The Role of Traditional Knowledge Systems in Saving the Planet

A herd elephants in a grassy area
The Role of Traditional Knowledge Systems in Saving the Planet

For years now, scientists have been debating the place of traditional knowledge systems in efforts to fight climate change. While there is no common position on whether—and to what extent—local knowledge systems fit in the knowledge jigsaw, there is a general consensus among researchers today that this knowledge plays a key complementary role to modern and scientific information.

For days, this debate raged during the recent International Consortium on Conservation of Biodiversity in Kigali, Rwanda, as researchers from around the world interrogated whether traditional knowledge systems are the solution to saving nature in the context of the escalating global climate emergency. Known simply as local knowledge and Indigenous knowledge systems, this is a collection of facts that relates to the entire system of concepts, beliefs and perceptions that people hold about the world around them.

UNESCO describes this system of knowledge as understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings. From rare monkey species to near-extinct plant varieties, birds and baboons, these facts and concepts have been applied successfully by communities living in the African and Amazonian ecosystems to conserve biodiversity, rescuing animals and plants from the cusp of extinction.

In Africa, its proponents argue that local knowledge is critical in boosting the adaptative capacity of communities and building their resilience. They further observe that these knowledge systems help to protect nature and all its components, including plant life, wildlife, water systems and regeneration for self-perpetuation.

But where do these knowledge systems fit in the wider scheme of conservation? How unique are they, if at all? Do they have any shortcomings?

For climate adaptation expert Amy Giliam Thorp, these knowledge systems have been tried and tested for centuries, based on their practicality that is informed by local needs. They are, therefore, dependable.

The solutions

‘‘Indigenous knowledge systems have successfully been applied for generations to make the people more adaptive and resilient against climate change,’’ Amy notes.

‘‘Our continent has an abundance of real, practical and sustainable solutions to tackle climate change,’’ adds the senior adaptation advisor at climate think tank Power Shift Africa, noting that these knowledge systems are key to cushioning Africa against the sting of climate change. 

Most of these solutions, including agroecology and forest restoration, for example, are locally led and based on local facts.

"They offer context-specific solutions informed by local realities that help to protect and build the resilience of people, communities and ecosystems to extreme weather events."

But what is the relevance of these knowledge systems in the context of evolving knowledge systems and new information? How significantly will Indigenous knowledge systems contribute to biodiversity conservation in the future? It turns out their place is secure, as Indian American conservation scientist Nitin Sekar observes. To the scientist, Indigenous knowledge is ‘‘already essential’’ to conservationists who develop solutions from outside. ‘‘It will continue to be essential. But contextual knowledge is critical. Without it, there can be few solutions.’’

On how these knowledge systems can be applied alongside scientific knowledge to boost biodiversity conservation efforts, Sekar says the future of conservation is heavily dependent on existing knowledge systems.

‘‘Those leading conservation efforts rely on local guides to run a project on elephants, for instance. It is also these local guides who help conservationists to stay safe in the wilderness,’’ notes the author of What’s Left of the Jungle, a book about wildlife conservation.

Sekar says modern conservationists must ‘‘keep asking questions’’ to make their work count.

"We must try to figure out how to make it possible for local people to lead projects. It is also critical that researchers publicly recognize the contribution locals make in biodiversity conservation."

Traditional knowledge systems are recognized in multilateral climate forums, including at the highest United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change level. Meanwhile, the Nairobi Declaration that resulted from the Africa Climate Summit held in Kenya in September also acknowledges Indigenous peoples and local communities, and the role they play in protecting ecosystems.

Meanwhile, the Nairobi Declaration that resulted from the Africa Climate Summit held in Kenya in September also acknowledges Indigenous peoples and local communities, and the role they play in protecting ecosystems. 

Amy, though, argues that the declaration fell short of recognizing ‘‘that protecting and securing their land rights is a vital precondition to building these groups’ resilience.’’

In recent years, the conflict between new knowledge and traditional knowledge systems has played out and is at the center of one of the controversies involving carbon projects. 

