Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Biosphere - WBGU

Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Biosphere - WBGU

Conserving natural and cultural heritage E 3.5


result of droughts. In the early 1970s, drought disasters

drove thousands of Tuareg to Nigeria and Niger.

Traditional cultural patterns and forms of managing

natural resources therefore prove themselves to

be highly vulnerable and are increasingly jeopardized

in an ever more globalized world.

The 1999 World Conference on Science:

Encouraging the recognition of indigenous


However, the observation that many indigenous and

traditional communities have contributed with their

knowledge and practices to the conservation and sustainable

use of the biosphere and maintained highly

complex ecosystems, the functioning of which has not

yet been explained by ecological research, has for

some time increasingly led to discussion on how

indigenous knowledge differs from scientific findings,

especially from the natural sciences.

This question played a major role at the World

Conference on Science in Budapest (1999) and the

discussions about it were highly emotional at times.

Some representatives of the indigenous peoples feel

that their identity is severely threatened and call,

among other things, for their indigenous knowledge

bases to be recognized as a science. Others favour a

‘de-mythification programme’, differentiating

between the ‘rational core’ and the spiritual belief

systems and practices associated with knowledge systems.

Traditional knowledge systems do in fact impinge

upon many areas of science, such as astronomy, meteorology,

geology, ecology, botany, agriculture, physiology

and medicine. But there is no clear separation

of knowledge and belief systems in these knowledge

systems (Berkes et al, 1995; Gadgil, 199). In one

region of India the indigenous population protects

and honours fig trees (practice treatment) because of

their knowledge (qualitative understanding of the

importance of fig trees as food for birds, bats, squirrels

and monkeys) and their belief that fig trees are

abodes of nature spirits. By contrast, according to the

example cited by Gadgil (1999), science also comes

to the decisions that some fig trees should be protected

(practice dealings), on the basis of quantitative

findings about their importance as a keystone

species. Added to this is the belief or value that the

comprehensive conservation of biological diversity is

a desirable objective (Table E 3.5-1).

Berkes et al (1995) cites further similarities and

differences between scientific and indigenous knowledge:

both systems of knowledge are philosophies or

interpretation systems aiming to make the world

comprehensible. Both are based on observations and

conclusions derived from them. But the knowledge

systems also differ in that traditional ecological

knowledge (TEK)

– refers only to restricted geographical areas,

– largely relies on qualitative rather than quantitative


– lack of built-in drive to collect more and more


– accumulates facts much more slowly,

– trusts in trial-and-error more than in systematic


– only has limited scope to the verification of predictions,

– has little interest in developing general principles

and theories.

In future, the debates about the dignity and recognition

of these two knowledge systems will go even further

– including in the negotiations on the CBD. In

addition to the more ‘academic’ aspects of this discussion

and the question as to how far the ecological

knowledge of indigenous and traditional communities

(or its rational core) is superior to the somewhat

rudimentary findings of scientific ecology, as proved

by the increasing interest of the pharmaceutical

industry (Section D 3.3), these traditional knowledge

systems have another important function.

Since TEK not only contains cores of knowledge,

but also information on managing natural resources,

this knowledge is most definitely of practical relevance,

especially when the precautionary principle is

Table E 3.5-1

Natural resources in

traditional and

scientific knowledge


Source: Gadgil, 1999

Knowledge system Practice Knowledge Belief

Traditional Strict protection Qualitative Fig trees are the

and worship understanding of abode of natural

of the fig tree the trees’ fruit spirits

as food for birds,

bats, squirrels,


Scientific Partial protection Quantitative Comprehensive

of the fig tree understanding leads conservation of

to the concept of a biological diverkey


sity is desirable

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