Papers presented at the 6th Annual Conference of the International Environment Forum
A series of parallel events at the World Summit on Sustainable Development
Johannesburg, South Africa, 27 August-3 September 2002

Linking Science and Indigenous Knowledge for Local Environmental Management

Arthur Lyon Dahl
Geneva, Switzerland

Presented at the Seminar on Integrating Science in Local Communities
University of Witwatersrand
2 September 2002

We have created artificial barriers in science. Science in the Western world has become enshrined in academic disciplines with their rites of passage, such as obtaining a doctorate. Each field has its required vocabulary that only the initiates understand. Non-specialists venture into this well-defended territory at their risk and peril.

However the basic concepts and processes of science are accessible to everyone at some level. Learning to think in terms of process, to understand cause and effect, is a universal human capacity. Everyone is capable learning how to evaluate evidence and to draw conclusions from it. Every culture has acquired extensive knowledge through acute powers of observation.

Experience in the South Pacific over the last 30 years has shown the potential of programmes that have linking science and indigenous or traditional knowledge to improve the rural environmental management of small island environments. Indigenous island cultures are rich in environmental knowledge and scientific understanding, even if they interpret that knowledge in a different intellectual, cultural and spiritual framework. Master fishermen know the reproductive and migratory patterns of hundreds of fish species. The village master of the yams will observe the conditions in his sacred garden, and advise the villagers when to plant and harvest. (see for instance Dahl: Traditional environmental knowledge in New Caledonia)

In the Solomon Islands, I encountered a pagan priest who managed a traditional shell fishery. Fishermen would give him pigs to sacrifice, and after appropriate rites, he would lift the taboo on one section of the lagoon and allow shell collecting. Through a process of rotation each area of the lagoon would remain protected for 4-5 years between harvests, allowing the shells to grow to maturity. However, since most of the villagers had become Christian or Bahá'í, he was no longer given pigs to sacrifice and had kept the taboo on for 30 years, to the point where it was no longer respected and overfishing was taking place. The fact that the traditional system operated in a religious context does not detract from its scientific validity.

In southern Melanesia (New Caledonia and Vanuatu), there were highly elaborate traditional agricultural systems, with complex irrigation systems and plant associations, and great genetic diversity. Each village would generally have discovered and maintained up to 30 different varieties of the chief food plants, selected for adaptation to different weather conditions in their highly variable climate, or resistance to diseases, culinary qualities, or persistence in storage. This diversity was a way of ensuring food security, and thus survival when the options on a remote island are not great.

The approach to environmental management in the region has been to relate new science to this basic understanding, and to use it to validate traditional knowledge. This has helped to rebuild confidence in traditional practices which had been labeled by missionaries, teachers and colonial administrators as sorcery and superstition. At the same time it is necessary to add new concepts for the many things that were not part of traditional experience, such as chemical pesticides or global warming.

The basic principles of environmental monitoring can also be put in simple terms and methodologies that can be applied at the local level without scientific training. We developed a Coral Reef Monitoring Handbook in the late 1970s that set a pattern for many subsequent methods and is still used today.

Environmental impact assessment can also be done at the village level. A set of training materials we developed for village level rural environmental management on small islands incorporates this approach. It aims to build local understanding of the environment and ecological processes, to create a sense of local responsibility for the management of environmental resources, and to provide the tools to respond to environmental problems, combining traditional and new approaches (Training course in small island environmental management).

Another similar initiative, the South Pacific Biodiversity Conservation Programme recently concluded, has successfully encouraged the establishment of local protected areas for biodiversity conservation owned and managed by the local communities, and incorporating their own local monitoring.

The Science Forum at WSSD included a session on traditional knowledge which was interesting for its dual approach. For the scientists, it explored the scientific validation of traditional knowledge. For the local knowledge holders and users, it showed how the new tools and approaches of science could enrich their own knowledge framework and practice.

There is great potential in exploring and increasing the linkages between science and indigenous knowledge for the benefit of local environmental management.

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