“Indigenous knowledge can’t be kept in a museum”

Much is at stake at next week’s UN Biodiversity Conference COP15. Including, among other things, a great deal of land to be protected. CDE scientist Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel, who has conducted research on biocultural diversity in the Andes, says: “If we want to conserve biodiversity, we need to understand its connections with local knowledge, values, and worldviews – and to tackle all of these dimensions together.” On 6 December, she will explore in a public discussion what that means for mountain areas.

“Instead of viewing nature as something separate from humans, we need to reconcile biodiversity conservation with livelihood goals”: Sarah-Lan Mathez-Stiefel. Photo: Video still

Interview: Gaby Allheilig

From 7–19 December 2022, stakeholders from around the world will meet for the UN Biodiversity Conference COP15 in Montreal. High on the agenda is the creation of more nature reserves worldwide. Even now, half of the global biodiversity hotspots are located in mountain areas, many of which are inhabited by indigenous or other local communities. How are they affected by this pressure on their land, especially in the mountains?

This very much depends on the particular type of nature reserve or protected area to be established, and to what extent it will restrict a community’s access to local resources. Although many of these communities rely on multilocal livelihoods – for example, through family members who have moved to a city or migrate temporarily for work – most of them still depend directly on their land resources. If the establishment of a protected area severely restricts their access to the land they have traditionally used, it can have a dramatic impact on their livelihoods.


“There has been a move away from the ‘fortress conservation’ approach”


Beginning with the world’s first national park, Yellowstone in the US, protected areas in mountains around the world have time and again become stories of dispossession. Many indigenous communities have been displaced from their ancestral lands. What gives you hope that things will be different in the future?

This is indeed a very serious issue of environmental and social justice. Fortunately, we’ve seen some progress in the area of nature conservation over the last decades. There has been a move away from the “fortress conservation” approach, and it is increasingly recognized that local stakeholders – including local communities and indigenous peoples – must have a say in protected area management. Of course, much remains to be done. But there are also interesting and promising examples of co-management or indigenous-led conservation schemes.


“It’s important to investigate promising examples and the potential they offer”


Such as?

I’m thinking, for example, of the Peruvian Amazon, with schemes such as the Communal Reserves, which are jointly managed by indigenous communities and the state, or the “Amazon Indigenous REDD+”. This is an attempt to integrate indigenous peoples from the Amazon in an equitable way in initiatives under the REDD+ programme – an international programme to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. These examples are not yet well known. This makes it all the more important to investigate what potential they have, what barriers exist, and how they could be better supported and taken up elsewhere.

It seems that you would be well positioned for that.

We’re actually starting a research project to study innovative indigenous-led conservation governance schemes in the Peruvian Amazon. Working with the Wyss Academy for Nature, we aim to derive lessons learned for applying such schemes in forest frontier areas elsewhere in the world, for example in Madagascar or Laos.

In addition, in our upcoming second MRD Talk (see box below), we will bring together researchers, indigenous representatives, policymakers, and other stakeholders for a public dialogue online. We’ll jointly explore how indigenous mountain communities and their knowledge can be better recognized and included in conservation initiatives.


“We can learn a lot from indigenous communities, also in science”


Doesn’t the need for such events and discussions show that conservation initiatives are often still dominated by Western perspectives?

Indeed, nature conservation is guided largely by the way we understand biodiversity in Western-based science and in the global North. However, instead of viewing nature as something separate from humans, we need to reconcile biodiversity conservation with livelihood goals. In other words, we need a systemic – or even holistic – approach.

What exactly do you mean by that?

Indigenous communities usually understand nature not as something separate from human society, but as something of which humans are part. In the Andean worldview, for example, human society is perceived to be in a relationship with the natural and spiritual worlds. And these relationships come with values and responsibilities. Adopting a systemic or holistic approach means taking account of all these interconnections, so it will actually go quite deep into changing the way we relate to nature. And I think that’s where we can learn a lot from indigenous and other local communities, also in science.


“Biocultural diversity is an interesting concept”


How can we best do that – learn from indigenous or local communities?

