UNESCO Social and Human Sciences
You are in the MOST Phase I website (1994-2003).
The MOST Phase II website is available at: www.unesco.org/shs/most.

Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge MOST/NUFFIC (IK-Unit)


Using IK to predict the impact of human activity on biodiversity



Biodiversity, birds, community development, cultural identity, ecology, habitat


Introducing the practice

This practice involves the observation of birds in relation to habitat. It was developed in conjunction with the Hewa people of Papua New Guinea’s Central Range (142 30’ East, 5 10’ South). The Hewa are swidden horticulturalists occupying foothills and lower montane forests at elevations of between 500 and 1500 metres. The 1993 Conservation Needs Assessment (CNA) described this territory as ‘biologically unknown’ and a conservation priority for Papua New Guinea.

The practice, or methodology, was developed during eight months of fieldwork conducted between 1994 and 1997. While it continues to undergo refinements that will make this knowledge more accessible to scientists and development agencies, it essentially records generations of Hewa knowledge in a manner that is useful for conservation purposes.

By using IK to predict the impact of human activity, the Hewa are attempting to make their IK available to the international conservation community. Although indigenous lifestyles have been described as blueprints for conservation (Posey 1992), western science knows very little about the relationship between traditional human activities and biological diversity (Stearman & Redford 1992). This practice takes advantage of the convergence of IK and science by presenting IK related to birds and their responses to habitat alteration.


Contents and approach

First, the Hewa informants made an inventory of the birds found in their territory by identifying them in field guides. This gave me, the investigator, an opportunity to identify any cases of local people grouping several species under one classification. Secondly, informants identified the altitude and habitat favoured by each species. This made it possible to generate a list of birds that would not tolerate habitat alteration or shortened fallow cycles. These lists were then checked against transect bird counts and vegetation surveys to determine their accuracy. Finally, once the Hewa IK and these checks were in agreement, the results were submitted to Dr Jared Diamond of the University of California Los Angeles, an international expert on New Guinea birds and their conservation. Dr Diamond has concurred with our findings.

The practice/methodology of using IK to predict the impact of human activity has only recently been developed in cooperation with the Hewa. Yet it is the product of thousands of years of accumulated and transmitted knowledge. Because the Hewa are not tied to the economy of modern Papua New Guinea, a traditional lifestyle centred on horticulture, hunting, nature observation and intergenerational learning continues to dominate their culture. Employing IK to predict the impact of human activity is viable and cost-effective because it requires no costly equipment. The only conditions are that the birds of an area must be relatively well known and that the relevant IK must be intact. The practice can therefore be expected to remain in use.

The practice originated as a collaborative effort between the Hewa community and Dr William H. Thomas. More specifically three Hewa men– Wanakipa Tama, Tuki Toap and Tuki Telian–were eager to become involved with a conservation-based development programme. After the 1993 CNA, we decided that if the Hewa IK can be used to answer questions which the conservation community has neither the time nor the money to investigate, the Hewa can bargain for a greater role in determining the future of their land. It is also hoped that as the efficacy of IK as a conservation planning tool emerges, IK will form the foundation of a tradition-based school system and research station. It was thus primarily through the collaboration of four individuals that this practice was developed.

The aim of the practice is to go beyond indigenous inventories and to link Hewa IK with conservation professionals by providing information that only the long-term observations involved with indigenous knowledge can give. It is meant to produce a dynamic picture of the relationship between human activity and biodiversity. This picture is typically absent (or comes after the fact) in the planning process.

The parties involved

Although three local men were primarily involved in developing this practice, many men over the age of 25 contributed to it. As in any society, individuals vary in their observational skills and interests. However, the information gathered was not strictly the property of the principal informants. In fact, many men who were avid hunters and enjoyed observing nature could and did contribute.

The project

A combination of methods was used to obtain and verify information. During my work three local men emerged as the most knowledgeable on the subjects of birds, trees and habitat preferences. They became my assistants and contributed their knowledge to all my interviews, transects and surveys. In the field guide ‘Birds of New Guinea’ (Beehler et al. 1986), each informant was asked to identify the birds found in the territory, and specify the altitude and habitat each bird favoured. Habitats were broadly defined using the indigenous categories garden, grassland, old garden, ‘old garden true’, and primary forest. The distinction between old garden and ‘old garden true’ described their perception of the differences between secondary forest growth that was less than 20 years old (old garden) and secondary growth more than 20 years old (‘old garden true’). Later, during the vegetation transects (see below), informants were asked to identify not only the plants but also the birds that fed on the flowers and fruit of each tree.

