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Putting traditional knowledge to work for the planet

December 4, 2020

Mexican women rest against a tree
The GEF SGP supports communities around the world, including Mexico, where a women's cooperative sustainably harvests oregano while also monitoring and preventing water pollution from agro-industrial waste. Photo: Andrea Egan/GEF SGP

When a clan chief in Fiji dies, fishing stops for up to a year on part of the island nation’s extensive coral reefs to allow fish stocks to rebound. It is in the new chief’s interest that they do, since an abundant catch when fishing resumes is seen as a portent of his future success.

“In Oceania, marine protected areas are not new concepts,” said Alifereti Tawake, who helped found and now chairs the Locally Managed Marine Area International Network. “Protected areas are part of the ancient wisdom package that our ancestors used to be able to restore their food systems.”

Alifereti Tawake
Alifereti Tawake by the ocean in Suva Point, Fiji

Traditional knowledge – the collective understanding of traditions and practices used by indigenous groups to sustain and adapt themselves to their environment – is critical to global efforts to protect and renew nature. The insights passed down through generations are valuable for research and ecosystem management, while traditional medical wisdom has the potential to lead to new medical breakthroughs.

In recognition of this important role, the Global Environment Facility held civil society consultations on the subject of traditional knowledge ahead of its 59th GEF Council meetings, hearing from Tawake and other indigenous leaders on ways to ensure voices of indigenous peoples and local communities are prioritized and integrated into efforts to conserve biodiversity, address climate change, and combat other global threats.

“This discussion we are having today is very timely, are also very, very important,” Lucy Mulenkei, Chair of the GEF Indigenous Peoples Advisory Group, told the GEF consultations which were held online because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“For indigenous people, traditional knowledge is our identity, our culture, language, food, art, clothes, songs, and our environment, which includes our shelter and biodiversity. And all that is around us. All that is alive around us. And it's our livelihood,” she said.

Just five percent of the global population defines itself as indigenous. And yet this group holds sway over 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity. A recent analysis in the journal Nature Sustainability showed indigenous groups have rights to or manage nearly 4 billion hectares of land in the Americas, the Arctic, South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and in Oceania.

Indigenous peoples have spiritual and customary bonds with their traditional territories that span millennia, and their preservation of sacred lands is arguably the earliest form of conservation. Strong customs and a close connection to natural systems help them weather crises, and — of particular note now — they can share time-tested insights into the management of infectious diseases.

“For indigenous peoples, to speak about traditional knowledge is to speak about the past, the present, and the future,” Ramiro Batzin, co-chair of the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, told the gathering. “Traditional knowledge is at the core of the identity, the cultural heritage, and the way of life for our communities.”

Cindy Kobei
Cindy Naameni Kobei in indigenous Ogiek clothing

To Cindy Naameni Kobei, a member of the Ogiek community in Kenya and Program Coordinator for the International Alliance of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples of the Tropical Forest, it is vital for governments and environmental agencies to heed insights from these communities.

“Indigenous persons, we've been living in nature since the beginning of time,” said Kobei, whose Ogiek ancestors come from the Mau Forest, Kenya’s largest at 675,000 acres. “We've found ways of managing tropical forests, and we’ve found ways of ensuring that nature does not die — there is no biodiversity loss.”

With the coronavirus dominating the global conversation, the GEF consultations with civil society delved into how traditional knowledge can help the world deal with outbreaks of communicable disease. Kobei said humanity must understand that COVID-19 and other animal-born pandemics are a direct result of disharmony with nature.

“We need to go back to our roots,” she said. “We need to go back to our land. We need to go back to traditional ways of doing things, and not just adapting to the current ways, because they've proven that they're not good for the planet.”

She said intergenerational contact can help preserve ages-old knowledge of nature, including the medicinal properties of certain plants — knowledge that offers the potential for future therapies and bioprospecting leads.

“There are special trees and barks of trees, leaves, and a person from the older generation is the only person who can identify these special trees that have medicine, these roots that have medicine, these leaves,” she said. This knowledge must be passed on from old to young or it will be lost.

Indigenous communities have already contributed significantly to the UN’s Sustainability Goals and Convention on Biological Diversity targets in the past 20 years, said Tawake, but he hopes environmental agencies and governments will help them do more.

In Fiji, the efforts of the Locally Managed Marine Network that Tawake helped forge have led to a 30 to 40 percent rise in household incomes in the first 5-10 years of local management. Fish and marine stocks are growing more abundant inside sacred or managed areas.

“There is also evidence of reseeding and spilling over to the unmanaged areas, outside the managed areas,” he said. “In Vueti Navakavu, a clan in Fiji, a box crab that was last seen in the 1950s has now been seen again, mainly attributed to the restoration efforts of the community and partners involved.”

Perhaps most importantly, he added, “there is a growing interest and connection with nature. It’s almost like a revival of people connecting back to nature, wanting to do things for nature, planting mangroves.”

Kobei said she was happy that the GEF has provided a forum to discuss the value of traditional knowledge and, along with Tawake, hopes it will be a step toward the inclusion of indigenous communities in all aspects of environmental stewardship.

“I want the full participation of indigenous peoples everywhere—all platforms, all discussions, all consultations,” she said.

Tawake agreed.

“My message for GEF Council is to believe and trust the communities, the indigenous people, to do more for their territories. Because they're doing it not just for nature, or for the world. They are doing it also for their own survival — for our own survival.”

During the session, which was opened by GEF CSO Network Chair Akhteruzzaman Sano, Global Environment Facility CEO Carlos Manuel Rodriguez stressed his personal commitment to working with civil society, including local and indigenous communities, to advance the Global Environment Facility’s mission.

For more information about the Global Environment Facility’s engagement with indigenous peoples and support for traditional knowledge through the UNDP-managed GEF Small Grants Programme, please click here.