I think there’s been encouraging progress on how to include different types of knowledge in the research process, especially in the field of transdisciplinarity, where the focus is on including the knowledge of non-academic actors. These experiences could offer approaches to acknowledging different ways of relating to nature and understanding nature conservation, too.

And then there is ethnobiology, a discipline that is not very well known but also has a lot to contribute to this debate. Simply put, it’s the study of the relationships between human societies and the elements of their natural environments. An interesting concept that has emerged from this field is the concept of biocultural diversity, which recognizes the intrinsic links that exist between biological and cultural diversity.


“The strength of indigenous knowledge lies in its capacity to adapt”


This year you became president of the International Society of Ethnobiology...

Yes, and we are very concerned about the loss of traditional, local, and indigenous knowledge and the impact it has on biological, cultural, and linguistic diversity. There is evidence that significant links exist between this knowledge, along with the values and worldviews attached to it, and biological diversity. If we want to conserve biodiversity, we need to understand these connections and tackle all these dimensions together.

At the same time, it’s important that we don’t see indigenous knowledge as something static that can be kept in a museum. The strength of indigenous knowledge lies in its capacity to adapt, include new elements, and respond to changes.


“Agrobiodiversity is decreasing across all mountain areas”


It seems that demand for local knowledge is also increasing in the context of the climate crisis – such as in the management of mountain areas for food production. And yet, it is precisely the mountain populations in developing countries that are most at risk of food shortages or hunger. How does this fit together?

Mountain people live in very harsh conditions, and often in remote areas. Climate change has further exacerbated these conditions, directly impacting these communities’ food security. In addition, agrobiodiversity is decreasing across all mountain areas. One of the reasons for this is market integration, which often creates demand for only one or two products or varieties. This leads to a loss of agrobiodiversity, which was an important “food safety net” for the population.


“In the Andes, many local people can’t afford to buy quinoa anymore”


An example of this is the quinoa boom in Bolivia: It showed that indigenous communities benefit only briefly from the hype around such products, and that problems can even end up increasing. Where do you see a way out of such market development traps?

In most cases, including quinoa, the problem is not the product itself, but the food system in which it is embedded. Quinoa was traditionally produced in biodiverse rotational systems. But the market boom led to monoculture and other intensive forms of production that deplete the soil. And that’s only looking at it from an environmental point of view. Socio-economically, there’s also a problem of fairness and equity. Who benefits from these value chains?

In the Andes, local people – whether rural or urban –often can’t afford to buy quinoa anymore, because it’s become too expensive. In my view, such local and nutritious products should definitely be revalued and their consumption promoted. But we need to find ways to ensure that the value chains are developed in a sustainable and equitable way. There’s much that can and must be done.


“In Peru, the gastronomic boom in local cuisine has contributed to people’s appreciation of traditional foods”


How can science contribute?

There are many approaches. CDE, for example, has several research projects on this topic, including one on innovative business models and their contribution to environmental justice. Another project has developed a tool for participatory assessment and transformation of food system sustainability. We also have a team examining how trade measures can promote sustainable food systems – and more.

And what can society do?

One important way is to enhance the value of local foods – for example, through changes in the gastronomic scene. In Peru, there’s been a boom in local cuisine, definitely contributing to people’s appreciation of traditional foods as a symbol of something valuable and unique. Movements and food networks that champion local food systems are now emerging all over the world. They actually grew stronger during the Covid pandemic. From a research perspective, it’s important to study such initiatives to understand how they can be supported and under what conditions they can contribute to locally-based, sustainable, and fair food systems.

MRD Talk, 6 December 2022

MRD Talks feature authors of articles in Mountain Research and Development, the scientific journal hosted at CDE. On 6 December, the focus will be on how to reconcile conservation and human well-being and create more equitable conservation initiatives. Indigenous representatives, practitioners, and scientists, together with the audience, will explore innovative conservation practices that draw on indigenous or other local knowledge. The discussion will take place online at 5 p.m. CET.