Local Knowledge Aids Scientific Understanding



In a perfect dovetail with yesterday’s nod to one science writer, today we nod to the contributions of ancestral ways in helping scientists better understand the life cycles of forests. Thanks to Richard Schiffman for this interview:

Lessons Learned from Centuries of Indigenous Forest Management

CMPeters_web.jpgIn an interview with Yale Environment 360, botanist Charles M. Peters discusses how, in an era of runaway destruction of tropical forests, the centuries-old ecological understanding of indigenous woodland residents can help point the way to the restoration of damaged rainforests.

Over centuries, even millennia, indigenous communities have developed interdependent systems of agriculture and forestry that are uniquely suited to the ecological requirements of the land they inhabit. Yet even today, says Charles M. Peters, the Curator of Botany at the New York Botanical Gardens, that skill and knowledge often remain unacknowledged, with some government officials and conservationists arguing that indigenous communities should sometimes be excluded from protected lands that are part of their historical territory.


Members of the Kenyah Dayak indigenous group conducting forest surveys in Western Borneo in the early 1990s. CHARLES PETERS

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Peters — author of the recently published bookManaging the Wild: Stories of People and Plants and Tropical Forests — discusses what he has learned from 35 years of working with indigenous forest communities; explains how indigenous farming, even slash-and-burn agriculture, can actually improve forest health; and reflects on the need to enlist indigenous groups as allies in the struggle to preserve and restore tropical forests.

“We need everyone’s input to solve this problem,” Peters told Yale e360. “I’m saying [forest dwellers] have incredible knowledge … There are tracts of forest all over the world that have been intensively managed for generations by local people, and that’s precisely why they are still forests.”

Yale Environment 360: Governments and NGOs often think they know better how to manage forests than the communities that live in them. You are suggesting that local people know a lot more than we give them credit for.

Charles Peters: Local people know a lot more about how to manage tropical forests than we do. Indigenous forest-dwelling communities need to be at the table when decisions are made about tropical forests, because there is this incredible body of traditional knowledge and experience in this replicated experiment that they have been engaged in that has been going on in the tropics for hundreds and thousands of years.

e360: How do you make use of this resource of traditional knowledge in your own work with indigenous groups?

Peters: The way interventions usually go is that you have some idea and you go to the community and you try to implement that idea. In most cases, the agenda involves some particular species and protecting that. It really has nothing to do with what the community itself might know how to do and what is in their best interest.

My method is different. We go in and the first thing we do is we try to define the demand for a given forest resource through household interviews. We ask people, for example, what did they make their house out of? Where did they get these materials? We talk about rattan, we talk about bamboo, medicinal plants, forest fruits. Then we go into the forest to find out how much of these resources are out there. We quantify the demand and supply for a particular resource. When you put those two things together, you can figure out how big a piece of forest the community needs to produce the resources that they require…

Read the whole interview here.

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