08.11.2011 - Natural Sciences Sector

Recognizing the value of indigenous knowledge for sustainable development

© Menuka Scetbon-Didi Mayangna woman, Bosawas Biosphere Reserve (Nicaragua)

Indigenous and local communities play a key role in biodiversity conservation. Their territories are among the most biologically diverse on the planet. Traditional indigenous territories are estimated to cover up to 24% of the world’s land surface and contain 80% of the Earth’s remaining healthy ecosystems. This remarkable spatial convergence is due in part to indigenous peoples actively managing the biodiversity of their lands, and protecting them from outside exploitation. This presents an enormous opportunity and a considerable challenge to conservation managers. They must learn to work with indigenous peoples as full partners and to understand and respect indigenous ways and worldviews.

UNESCO, through its Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) Programme, is working to bring recognition to this issue, and to demonstrate the link between cultural and biological diversity. One example is the project undertaken with the Mayangna people in Nicaragua. The Mayangna have lived for centuries in the heart of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor, in one of the last extensive areas of Central American tropical rainforest, which includes the BOSAWAS Biosphere Reserve.

While some scientific research has been done, no systematic survey of the fishes and turtles of the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve has ever been completed. As a result, scientific understanding remains approximate. Mayangna knowledge therefore offers information and interpretations that complement current scientific data and which can fill this knowledge gap, at least in part. The information provided by the Mayangna within this LINKS project attests to their extensive, detailed knowledge of the fish and turtle species of Bosawas. It includes information on behaviour, habitat, reproduction and migration patterns, the introduction of new and invasive species.

Certain types of fish and turtles serve as indicators of changing seasons or exceptional events. For example, the Mayangna know that ahsa, the black wood turtle (right) (Rhinoclemmys funerea), is not strong enough to resist strong currents. When they see black wood turtles adrift, one after another, this warns them that a flood is imminent.

Mayangna knowledge is more than simply a collection of empirical observations, as useful as these may be for complementing scientific knowledge and building State– indigenous co-management. It is a complex tapestry that interweaves the empirical and the symbolic, nature and culture into a unified and unique indigenous vision of the world.

For the Mayangna, the resulting book, Conocimientos del pueblo Mayangna sobre la convivencia del hombre y la naturaleza: peces y tortugas, has a dual purpose. On the one hand, it responds to the desire expressed by the Mayangna peoples to safeguard their intangible heritage, notably their knowledge of nature and the Universe, and to this end to create a pedagogical resource for schools in Mayangna and Spanish. The volume also serves to demonstrate to the scientific community the depth and breadth of local knowledge of the natural milieu and, as a result, the key role that the Mayangna must play in the sustainable use and management of the extensive territories from which they derive their livelihood, which include the Bosawas Biosphere Reserve.

Source: Paule Gros and Douglas Nakashima, A World of Science, Vol.6, N°4.
Mayangna Knowledge of the Interdependence of People and Nature: Fish and Turtles (Available in Spanish and Mayangna)

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