Cover Image
close this bookTraditional Knowledge and Sustainable Development (WB)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentEnvironmentally sustainable development series
View the documentForeword
View the documentAcknowledgments
close this folderSummary of the conference proceedings
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentTraditional knowledge and cultural survival
View the documentTraditional knowledge, land, and the environment
View the documentTraditional knowledge and agricultural sustainability
View the documentContributions of traditional medicine to health
View the documentTraditional institutions and participation
View the documentGovernment policies and traditional knowledge
View the documentBuilding a new partnership
View the documentConclusion
close this folderPost-conference discussion
View the documentTraditional knowledge and sustainable development: a conversation
close this folderAppendixes
View the documentAppendix 1 - Program
View the documentAppendix 2 - Participants
View the documentAppendix 3 - Indigenous knowledge resource centers
View the documentAppendix 4 - Operational directive (OD) 4.20: Indigenous peoples
View the documentAppendix 5 - Selected bibliography

Traditional knowledge, land, and the environment

A second theme of the conference was the idea that traditional knowledge is rooted in the land and the environment. Several speakers noted the importance that environmental values have for indigenous peoples, not only because the environment provides them with food, fiber, and other necessities but also because of their spiritual relationship to the earth and deep respect for it.

Canadian Indigenous Peoples

Conference participant Cindy Gilday from the Dene Nation works with the Department of Renewable Resources in the Government of the Northwest Territories of Canada. She told several stories about the respect that her people have for the land. One of these stories was about a trip that she made to a remote Dogrib village that was involved in land claims negotiations with the Canadian government.

I've travelled a lot, but this place really touched me. It's the first time in a long time that I went into a village and found the children still building animals and houses with sticks and mud and things they can find on the road....

This is also a place in the Northwest Territories where there has just been a massive diamond find. In this village, people reported that helicopters were landing every fifteen minutes during the summer. Within this same area, there is another mining company opening operations and two hydro dams are planned.

She then described a conversation she had while berry picking with women from the village.

The women still wear blue handkerchiefs, long-sleeved blue jackets, blue skirts, and moccasins. These women, as they took me over the hill, said: 'You know, you are not allowed to take the berries home.' I said, 'Why not?' I had a very Western reaction. I thought if I picked them, why cannot I take them home. I would have known better if I had listened to them more carefully in the village. One of them, Mary Ann Football, sat me down and said, 'Aside from the fact that we like the berries, if you move the berries and plants out of the community, it will affect the little animals, who eat them. If they are affected, then all the bigger animals that depend on the little animals will be affected. If those animals are affected, it will impact us. One living being depends on another living being.'

In another story, which took place outside of Yellowknife, the provincial capital, she described what happened to the caribou when there was a sudden influx of outsiders.

A lot of these outsiders started going out hunting without knowing what hunting means to Northerners. They shot caribou from the roadside and butchered them on the road. They left the heads and insides scattered along the roadways. These parts of the animal are considered to be the most delicate by my people. The chiefs of the Dogrib were absolutely horrified that any civilized group of people would act that way. It goes against the ethics of the way our hunters relate to the land and the animals....

Our people have reconciled the relationship between respect for wild animals and usage. There is a lot to learn from this, and that's Caring-for-the-Earth ethics. For thousands of years, our people survived in this fragile environment. Their traditional knowledge is based on how they've interacted with the animals, their environment, and each other: what they have observed and tested through time and patience and relationship with the environment.

Ms. Gilday used these stories to communicate the deep respect that her people have for the land and its resources. Obviously, the material survival of the peoples of the north depends upon the exploitation and sale of renewable resources, including fur-bearing animals. However, this use of the environment is based on a set of traditional rules, ceremonies, and practices that define the relationships that human beings have to the natural world. While native languages may not have specific terms for the modern concept of "sustainability," it is obvious that many traditional peoples had a sustainable relationship to the earth.

The Faasao Savaii Society of Western Samoa

Moelagi Jackson, founder and president of the Faasao Savaii Society of Western Samoa, also described the respect of her people for the land and environment. In her native language, she said:

For the Maori, economic development and culture have a reciprocal relationship that has a metaphor in our relationship to the earth.... I've yet to find a culture that doesn't talk about Mother Earth. For example, sea life has an obligation to sustain me. It's a mutually supporting relationship (Whanaungatanga). That's what gives me my right to go and exploit the sea. However, Tamure, the red snapper, has got this relationship with me, and I have to sustain her. When we're looking at how we reconcile the tension and the trade-offs, we must make this the metaphor we work within. - Whaimutu Dewes

Oi matou o fatu o le eleele.
We are the seeds of the land.

It is in our language handed down from our ancestors, and we strongly believe that our land and our environment are our heritage from God. We live on it, develop it, enjoy, but never destroy it as the next seeds will have nothing to grow on.

Savaii Island, Ms. Jackson's home, is the biggest island of the Samoan group and the second largest Polynesian island after Hawaii. It is also considered to be "the cradle of all the Polynesians," and until recently was one of the most undeveloped and unspoiled of the islands. In 1978 when regular ferry service became available, Savaii Island experienced a great deal of development. The government brought more roads, airports, and hospitals; better communications systems; and electrification to the island. One of the consequences of this improved infrastructure was the increased interest of developers. Development projects led to the clearing of forest land; planters who now had more access to markets began clear-cutting rainforests; and others started to exploit the island's marine resources. "Most of these developments were necessary," Ms. Jackson said, "though some were not. Some of these were launched with or without plans and consideration of those living on the island."

Most important, she explained how these activities threatened the cultural traditions of the Savaii people by reducing their access to the forests. For example, Samoans use forest products for the building of traditional houses and canoes and the making of tools. They also use medicinal leaves, barks, ferns, roots, flowers, and seeds; perfumed oils for skin care; flowering and fruit-bearing trees for predicting the weather; and trees for producing tapa clothes and kava bowls. She elaborated on the cultural significance of the kava bowl.

This is very important to our culture, as it is used for mixing our ceremonial drink. Every meeting conducted in the village is opened with a kava ceremony; guests arriving in the village are welcomed by a kava ceremony conducted by chiefs and orators of the village. The purpose of the offering is thanksgiving to God, asking for his blessing, protection, and guidance in our future.. I truly believe this kava ceremony will continue to keep our people in peace and harmony due to our total belief in communication with each other and with God.

The Faasao Savaii Society was established in 1990 to protect the environmental and cultural values of the island. It comprises 20 corporate members consisting of 17 villages, 2 youth clubs, and 1 college. The program includes environmental education, eco-tourism, forest conservation, handicraft production, encouragement of traditional medicine and healers, and capacity building. One of the Society's major goals is to establish nature reserves around each village that are under the control of village chiefs and orators. When created, these reserves will enable the villagers to maintain their local cultural use of the forest, serve as a place for training young people in traditional forest management, and provide income from tourism.

The Faasao Savaii Society is an example of numerous local and regional indigenous organizations that have arisen throughout the world to provide an alternative vision of land use and management, based on the traditional environmental knowledge of indigenous peoples. One of the challenges that international organizations such as the World Bank and its partners in the Global Environmental Facility (GEE) - the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) - face is how to better incorporate these people and their traditional knowledge into natural resource management and conservation programs. This theme was central to the presentations of other participants, including those who dealt with agriculture and traditional medicine.

E tua i le vaoola.

This is an expression often used when someone is doing well. We say, 'He is doing well as he has a living forest to depend upon....' Our everyday and our oratory languages are both rich with expressions pertaining to the cultural values of our land and the rainforest. It is a good indication that without our rainforest, our culture - which has survived for so many generations - will disappear. - Moelagi Jackson