other demographic parameters, as well as for testing their own hypotheses of so-called primitive populations. The Agta Demographic Database provides a keyhole glimpse into how our human ancestors may have lived and died in prehistory.

Published 2007
Language Agta, Casiguran Dumagat [dgc]
Ethnologue entry for Agta, Casiguran Dumagat
Country Philippines
Subjects Anthropology
Keywords Agta; hunter-gatherers; demographic anthropology; Negritos; demography of prehistoric populations; Casiguran; San Ildefonso

1 comment:

Lars said...

Dear livingplanet,

Thanks for linking to this research. I'm curious, how did you hear about it? Through the AAA poster session?

You wrote,
Hopefully, society can understand more the Agta and look at how research and action-research may assist them in their quest for social justice, autonomy, cultural survival, and prosperity.

On the other hand, what are the implications on privacy and human subjects rights with this publication (despite the Agta giving permission)? [emphasis mine -Lars]

This is a good question. FYI, some of the more sensitive originally-gathered data has intentionally been withheld from publication because of privacy concerns.

Here's an important follow-up question: if "society" thinks the publication of this data is bad for the Agta in terms of privacy and human subject rights, but the Agta want it published ... Do we know what's good for them better than they do?

Note that "the permission of [the] Agta" is an understatement here. The Headlands did not just get permission from the Agta people (and informed consent, as required by the UND Institutional Review Board), but Agta leaders' strong request ("command"). Click on the link to download the "Accompanying documents", open "InformedConsent.pdf", and note the several pages of signatures and thumbprints. In particular, read why the Agta say they want this data published. Here's an excerpt from the English translation of their informed consent letter. (Sure would be nice if there was a blockquote tag available.)

We, all of us Agta, we have been helping them [the Headlands] for about forty years. What we want now is that they list all of our many-names in a [computer] so that all the people in the world can read our names. We want it like that, so that even if we die, they will know them. And our future-grandchildren, they will see/know our names even after one hundred years have passed.

What we are commanding to Grandpa Headland is, "Don't you erase our names from the sensos." Good-grief! If they get erased, for sure our grandchildren will forget our names!

Also, we give-permission for Grandpa Headland to place all of the photographs of us in the computer and on the internet. Do that also with [photos of] our children and our great-grandparents of long ago, so that other people in the world will see our images (what-we-look-like). And we want them to list all of our names attached-right next to our photographs, and [we want] our names [in the sensos], too, so that other people will know our names.

And also, the Agta sensos that Headlands will make, it is our proof that we are true Agta of Casiguran, so that we can prove to the government that we have always-lived on this land of ours in Casiguran. This land here is our ansestral domen ('ancestral domain') since long ago, even more than a thousand years ago. If our true names are not listed in
the sensos, maybe the government won't believe that we are truly Agta from Casiguran.

My point is, any consideration of the privacy and human subjects rights implications of this research needs to take into account the expressed desires of the Agta themselves, not just externally-applied criteria.

Thanks again for blogging about this database. To me, one of the most significant aspects of how it was published is the fact that the raw data -- not just analysis thereof -- is made available in open formats that anyone can download and process. Thus, interested researchers can answer for themselves questions that the Headlands never thought of. Ethnographic data goes open source.

Disclosure: I helped as a technical consultant in the preparation of the database for online publication.