The role of indigenous knowledge in sustainability

Dr Gonzalo Castro de la Mata
10 July, 23

There is growing recognition of the role indigenous knowledge can play in sustainability. Recent studies in the Brazilian Amazon have concluded that natural forests managed by indigenous communities are better preserved than those outside their territories. This role of indigenous people in relation to forest conservation is anchored in the reliance that exists between their traditional livelihoods and the services and products that forests provide to sustain them. These observations are also supported by the substantial knowledge indigenous people have developed regarding biodiversity, ecosystems, and the products and services they provide.

Although it is true that for generations, human societies have adapted to their environments and have developed knowledge, technologies, and practices to manage and adapt to these ecosystems, it is wrong to conclude that homo sapiens magically and spontaneously protect ecosystems and nature. Indeed, the opposite is true. The global expansion of modern humanity over the last 50,000 years is widely associated with the massive disappearance of large mammals that were hunted down to extinction on all continents. In South America, for example, several species from large bears and saber-toothed cats, to terrestrial sloths and armored glyptodonts disappeared when they came into contact with humans migrating into the continent.

Furthermore, human societies have fundamentally changed global landscapes. For example, forests in the northern hemisphere gave way to the agricultural lands that first fueled rapid economic expansion and later industrialisation. Although fortunately this is starting to be reversed, as modern societies have become more affluent and are able to place more value on conserving natural ecosystems and forests, the reality is that humankind’s first instinct is to use and change nature, often in destructive forms, not to preserve it.

Therefore, what is the role that indigenous knowledge can play in informing sustainability? There are several areas where indigenous knowledge can provide critical insights, but this needs to be understood in the proper context. Regarding water management, there are a number of examples worldwide where ancient technologies were designed to save and allocate water among farmers which are still in use. One such wonder is the ancient Aflaj irrigation system of Oman, existing for more than 2,000 years, dividing water among users through a complex set of channels that are communally maintained. It is widely considered to be efficient, effective, and fair and in 2006, several Aflaj systems were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.

Another important area where indigenous knowledge remains critical is the preservation of the genetic diversity that exists in the wild relatives of crops. Indigenous communities have maintained agrobiodiversity for centuries, and have become custodians of a resource that has proven critical to food security globally. In Peru, indigenous Andean communities maintain more than 4,000 potato varieties that they domesticated through millennia. This genetic variety can support the development of resilience and adaptation of potatoes as agricultural lands change through climate change.

The third critical consideration relates to cultural heritage, preserved in architecture, food, music, and other expressions of civilisation – which connect people with their ancestries and provide a strong sense of belonging. This is critical to self-identification and therefore an important element of sustainability as it helps understand Indigenous knowledge in the right context. This understanding needs to go beyond a romantic visualisation of indigenous people, and see them as sources of knowledge that can provide inspiration in the modern world.

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