In order to check the information that I obtained from interviews, I compared traditional ecological knowledge with both bird and plant censuses. I surveyed the vegetation in six plots where the secondary growth was more than 20 years old. I chose the six plots because this gave me two samples within each of the three altitudinal zones described by the Hewa. Plant censuses were conducted along the paths by counting the number of trees of different species that were at least ten centimetres in diameter at breast height, and within four metres of the path on either side. This procedure follows protocols described in Beehler et al. (1987), Blankenspoor (1991) and Bernstein (1995). Plant specialists at the University of Papua New Guinea analysed the samples.

The age of each plot was determined relative to 1975, the date of Papua New Guinea’s independence. The Hewa have a calendar based upon the fruiting of pandanus and Pangium edule. However, since this calendar describes the fruiting sequence and not the actual dates, it is somewhat ambiguous. Some of the pandanus species can be found at all of the altitudinal bands accepted by the Hewa. There can also be several months’ difference between the time a fruit ripens at the lower altitudes and the time the same fruit ripens at the highest altitude. The Hewa calendar is therefore used as a guide for Hewa activity but not as an absolute marker of the days in a year. Papua New Guinea’s independence day is a benchmark date that all informants could remember.

My informants and I also conducted transect bird counts along two fixed forest paths that climb from 700 to 1250 metres above sea level. We established ten stations at 50-metre altitudinal intervals, and recorded the birds we either saw or heard at each station during three-minute stops. Transects were conducted between 7 and 11 am, six days a week, from September 1996 through January 1997. Each route followed a ridge that threaded in and out of primary forest and secondary forest that had long been fallow. This protocol was derived from Beehler et al. (1987). As stated previously, these checks confirmed the IK, as did correspondence with Dr Jared Diamond of UCLA.


The role of indigenous knowledge


·           IK substitutes accumulated traditional knowledge for years of research by western scientists.

·           IK continues to involve respected and politically powerful members of the community in a process that may ultimately decide the future of the community.

·           IK generates data that is understood cross-culturally and is a basis for testing hypotheses.

·           By opening itself to the scientific method, IK is moving beyond the emic/etic debate and promoting a cross-cultural dialogue between naturalists. 

The knowledge behind this practice is based on traditions that limit both population and disturbance. Hewa traditions produce a mosaic of habitats that actually increase the biological diversity of the area. These traditions are not market-based. Instead, the subsistence economy of the Hewa allows time for nature observation and the exchange of information between kinsmen. It also encourages individuals to develop a personal relationship with the forest and to discover personal sacred places within this environment. Such places often are identified through ancestral visions experienced in dreams. Tradition encourages the person receiving such a vision to preserve the designated area (for example, by not cutting to make a garden) and to offer small sacrifices to the ancestral spirits when visiting the sacred site.

Transmission of knowledge

Not all members of the community possess this detailed knowledge of biodiversity and the effects of gardening. Instead, it is the property of those men who are interested in observing nature and who have the necessary experience. They pass on the knowledge to younger members of their kinship group.

The Hewa have no written language. Prior to this collaboration, all information was transmitted orally. Since 1994, we have been recording Hewa IK.


Achievements and results

The principal benefit of this practice to the Hewa is that it reconciles the relationship between their culture and biological diversity in a manner understood by conservation biologists. While some have suggested that traditional cultures like the Hewa might serve as templates for biodiversity conservation, the relationship between biodiversity and cultural diversity remains poorly understood. This may be due to the perception that IK, while able to generate inventories, is weak on the analysis of ecological processes. As a result, while IK research continues, mechanisms for using IK in conservation planning have been slow to develop. As nations like Papua New Guinea look to IK for ways of developing flexible conservation strategies, advocates for its use have not yet been able to shift the focus of research beyond solving immediate problems such as ways of increasing crop yields, controlling erosion, or using traditional medicines. However this practice enables conservationists to access the Hewa knowledge of ecological processes and shifts the focus of research from such immediate concerns to the ultimate role the Hewa will play in the future of their lands. In effect, it is the mechanism by which the Hewa can become full participants in the conservation of their lands. Once conservationists recognize the contribution this culture can make to the global biodiversity debate, the Hewa should reap the benefits as a recognized partner in conservation.

