CIESIN Thematic Guides * Provisional Release *

Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Preserving Biodiversity

Indigenous knowledge about cultivated and wild species is rapidly being lost. Genetic information coded in wild strains and traditional or native crop varieties could be stamped out as intensive monocultural production favors the adoption of newer, high-yielding crops. Humanity's collective knowledge of biodiversity and its use and management rests in cultural diversity; conversely, conserving biodiversity often helps strengthen cultural integrity and values, according to the Global Biodiversity Strategy: Policy-Makers' Guide (World Resources Institute, The World Conservation Union, and the United Nations Environment Programme 1992).

In "Conserving Indigenous Technologies Associated with Traditional Crop Varieties," Nazarea-Sandoval (1991) maintains that documenting indigenous methods is an essential step toward conserving biodiversity. Genetic information preserved in gene banks serves a valuable purpose but is decontextualized in the sense that human and ecological forces that pushed for selection of the species are largely ignored. Figure 1 and figure 2 show parallelisms that can be drawn between gene banks and memory banks. Nazarea-Sandoval examines how indigenous people decrease risks and find the mix of traditional crop varieties and technologies that work most successfully. Figure 3 shows indigenous criteria for discrimination, classification, and evaluation of sweet potato varieties.

Soleri and Cleaveland (1993) present a case study illustrating how indigenous knowledge has contributed to biodiversity in a fragile environment in "Seeds of Strength for Hopis and Zunis." Despite their challenging environment, Hopi farmers in the high desert of Arizona have developed a sophisticated agricultural system using a broad spectrum of Hopi folk varieties of crops.

Lamola (1992) reports that in addition to local criteria for discrimination, classification, and evaluation, small-scale farmers in developing countries also breed local crop varieties for improved production using informal systems. They often employ their own taxonomy, encourage introgression, select, hybridize, field test, record data, and name their varieties. In "Linking the Formal and Informal Sectors in Plant Genetic Resources Conservation and Utilization," the author argues that sharing of this knowledge is essential to conserve indigenous knowledge of biodiversity.