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  • Writer's pictureSimon Kaack

The Web of Life: How Indigenous Wisdom Preserves Biodiversity

The indigenous knowledge of plants, their benefits and their value is irreplaceable.

After last week's focus on overall biodiversity, we now approach the importance of indigenous practices for biodiversity in Southeast Asia. Biodiversity is deeply interwoven with the cultural identity of many indigenous groups, influencing their beliefs, traditions, and rituals. Local communities in Southeast Asia often rely on traditional knowledge linked to biodiversity for agriculture, medicine, and cultural practices.

The term ‘‘indigenous’’ refers to something ‘native, original, and resident to a place.’ Indigenous Peoples' territories span over more than one-quarter of the Earth's surface, and a substantial portion of this land remains untouched by industrial-level human activities.  Interestingly, Asia is home to the world's largest indigenous populations, despite the fact that the concept of indigeneity remains contentious, politically disputed, and dismissed as inconsequential by many states in the region.

Useful or not? Indigenous medicine and food consider all fruits of nature.

Biodiversity and indigenous communities share a profound connection, particularly in Asia, where nearly 70 percent of the approximately 250 million indigenous people worldwide reside. The region stands out as one of the world's biodiversity hotspots, boasting species richness within terrestrial orders ranging from 40 to 60 percent of global diversity. Indigenous biodiversity knowledge in Southeast Asia is a rich and invaluable resource shaped by the deep connection that indigenous communities have with their environments.

For instance, the region's rich biodiversity, encompassing diverse flora and fauna, provides a vast array of plant and animal species with potential medicinal properties. Indigenous communities in Southeast Asia have a wealth of knowledge about medicinal plants, using them for various health remedies and traditional medicine. The knowledge and practices associated with these remedies contribute to the region's cultural heritage and can offer valuable insights for modern medicine. Traditional healers within these communities often play a vital role in maintaining the health and well-being of their members through the application of indigenous medicinal knowledge.

Further, indigenous communities possess extensive knowledge about the dynamics of local ecosystems, including plant and animal interactions, seasonal variations, and ecological processes. Traditional land management practices, such as rotational agriculture and agroforestry, are based on centuries of observation and adaptation to local conditions. Rituals and taboos often play a role in biodiversity conservation by regulating hunting, fishing, and the use of specific resources. Some indigenous communities designate certain areas as sacred groves, which serve as biodiversity hotspots and are protected against exploitation. Indigenous farmers often engage in seed-saving practices, preserving and exchanging diverse crop varieties, contributing to agrobiodiversity.

Water sources and their sustainable use are an integral part of indigenous ways of life.

Another example consists of the rich marine biodiversity in Southeast Asia, that supports thriving fisheries and aquaculture. A variety of fish species, crustaceans, and other marine organisms contribute to the livelihoods of many coastal communities. Sustainable management of marine biodiversity is essential to food security and economic stability for the region. Indigenous communities possess knowledge about local water sources, including seasonal variations, water quality, and sustainable water management practices. Some communities have developed sophisticated traditional irrigation systems that harness local ecological knowledge for efficient water use.

Moreover, indigenous communities have detailed knowledge about the diverse uses of plants, including food, shelter, clothing, and tools. Many plants hold cultural significance, featuring in rituals, ceremonies, and traditional crafts. Indigenous communities often adapt to changing climatic conditions through observational wisdom, adjusting their practices to maintain resilience in the face of environmental shifts. Equally, they often engage in community-based natural resource management, where decisions are made collectively to sustainably manage biodiversity and ecosystems. Particularly younger generations are reflecting a shift in attitudes towards their natural environment and ancestral way of life, compared to industrialized livelihoods.

Southeast Asia stands out as an indigenous global hotspot for biodiversity, yet it is concurrently one of the most biotically threatened regions. Various factors pose a significant risk to ecosystems, escalating the likelihood of species extinction across diverse habitat, such as deforestation rates that rank among the highest globally. Some countries, such as the Philippines and parts of Indonesia, have already witnessed the loss of over half of their original forest cover. Projections suggest that certain regions may experience staggering losses of up to 98% within the next decade. Additionally, the region experiences the highest rate of mining in the tropics, numerous hydropower dams under construction, and a consumption of species for traditional medicines that poses a global threat to biodiversity.

From an ecological perspective, the interconnected issues of biodiversity loss, air pollution, water degradation, deforestation, and climate change run parallel to a major shift away from indigenous practices towards industrialized lifestyles. Illustratively, in Indonesia, the expansion of oil palm plantations has surpassed 4.3 million hectares since the beginning of the millennium. Additionally, in Laos and Cambodia, substantial areas of land have been transformed into plantations of rapidly growing trees to meet the worldwide need for wood chips, pulp, and paper.

Monocultures and the ignorance of local ecosystems cause permanent soil degradation.

The escalating demand for agricultural commodities such as rubber and oil palm is instigating swift transformations in the biodiverse forest landscapes of Southeast Asia, meaning degradation of vegetation cover, intensification of agricultural use, or a combination of both. This holds massive impacts for smallholder-dominated land systems, often indigenous land, that underwent intensification through the expansion of oil palm and rubber plantations, indicating potential displacement effects.

The potential vanishing of tribes and their cultures entails a considerable expense that even those with a limited focus on economic planning should acknowledge: the forfeiture of priceless wisdom concerning the utilization of biodiverse varieties. Thus, preserving and respecting indigenous biodiversity knowledge is crucial for sustainable development and conservation in Southeast Asia. Recognizing the importance of indigenous wisdom in policymaking, conservation efforts, and sustainable resource management is essential for the well-being of both these communities and the ecosystems they inhabit. This is why, in next week’s Journal, we will be focusing on political approaches that can, informed by indigenous practices, meaningfully preserve biodiversity.


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