Finally, this practice reinforces the importance of the Hewa culture in maintaining biodiversity. Traditions governing mobility, fallow cycles, birth spacing and land tenure play a role in promoting the diverse landscape that we seek to conserve. Such traditions are woven into the fabric of Hewa life. Rather than trying to stabilize shifting cultivators, conservationists armed with IK can capitalize on traditions that promote biodiversity. The Hewa will benefit by adding the powerful voice of the international conservation community to theirs in the search for development options.

Making a difference to the quality of life of the communities concerned

By making the connection between culture and biodiversity explicit, this practice makes IK valuable to the global conservation community and helps the Hewa play a greater role in their survival as a society. The partnership should affect several quality of life issues for the Hewa. IK will gain recognition as a tool for conservation planning. The Hewa will then have a renewable resource, with a global value greater than that of either their timber or mineral resources. Their natural IK capital will not only enable them to earn an income as paid research assistants. It also means that they can be paid royalties for conserving their lands. Potential sources of such payments might be nations interested in carbon sequestration reserves, or the national government in its efforts to provide drinking water to residents of the watersheds originating in Hewa lands.

The Hewa can now enter the conservation debate as full partners, armed with an intimate knowledge of the dynamics that shaped these lands and sustainable strategies for resource use. The expanded possibilities presented by their IK will help to craft the flexible and dynamic conservation programmes required to conserve both their biological and cultural inheritance. Full participation will enable the Hewa to improve their quality of life by designing a reserve that embodies their traditional wisdom and includes sufficient habitat for all species. By giving the government of Papua New Guinea an economically viable way to conserve biodiversity as well as traditional life, the Hewa will gain a measure of autonomy and status not presently accorded them. Rather than primitive remnants that must be brought into the modern world, the Hewa now present a unique opportunity to combine conservation with development.


This best practice is sustainable because it highlights the value of Hewa IK for conservation and links it to the conservation of culture and resources. However, sustainability is contingent on the global community recognizing:

·           The value of wild lands.

·           IK as a planning tool.

·           The connection between cultural and biological diversity.

·           The economic value of ecological processes such as carbon sequestration and water purification.

And is further dependent on:

·           National and international leaders allowing the economic benefits of biodiversity and intact ecological processes to flow to the locals, in effect compensating the Hewa for the restrictions that conservation will place on them.

At present IK and traditions survive through isolation. Unless a more accurate valuation of the services rendered by wild lands can be incorporated into national planning, local people and their lands will remain unprotected. Until the economic benefits of conservation begin to flow to the traditional inhabitants as compensation for their limited development options, local people like the Hewa will be unable to protect their lands through isolation alone.

Tangible benefits  for local people

Currently the only mechanism for translating this best practice into a benefit for local people is the application of research results by conservationists. However, while governments like that of Papua New Guinea search their traditional cultures for IK that will lead to sustainable resource use, very little funding is dedicated to recording IK. In addition, there is some resistance on the part of scientists to accepting IK. Since scientists are the backbone of the conservation community, IK is fighting an uphill battle.

The best hope for translating this practice into benefits for local people lies in the publicity gained by IK through forums like this. Hopefully conservationists will look to UNESCO and others for inexpensive, flexible solutions that are culturally specific and can be implemented quickly. The best practice developed with the Hewa represents one such solution.

To sum up, the practice:

·           Bridges the gap between IK and western science by using birds as indicators of biodiversity, thus providing data that both parties understand to be relevant to the conservation of biodiversity.

·           Because birds are one of the best known organisms on earth and good field guides are available, this practice moves beyond the emic/etic debate concerning IK. The Hewa understand the various habitats, altitudes and roles birds occupy in their environment and communicate in a manner that professional planners can understand.

·           It places a premium on tradition. IK is obtained through years of experience and transmitted along traditional lines of cooperation. Community elders therefore retain their influence.

·           It aligns the Hewa with science’s current understanding of the relationship between disturbance and diversity.

·           By acknowledging the value of IK, this practice will facilitate the continued transmission of traditions.

·           By acknowledging the value of IK, this practice will facilitate the conservation process by giving the Hewa standing both as landowners and as naturalists.

The practice of using IK to predict the impact of human activity on biodiversity scores well in terms of sustainability, cost-effectiveness and local manageability. It is sustainable as long as traditional lifestyles are not severely compromised: that is, as long as the forest mosaic remains intact and young men are encouraged to spend time in the forest. The only costs of this project were the research funding for Dr Thomas. The IK is the intellectual property of the Hewa. Their land rights are guaranteed by the constitution of Papua New Guinea.

