Local environmental knowledge helps indigenous societies to adapt

March 01, 2016

In the indigenous societies that still exist on the planet, those who possess greater knowledge of natural resources, traditions and age-old beliefs have a greater capacity to obtain food and safeguard their health.

However, in spite of their privileged situation, these individuals do not enjoy a better nutritional status or general well-being than the other members of the group, probably because these societies prioritise information sharing and equal distribution of resources.

This is the conclusion of a study by scientists at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology of the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (ICTA-UAB) led by Dr Victoria Reyes-García, in the framework of a research project on the adaptive nature of culture and the benefits of local environmental knowledge as seen in three indigenous societies in Borneo, the Congo and Amazonia.

The project, with one million Euros in funding through a Starting Grant awarded by the European Research Council (within the Seventh Framework Programme of the European Union) to Victoria Reyes-García, has carried out an in-depth study of these three indigenous societies over five years, in order to gain greater insights into their systems of knowledge, which are often forgotten. Though the societies being studied may appear to be far removed from our own lives, the results point to alternative ways of producing and using knowledge that could be of great significance for our "knowledge society".

"We call our own society the 'knowledge society' but this is a commodified knowledge; if we can learn to use knowledge in a different way, as these indigenous populations do, we could gain great benefits", explains Dr Reyes-García. The members of the research group lived for a year and a half in the communities of the Punan Tubu (hunter-gatherers of Borneo, Indonesia), the Baka (semi-nomads from the River Congo basin) and the Tsimane' (forager-horticulturists from Bolivian Amazonia).

The local environmental knowledge (LEK) studied in this period encompasses all the ancestral knowledge that the members of the group have of natural resources and of the functions and dynamics of their ecosystems, along with the management practices, beliefs, traditions and institutions associated with this knowledge that the society has built up over thousands of years. LEK is dynamic, is transmitted from one generation to another in unwritten form by observation and imitation and it facilitates the adaptive strategies of indigenous peoples in the face of change. The researchers note, however, that this knowledge is losing importance in these indigenous societies, which are gradually abandoning their subsistence economy and adopting new forms of economy based on the market, along with formal education and modern health systems.

The project focused on knowledge relating to hunting and medicinal plants. In indigenous societies, greater knowledge of hunting techniques is a guarantee of having food available daily, while knowing about medicinal plants is key to the survival of groups with limited access to national health systems.

"We tried to find out if people who have accumulated more knowledge (LEK) about hunting or medicinal plants enjoy better living conditions; for example, whether knowing more about medicinal plants means they get fewer illnesses or whether catching more game means they enjoy a better nutritional status", explains Dr Reyes-García. The results showed that individuals with greater hunting knowledge caught more animals per hour of hunting and that those who knew more about medicinal plants reported fewer days of illness. However, In spite of these results these persons were not necessarily found to enjoy a better nutritional status.

The explanation for this paradox seems to lie in the prevalence of sharing and reciprocity in the three societies being studied: practices that affect both knowledge and access to resources. "They share information on the properties of a plant or where in the forest it can be found and they also share meat, with all members of the community. The frequency with which information and resources are shared could be the reason why individuals' nutritional status is not directly related to their LEK level".

The researchers suggest that knowledge of LEK systems should not only be taken into account when making policy with regard to indigenous peoples but should be seen from the perspective of European societies as "alternative ways of producing, transmitting and using knowledge".

On completing this project (The adaptive nature of culture: A cross-cultural analysis of the returns of Local Environmental Knowledge in three indigenous societies"), the group has issued a comprehensive report with the principal conclusions drawn, in Spanish, English and French.

Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona

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