The Importance of Indigenous Knowledge in Curbing the Loss of Language and Biodiversity


Biodiversity inventory, monitoring, and species-recovery efforts can be advanced by a dynamic collaboration of Western, citizen, and ethnoscience. Indigenous and local traditional knowledge of place-based biodiversity is perhaps the oldest scientific tradition on earth. We illustrate how an all taxa biodiversity inventory network of projects in collaboration with the Comcaac (Seri people) in northwestern Mexico is advancing not only biosystematics but also species recovery, habitat restoration, language conservation and maintenance, and the maintenance of traditional livelihoods. We encourage scientists to establish collaborations with indigenous and other place-based communities to better understand the wealth of knowledge held in local categorization systems. It is essential to not merely seek out one-to-one correspondences between Western and indigenous knowledge but also to recognize and respect the creative tensions among these different knowledge systems, because this is where the most profound insights and fruitful collaborations emerge.

With the accelerating losses of biodiversity, habitats, and native languages, indigenous knowledge—including the study of traditional ecological knowledge of species and landscapes maintained by native nations—has become ever more significant. Globally, 20% of described species are likely to face extinction over the next two to three decades (Maffi 2001, Cardinale et al. 2012). Current extinction rates exceed background rates among vertebrate taxa by 114 times under the most conservative of calculations (Ceballos et al. 2015). Simultaneously, Rogers and Campbell (2015) estimated that one language goes extinct every 3.5 months and that 3134 of the 6901 known living languages are endangered. Linguistic and biological diversity are tightly coupled and face similarly grim futures (Gorenflo et al. 2011).

Collaborative efforts to document local biological clas­sifications and associated traditional knowledge of species distributions and habitats are time sensitive. Many ancient place-based knowledge systems pre-date the formal articula­tion of Western and Eastern scientific tenets by thousands of years. However, adaptive ecological knowledge is rapidly shifting if not dramatically eroding (Loh and Harmon 2014). This is especially true among communities suffering from the declining use of their languages. As such, there is an urgent need to support communities attempting to revitalize their native tongues and maintain their traditional livelihoods based on local natural resources. Fortunately, there are grow­ing efforts to incorporate indigenous cultures into projects that restore habitats of declining species and resuscitate lost practices and knowledge. Examples range from large-scale indigenous-led monitoring efforts of wildlife populations (Luzar et al. 2011) and carbon stocks (Butt et al. 2015) in Amazonia to the mapping of traditional lands in the little-known Darién province of Panama (Herlihy 2003).


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