Indigenous Knowledge and the Environment

The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992 catalysed the interest in the contribution of indigenous knowledge to a better understanding of sustainable development. UNCED highlighted the urgent need to develop mechanisms to protect the earth’s biological diversity through local knowledge. Many of the documents signed at UNCED reflect the need to conserve the knowledge of the environment that is being lost in communities.

Similarly, international development agencies recommend that scientific and traditional knowledge be integrated in interdisciplinary projects dealing with links between culture, environment and development in areas such as the conservation of biological diversity, management of natural resources, understanding of natural hazards and mitigation of their impact. Local communities and other relevant players should be involved in these projects. Development professionals consider indigenous knowledge as an invaluable and under-utilized knowledge reservoir, which presents developing countries with a powerful asset.

Over the years, the World Health Assembly has adopted a number of resolutions drawing attention to the fact that most of the populations in various developing countries around the world depend on traditional medicine for primary health care; that the work force represented by practitioners of traditional medicine is a potentially important resource for the delivery of health care; and that medicinal and food plants are of great importance to the health of individuals and communities.

“Traditional medicine” refers to ways of protecting and restoring health that existed before the arrival of modern medicine. As the term implies, these approaches to health belong to the traditions of each country, and have been handed down from generation to generation. Traditional systems in general have had to meet the needs of the local communities for many centuries, e.g. in relation to health needs. Humans throughout the ages have relied on plants as a source of food, clothing, construction materials, cosmetics and medicines. Traditional value systems have guided the sustainable use of wild plants in Africa over the years. Unfortunately, some of these conservation practices are breaking down partly due to the increasing demands being placed on the resource, as well as the increasing erosion of traditional cultural values through the globalization processes.

African traditional knowledge is unique to a given African community, culture or society. It is seen to contrast with the knowledge generated within the modern learning system. Traditional knowledge is used at the local level by communities in Africa as the basis for decision-making pertaining to food security, human and animal health, education, climate change, natural resource management, and other vital activities.

In recent years, non-wood forest products (NWFPs) have attracted considerable global interest. This is due to the increasing recognition that NWFPs can provide important community needs for improved rural livelihood; contribute to household food security and nutrition; help to generate additional employment and income; offer opportunities for processing enterprises; contribute to foreign exchange earnings; and support biodiversity conservation and other environmental objectives.

Trees and forests contribute in many ways to combating malnutrition and improving diets in local communities and rural households. Not only do they directly provide food and medicines, but they also indirectly increase income and improve agricultural production, thereby improving access to food. Hunger and malnutrition would be significantly worse if it were not for the contribution of trees and forests to household food security.

Edible plants and plant products (mushrooms, fruits, leaves, tubers, roots, nuts) and medicinal plants are considered as the most important non-wood forest products. NWFPs are first and foremost used for food and medicinal purposes. They serve as important protein providers especially for rural people. The leaves and roots of edible plants have a high nutritional value and can play an important role in the prevention of malnutrition in rural areas. Beyond this, they represent a source of income for a large number of people, especially women, who are the main traders of NWFPs.

Forest foods can offer vital insurance against malnutrition or famine during times of seasonal food shortage or emergencies such as droughts, floods or wars. It is common for rural households to depend on forest foods between harvests, when harvested stocks have been consumed but before new crops are mature. Women, in particular, count on these resources for supplementary nutrition, emergency foods, fuel wood for cooking and many other important products they need to ensure the nutritional well-being of their families.

Probably the majority of rural households in developing countries, and a large proportion of urban households, depend on plant and animal products from forests to meet some part of their nutritional, cooking and/or health needs. There is a wealth of wild fruits and flowers that have great potential for local use as well as commercial development Trees and forests contribute to improving the well-being of local populations by providing a wealth of food, flavourings, medicines and beverages.

In fact, it can be said that nearly every tree, shrub or grass species is used in one way or another for food and nutrition. Plants provide food either directly in the form of fruits, seeds and other edible parts, or indirectly by providing products that facilitate consumption of other foods. Wild food plants can also play a crucial role in supplying essential nutrients, especially during times of acute and chronic food shortages.

The contribution of forests and trees to food security in Africa is significant, diversified and valuable. It ranges from direct production of food to provision of jobs and income. Wild food plants complement food intake and are consumed throughout the year.

Priority action:

  • Empower farmers and communities to protect their rights to resources, support their knowledge and cultures, and ensure their participation in decision making, Research and Development (R&D) processes related to natural resource conservation efforts;
  • Ensure local farmers participate in research programmes and their intellectual contributions are materially recognized;
  • Create benefit-sharing arrangements that are accessible and benefit communities;
  • Enhance the capacity of communities residing in or adjacent to protected areas to participate in protected area management through providing appropriate training and education, and through recognizing local expertise and traditional institutions;
  • Promote innovative ways of improving benefit flows to people in and around protected areas;
  • Support the conservation and sustainable use of indigenous and traditional livestock breeds and crop varieties;
  • Work with indigenous people to identify, demonstrate, and record traditional uses of resources as a means of conserving the biodiversity.