The practice has a number of strengths. It:

·           Produces data that is accepted by and useful to the international conservation community.

·           Can produce a detailed picture of the impact of activities on biodiversity, and it does this quickly and as part of the planning process.

·           Involves the community.

·           Acknowledges the value of their IK and traditions.

·           Retains the traditional information and authority structure.

·           Deals in ecological facts already accepted by the intellectual leaders of the community.

The practice will improve with time as scientists critique the methodology, and as knowledge from both science and other IK systems reveals new avenues of inquiry.


Source of inspiration

It would be possible to transfer this practice, provided certain conditions and prerequisites are considered. Using IK to predict the impact of human activity on biodiversity would be relevant and applicable in any context where:

·           The community is interested in conservation-based development.

·           Its traditional knowledge base is intact.

·           The environment is intact.

·           Species such as birds can be used as indicators.

To our knowledge, the practice has not yet been replicated.

If you think that this case could be useful in a different context than the one described here, please get in touch first with the contact person listed below (Administrative data). Intellectual property rights could be an issue.


Additional remarks and information

This practice can break down a major barrier and vitalize the dialogue between science, development professionals and traditional people. It removes from traditional societies the burden of maintaining a balance with nature. Instead, it places their activities in the realm of small-scale disturbance ­ a process understood to contribute to biodiversity (Reice 1994). It seems likely that prior misinterpretations of the relationship between traditional societies and their environment have led to the current crisis in conservation-based development projects (Soule 2000). Small, cash-strapped nations like Papua New Guinea are often rich in both biological and cultural diversity. The practice offers the hope that these nations can tap their IK resources for sustainable development programmes before their unique cultural and biological inheritance disappears. Papua New Guinea in particular has pinned its hopes for the future on the potential of IK to conserve the country’s resources (Swartzendruber 1993).

References cited

·           Beehler, B., Pratt T. and Zimmerman D. (1986) ‘Birds of New Guinea’. Princeton University Press. Princeton, New Jersey.

·           Beehler, B. Krishna Raju K. & Ali S. (1987) ‘Avian Use of Man-disturbed Forest Habitats in the Eastern Ghats, India’. IBIS 129:197-211.

·           Blankenspoor, G.W. (1991) ‘Slash and Burn; Shifting Agriculture and Bird Communities in Liberia, West Africa’. In: ‘Biological Conservation’ 57:41-71.

·           Bernstein, J. Ellen, R & Antaran, B. (1995) ‘The use of plot surveys for the study of ethnobotanical knowledge; a Brunei Dusun example’. Brunei Museum.

·           Posey, D. (1992) Ethnoecology and Ethnodevelopment. ‘The Importance of Traditional People in Conservation and Development’. IVth World Congress on National Parks and Protected Areas. Caracas.

·           Reice, S.R. (1994) ‘Nonequilibrium Determinants of Biological Community Structure’. In: ‘American Scientist’ 82 (5): 424-435.

·           Soule, M. (2000) ‘Does Sustainable Development Help Nature?’ In: ‘Wild Earth’ 10 (4): 56-63.

·           Stearman, A.M and K. Redford (1992) ‘Commercial Hunting by Subsistence Hunters: Siriono Indians and Paraguayan Caiman in Lowland Bolivia.’ In: ‘Human Organization’ 51: 235-244.

·           Swartzendruber, J.F. (1993) ‘Conservation Needs Assessment. Biodiversity Support Programme.’ USAID. Washington D.C.              


Administrative data

Contact person and person who has described this Best Practice

Dr William H. Thomas


The New Jersey School of Conservation

Montclair State University

1 Wapalanne Road

Branchville, NJ 07826, USA

Tel.: +1 973 6557614

Fax: +1 973 9485131

E-mail: thomasw@mail.montclair.edu or pngexplore@aol.com


The Hewa collaborators listed above cannot be reached by telephone, fax or mail.



This research was supported by grants from the National Geographic Society and the Explorers Club. They provided the USD 8000 needed for eight months of fieldwork between 1994 and 1996-97.


To MOST Clearing House Best Practices on Poverty and Social Exclusion

To MOST/CIRAN Database of Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge

To MOST Clearing House Homepage