On the one hand, scientists argue that carbon projects promote healthy ecosystems that are essential for climate mitigation and for boosting resilience of communities living near them. Natural ecosystems, including forests, grasslands and mangroves are natural carbon sinks trap carbon in the atmosphere and store it, helping to clean the air and, eventually, slow down climate change. 

On the other hand, communities argue that the establishment of carbon projects sometimes violates land rights. They also claim that carbon projects disregard the role local knowledge systems have played in conservation across generations. 

In March this year, a report by human rights organization Survival International exposed what it termed ‘‘major flaws’’ in the flagship carbon credits scheme by Northern Rangelands Trust in Northern Kenya. The report faulted the project for ‘‘breaking down the Indigenous people’s long-standing traditional grazing systems’’ and replacing them with ‘‘a centrally controlled system’’ similar to commercial ranching. 

‘‘This could endanger the people’s food security by preventing the traditional practice of migration during drought,’’ authors of the report had warned. 

But as climate change escalates, the shortcomings of traditional conservation knowledge systems keep being exposed, say researchers. Sekar acknowledges that some patterns will change as the climate continues to change, rendering traditional knowledge ‘‘less useful’’, particularly in terms of making predictions. 

‘‘Traditional knowledge systems in general are not failsafe. In any case, we must interrogate these beliefs just as much as we do science. Anyone looking for a single indisputable source of truth and solution in conservation is likely to be disappointed.’’

Kenya and India

Nowhere is the traditional knowledge in biodiversity protection more relatable than in elephant conservation in Kenya and India. The two countries draw multiple parallels owing to their land size, the species and the protection methods used to conserve the jumbos. 

At just 582,000 square kilometers, Kenya is a fifth of India, whose land mass is a staggering 3.287 million square kilometers. At 1.42 billion people, India is the most populous country in the world. With this population density— about 46,000 people per elephant, compared to only 1,528 people per elephant in Kenya— conflict between humans and elephants is more likely to occur in India than in Kenya. 

The story of elephant conservation in the Asian country over the last three decades is an incredible one. India has managed to conserve the world’s largest population of wild Asian elephants over the years, with the current population standing at just short of 30,000, according to findings of a 2017 census. 

So, how has India managed to keep its elephant population steady? And what lessons can Kenya learn in efforts to conserve its herd?

‘‘The best part of this is that the Indian people have learned to make sacrifices for the survival of the elephants. Millions of Indians love elephants as individuals and as a species. They are sympathetic about the beasts losing habitat and food in the wild,’’ Sekar observes.

He notes, though, that marginalized communities who live close to the elephants have rarely been compensated whenever they lose out to elephants. He adds: ‘‘Not all Indians are as compassionate to elephants, including those in captivity. This is bad for conservation.’’ 

Sekar argues that elephant conservation methods often transcend country boundaries and regions.

‘‘Kenya has done well in recent years to conserve its wildlife, and especially its elephants, despite the difficult odds, particularly the threat of poaching. I look up to Kenyan conservationists such as Paula Kahumbu with admiration for their work to boost equitable access to nature.’’ 

After more than 15 years in elephant conservation, Sekar says he has learned multiple lessons about human beings and nature in an ever-changing world. The biggest one? Human beings must be clear about what they want, he says. ‘‘Do we want to live in a world without biodiversity or to make the hard, expensive choice of protecting nature?’’

‘‘We have a preoccupation with what is ‘natural’ but we are unclear about the cost implications of protecting this. We always think about the costs of, say, relocating Indigenous people or killing foreign-origin species or feral dogs in the name of nature.’’

"Humanity is a natural species like any other. How we behave and [what we] do towards nature is not different from other living species. I think we are better off thinking about ethics for all sentient species than vainly trying to keep things from changing."

This story was supported by Internews' Earth Journalism Network. It was first published in Nation Africa on November 3, 2023 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: A herd of elephants invade a farm / Credit: Nation Media Group. 

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