10.07.2014 - Natural Sciences Sector

Linking indigenous and scientific knowledge to counter biodiversity erosion


The Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), recently created to assist governments and stakeholders to better understand the status, trends and challenges facing ecological systems, is now underway. IBPES adopted ‘indigenous knowledge recognition’ as a basic operating principle in light of its important contributions to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and ecosystems. But building synergies between indigenous and local knowledge and science remains a challenge. The 1st meeting of the IPBES Task Force on Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems provided an opportunity to identify obstacles and chart a path towards respectful and productive collaborations between local and indigenous knowledge holders, the scientific community and policy makers.

Biodiversity is crucial to human life and to the reduction of poverty. The goods and services provided by ecosystems are often taken for granted, even though they underpin future economic and social development and are under threat from biodiversity erosion. They include the production of our food and water, the oxygenation and purification of our air, and the pollination of our crops. Across the globe, people are in constant interaction with the biological components of their environment, and through this interaction they elaborate sophisticated sets of knowledge and practice, which include both scientific knowledge, and indigenous & local knowledge (ILK). ILK refers to the understandings, skills and philosophies developed by societies with long histories of interaction with their natural surroundings.

For rural and indigenous peoples, local knowledge informs decision-making about fundamental aspects of day-to-day life. Such knowledge may offer valuable insights into environmental and ecosystem change, and complement broader-scale scientific research with local precision and nuance. ILK is increasingly recognized as an important source of understanding, sustainable practice and adaptation strategies to address current challenges, including climate change and the erosion of biodiversity.

In the face of their continuous and alarming erosion and unsustainable use, biodiversity and ecosystem services are gaining increasing attention in the international arena. IPBES was established in 2012 with the broad intention of ensuring that the best available knowledge, from science and from indigenous and local knowledge systems, is made available to Governments and other stakeholders. This knowledge is to catalyse informed decisions, policies, and actions  that can halt the rapidly accelerating degradation and loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, and ensure their conservation for long-term human well-being and sustainable development. To reach this goal, synergies must be built among knowledge systems, and a meaningful and active engagement with indigenous and local knowledge holders is being promoted in all relevant aspects of the Platform’s work by a specific Task Force. 

The first meeting of the Task Force on ILK allowed for a lively exchange on the potential obstacles in the current framework, best approaches to ensure the respectful and mutually beneficial engagement of all concerned and opportunities for cutting edge innovation to bring together scientific and indigenous knowledge in assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services. Working sub-groups laid the groundwork for:

  • Procedures and approaches for working with ILK systems;
  • A participatory mechanism to engage ILK holders in the Platform’s work;
  • Reviews of regional experiences with ILK systems;
  • A Global Dialogue Workshop to pilot ILK procedures and opportunities for capacity-building;
  • A roster of experts to guide work on ILK  and;
  • Liaison arrangements with the IPBES Task Force on Capacity Building and the IPBES Task Force on Knowledge and Data to ensure that ILK issues are addressed in an appropriate manner.

Sub-groups will continue to work on these 6 objectives and produce decision and information documents that will be considered at the 3rd meeting of the plenary of IPBES in January 2015.

UNESCO’s role and the global recognition of ILK

In the framework of IPBES, a Collaborative Partnership Arrangement establishes an institutional link between the IPBES Plenary and UNESCO, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Through this partnership, the four organizations support the IPBES in all of its functions and contribute expertise for the implementation of its work programme. In addition, UNESCO has been designated as the Technical Support Unit (TSU) for the Task Force on Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems. In this capacity, UNESCO provides technical and logistical support for the work of the ILK Task Force. The Organization also contributes technical support for the work of the Task Force on Knowledge and Data.

Indigenous and local knowledge has been a part of UNESCO’s work for over 35 years. This domain is inherently cross-cutting, and UNESCO’s plural mandate in education, culture, the natural sciences and social & human sciences places the Organization in a unique position to value and facilitate such multidisciplinary inputs. Within the Science sector, the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme has been dedicated to this theme for over 10 years, addressing not only knowledge of the environment but also its vital linkages to language, practice, worldviews and inter-generational transmission. Through its work and publications, it has helped to gain recognition for indigenous and local knowledge in numerous international fora. Notably, UNESCO has been working with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on vulnerability and adaptation strategies (working group 2). The importance of indigenous and local knowledge is provided, for the first time, prominent global recognition in the recently-released IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, which sources information from the UNESCO-UNU publication ‘Weathering Uncertainty: Traditional Knowledge for Climate Change Assessment and Adaptation’ in several chapters.

 Related links:

  • Bionotes of the members of the task force (pdf)

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