“Indigenous knowledge can help design new paths to better futures”

Indigenous peoples manage and care for over one quarter of Earth’s land surface. Yet their perspectives remain insufficiently accounted for in debates on conservation of biodiversity and cultural landscapes. Affording this knowledge equal space is the goal of the Congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE). According to CDE researcher and ISE President Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel, “this knowledge can make vital contributions to addressing our current planetary crises”.

“With the concept of cultural landscapes, we want to go far beyond biodiversity: we aim not only at conserving biodiversity, but also at maintaining biocultural diversity”: Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel. Photo: Per Tomas Kjaervic

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

On the ISE Congress website you state: “Biodiversity and the symbiosis of human activity and environment expressed in cultural landscapes are nourishing fare for global conferences.” Apparently not only for global conferences such as the UN Biodiversity Conference, but also for the International Society for Ethnobiology, which you chair. What does your congress offer that other global conferences don’t?

We want to bring together diverse perspectives in order to open up a space for dialogue, learning, and collaboration. Participants will include academics, representatives of Indigenous peoples and local communities, practitioners, and activists. With the concept of “cultural landscapes”, we want to go far beyond biodiversity. We are interested in the deep, intrinsic relationship that exists between human societies and their environments. This leads us to aim not only at conserving biodiversity, but also at maintaining biocultural diversity.

What does this mean?

Biocultural diversity includes the different practices, knowledge systems, governance mechanisms, languages, and even worldviews that link human societies and their environments. All of those elements are needed to produce and maintain cultural landscapes – especially in the territories of Indigenous peoples and local communities.


“Other knowledge systems are very elaborate and may also be called science”


Why is this so important?

Because Indigenous peoples and local communities view their environment holistically: nature – and thus biodiversity – is not seen as external to human society, but rather as an entity with which one exists in a relationship, for which one cares and nurtures. And Indigenous people and local communities are vital to the world’s remaining so-called “natural” landscapes. They manage and care for over a quarter of the world’s land surface, and their territories intersect with an estimated 40% of all terrestrial conservation areas and so-called ecologically intact landscapes.

The ISE Congress will address five major issues, including the impacts of global changes on cultural landscapes as well as the use of decolonial approaches. What do you mean by “decolonial approaches” in this context?

There are many different knowledge systems. Today’s dominant scientific discourse is only one of them, and it is very rooted in a Western way of looking at and understanding the world – for example in its distinction between human society and nature. But other knowledge systems – such as those of Indigenous and local communities – are very elaborate and may also be called science. By decolonial approach, we mean an approach that seeks to give equal space and a voice in scientific debates to other ways of knowing, understanding, and learning about the environment.


“International events are a very important step towards making these other knowledges and values available”


Is it just a question of accepting other scientific discourses as equal to ours? Or should the decolonial approach also lead us to deal differently with nature?

I think both are important. Indigenous and local knowledge systems can provide very important alternative ways of understanding the world and addressing our planetary crises, contrasting greatly with today’s global hegemonic systems. They can help design new pathways to better futures. This is not only my opinion, it is also increasingly recognized in international forums such as UNEP’s Global Environmental Outlook 7 (GEO-7). It was even a mandate from the UN member states to incorporate Indigenous and local knowledge into this international scientific assessment.

Isn’t it a bit utopian to believe that those who have been largely excluded from the big global debates can now suddenly unlock the gates to a better world?

Indigenous and local knowledge systems can inspire innovative, alternative approaches only – and this is important – only if policymakers and powerful actors are open to learning from them. Of course, the receptiveness of decision-makers is a whole different question. But facilitating international events and scientific assessments that explicitly highlight these alternatives is an important first step towards making these other knowledges and values available. Additional political steps go beyond our purview as researchers.


“In Indigenous and local communities, knowledge is not understood as exclusive individual property”


Still, you try to influence the debate.

Yes, in the end this reflects ISE’s mission: to contribute to better futures in which both natural environments and the local societies that depend on them can thrive.

Another major topic you address at the ISE Congress is that of rights to knowledge and data. A recently published study analysed 27 national biodiversity strategies and action plans. According to its results, the countries analysed exercise greater respect for the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities to their traditional knowledge than they do for other rights – such as their right not to be displaced from their ancestral lands. So, why is this topic of knowledge and data featured so prominently at the congress?

The way that powerful actors treat knowledge is typically tied to economic and/or political interests. In Indigenous or local communities, knowledge is not understood as exclusive individual property, but rather as a collective good. At the same time, their knowledge is frequently taken and used by external actors without fair compensation or acknowledgment. A typical example is Indigenous knowledge about medicinal plants, which has been used by drug companies to develop pharmaceuticals, in many cases without compensating indigenous communities for it. Such questions of property and justice necessitate more work on Indigenous rights to knowledge and data, making sure these rights are respected – also in the context of scientific research.


“We hope that all participants will step outside their comfort zone and consider different ways of thinking and doing”


Conferences usually take place in a specific community. How do you manage to involve representatives from as many different Indigenous peoples and local communities as possible?

We accomplish this by taking advantage of ISE’s membership, which includes representatives of Indigenous peoples and local communities from many different parts of the world, as well as by tapping the individual networks of the congress organizers, session chairs, and participants. Importantly, Indigenous people have access to the same roles as anyone else at our congress, whether as session chairs, panellists, or participants. Meanwhile, we are facilitating innovative formats that are better suited to their ways of exchanging and sharing knowledge, such as use of storytelling or visual arts, for instance, alongside more traditional scientific sessions and poster presentations. By welcoming a diverse audience and encouraging these diverse formats, we hope that all participants will step outside their comfort zone and consider different ways of thinking and doing.


“We seek to generate policy inputs that can address environmental and sociocultural challenges”


What concrete results do you expect from the congress?

Through these exchanges, we seek to generate innovative ways of thinking about and managing biocultural landscapes, as well as policy inputs that can address environmental and sociocultural challenges. The congress might result in official declarations, new initiatives, scientific products, specific collaborations, strengthened networks, and more. As organizers, we don’t want to define these outputs in advance. Instead, we want to provide space for a participant-driven event. And we also have another idea…


We aim to highlight the young people – emerging scientists, students, practitioners, activists, and so on – that are actively working on these intrinsic relationships between human cultures and their landscapes. Therefore, we plan to organize a four-day pre-congress workshop specifically aimed at younger participants, enabling them to come better prepared to fully engage in the main congress.

ISE Congress 2024

The 18th International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) Congress juxtaposes biodiversity and cultural landscapes, evoking the intimate relationships of animals, plants, and other forms of life that are embedded in environments shaped by people. The meeting will be held on 15–19 May 2024 in Marrakech, Morocco. It is co-organized by Cadi Ayyad University, the Centre for Development and Environment, the International Society of Ethnobiology, the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement, the Moroccan Biodiversity and Livelihoods Association, and the Global Diversity Foundation.