In the past decade, there has been a substantial shift in both the United Nations and the environmental conservation sector toward giving greater recognition and respect to the knowledge systems of indigenous peoples. For two decades, the UNESCO Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems programme has contributed to the promotion of indigenous peoples’ participation in the UN system and supporting their advocacy for greater understanding of their knowledge, systems of transmission, their values, practices, beliefs, languages and ways of understanding the world.
Major global platforms are currently upgrading their understanding of indigenous knowledge and the participation of knowledge holders in knowledge production, scientific assessment, and eventually in shaping decision-making and policies at different scales. The Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services (IPBES) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are systematically including indigenous and local knowledge in assessments. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change has created the Local Communities and Indigenous Knowledge Platform and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, building on Articles 8j and 10c, plus a decade of cooperation with UNESCO, is negotiating the place of indigenous people and indigenous knowledge in the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.
A challenging area of the interface of formal science and indigenous knowledge systems revolves around evidence, data and validation of knowledge. Scientific method is based on the principle of independent verification and validation of the findings of others in their system. Indigenous knowledge is produced in situ for different purposes than science, through different means and by different institutions. Indigenous knowledge is part of a social and cultural system that goes beyond the modalities of science and is an inherent part of daily life. Given the colonial history of marginalisation of indigenous peoples and a legacy of European knowledge systems being considered superior to others, there is a reluctance by many indigenous peoples to offer up their observations and analyses to another set of practitioners in the context of highly unequal power relations.
Liebenberg has been one of the advocates for recognising the similarities between indigenous knowledge of biodiversity and complementary aspects of Western science. Indigenous peoples deal with observable facts, have highly developed understanding, analytical capacity and discernment about animal behaviour, tracks and traces, and this body of knowledge is passed from generation to generation through didactic methods, that involve precision, accuracy and verification within the parameters of their own systems.
As scientists begin to recognise the importance of multiple evidence-based approaches to research, scenarios, modelling and assessments, there is an opportunity that the historical discrimination experienced by indigenous peoples may start to wane. This could, if fully implemented, address the exclusion of indigenous peoples from formal employment and
remunerated roles in wildlife conservation, as well as transform their role in decision-making and natural resource governance. Today, very few indigenous peoples in Africa are able to be formally employed in protected areas and wildlife conservation, as they do not have requisite qualifications from schooling, despite often having highly developed knowledge of biodiversity, ecosystem functions, weather and climate change.
In this article, Liebenberg, drawing on his decades of working with highly skilled San trackers, discusses and describes his experience of working with indigenous peoples to create a standardised and credible system of assessing knowledge of wildlife tracking and trailing, and evolving this into a system of certification that has international validity.
For UNESCO, this is an opportunity to create dialogue about diverse knowledge systems, explore how different indigenous peoples are dealing with their interface with science, and promoting options which can both address historical discrimination and provide new opportunities for sustaining indigenous knowledge with greater scope for application inside and outside the wage economy.
Nigel Crawhall, Chief of Section, LINKS
08 November 2021