How Indigenous knowledge contributes to Mother Earth

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Mother Earth is a common expression for our planet in a number of countries and regions. It is intended to reflect the inter-linkages that exist among the natural world and people. These include the interactions and interdependencies between the many natural processes occurring around us every day and all other living things.

The Earth’s ecosystems provide the entire planet with fresh air, clean water and a host of other services which people benefit from – sometimes even unknowingly. Sadly, due to a dangerous mix of unjust governance, exploitation of the earth’s natural resources out of greediness and also having to provide for the planet’s growing human population (currently around 7.7 billion), there have been significant increased pressures on the Earth’s resources and its many natural processes. It is most important, especially in this era of disconnect from nature due to urbanization and the accompanying lack of empathy for nature, that we act in a responsible manner when it comes to the way we harvest and manage the Earth’s resources. Balance is needed, but maybe first – increased respect and appreciation for the value of nature to our daily lives.

One of the many efforts to do so has been the recognition of April 22 annually as International Mother Earth Day (initially just referred to as Earth Day). This day serves to remind everyone that the Earth provides us with life and can continue to sustain us, but we have to protect it. Aligned with the 1992 Rio Declaration, it seeks to promote a collective sense of responsibility which calls for harmony with the natural world through the promotion of conservation and sustainable use practices.  So on this day, countries around the world focus on public awareness that highlight the challenges regarding the well-being of the planet and all the life it supports. It paints a plain picture – WE are the centre of the problem and more importantly, the solution.

Stalwart ambassadors for such harmony with the natural world are the approximate 370 million   Indigenous peoples found around the world. Indigenous people have retained and continue to appreciate, through their way of life, a deep connection to the Earth. Indigenous peoples around the world have set a pattern of caring for the Earth which is understandable when we appreciate how much they depend on it on a daily basis. For Indigenous people – the truth is, everyday is Earth Day!

Living with their environment

For millions of Indigenous peoples, forests provide materials for food, shelter, traditional medicine and craft. Indeed, whilst the average citizen of the world is now coming to learn and appreciate the integral ties people have with the Earth, Indigenous peoples have long been showing their close relationship with their environment, evidently clear through their way of life. Indigenous villages are usually located in the some of the most isolated places. While adapting to some modern technologies and conveniences, they have opted to continue to keep many of their traditional practices.  Their traditional practices speak to their inherent abilities to survive off the land and includes knowledge of when to (and when not to) hunt and harvest specific animal and plant species. It includes too their methods of farming, fishing and harvesting. Conservationist attest to these methods as proven links to sustainable use since they have low impact on disturbances to other species compared to some modern methods. The age old attitude of taking only what is needed also continues to contribute towards conservation efforts and ensures that there is always going to be a supply for future generations.

Indigenous traditional farming techniques show timeless wisdom. By clearing only small sections of forest to do family or communal farming, they avoid deforestation and keep the forest intact. After using this land, they then allow it to rest so that it might be reused in future years by village members. This avoids clearing more land than is needed. For some Indigenous peoples, it is the custom to ensure that the land selected for clearing for farming has minimum medicinal plants and trees. Another practice in some parts of the world is to avoid harvesting completely all crops in efforts to provide food for wildlife species in the area.

Traditional fishing methods are especially low impact. Firstly, they have knowledge of the feeding, mating and spawning grounds for fish species. Indigenous villages therefore will protect spawning grounds, for example, prohibiting fishing in such locations during certain times of the year. Their methods also naturally avoid over-harvesting. The use of bow and arrow in shallow creeks, for example, allows for selective catching – favouring larger fish over several small fish.

And the list goes on, as to the deep connection and respect for the Earth’s natural resources that Indigenous peoples continue to support.

Present day threats to biodiversity include climate change, deforestation, large-scale agriculture and overharvesting of resources, challenges that impact Indigenous peoples. At the same time, the world does well to recognize and appreciate the value of the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples, and involve them in tackling these problems. That is precisely what our current Darwin Initiative project is tackling in Guyana. The project is working closely with several Indigenous communities associated with protected areas in an effort to provide capacity building and foster increasing discussions as to the role that traditional knowledge can play in the management of the protected areas. In doing so, it seeks to document and address the challenges faced in integrating traditional knowledge into national policies and practices, and also to address the threats facing the preservation of traditional knowledge locally. By the end of this project, a Traditional Knowledge National Action Plan for Guyana will be developed which is intended to guide a process that will facilitate and support increased awareness and inclusion of Indigenous peoples in national efforts for sustainable development, including biodiversity conservation, recognizing their critical role in maintaining Mother Earth.

Jay Mistry
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Professor of Geography - Royal Holloway University of London

Jay has more than 22 years’ experience in teaching, researching and building capacity for natural resource management with local communities. Her particular interests include supporting local livelihoods and biodiversity conservation, local environmental governance, action research using participatory video and capacity building for natural resource management.