Going Back to Our Roots

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 20 2021
Echo Going Back to Our Roots

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy

“The problem now is that young people, young indigenous people, are not so interested in preserving traditional knowledge. So for them, seeing that it was important for us and for the outside world, this traditional knowledge, it was a big deal to them.” 

— Ciro Guerra

When it comes to natural and cultural heritage protection, the world seems to be going through a paradigm shift, by adopting traditional knowledge into conservation and management processes. These practices based on traditional knowledge of local communities have been in practice for centuries and have been able to keep the natural and cultural environments protected and well managed. Today, in parts of the world where primitive societies exist, natural environments are well protected due to the practice of traditional knowledge including beliefs, rituals, practices, and myths. 

In our last week’s article, we discussed how Traditional Knowledge systems can be used in the conservation of forests and wildlife in Sri Lanka, with Senior Professor Hemanthi Ranasinghe of the Department of Forestry and Environmental Sciences, University of Sri Jayewardhenapura. The professor explained what is meant by traditional knowledge and gave examples of traditional knowledge from around the world and from Sri Lanka such as certain beliefs among the Vedda communities and rituals such as the Mutti Mangalyaya in the dry zone. She explained how our traditional knowledge helps in natural resource management, to preserve medicinal plants, for successful water management and so forth. 

Drawbacks when it comes to implementing traditional knowledge in Sri Lanka

After explaining examples of traditional knowledge in Sri Lanka and how they sustain the natural environment while supporting the livelihoods of communities, Prof. Ranasinghe then talked about some drawbacks that we may face when it comes to practically implementing these. 

As Prof. Ranasinghe explained to us, the following can be identified as drawbacks when it comes to implementing traditional knowledge in environmental conservation in Sri Lanka: 

-    Our traditional knowledge is mostly confined to rural communities.

      The problem with our traditional knowledge is that it is mostly confined to rural communities and that too seems to be fading away. Even local rural communities are not aware of the significance of what they possess. 

-    This precious knowledge is scattered and not well documented. 

      Most of our traditional knowledge is scattered all over the country among the gradually fading rural cultures. Less research is done about this subject therefore it is not well documented and it is difficult to access the knowledge. 

-    This information does not reach development personnel.

      Due to the above-mentioned reasons, our traditional knowledge does not reach the development personnel of the country. They seem to be confined to scattered areas of the country.

-    Modern society does not place much faith in our traditional knowledge.

      There is also a reluctance of modern society not to have faith in traditional knowledge systems as many in Sri Lanka do not believe in traditional belief systems, myths and taboos and reject them as merely baseless superstitious myths. However, what many forget is that the world has now realised the value and potentials of traditional knowledge in environmental conservation as well as in cultural heritage protection and management. 

-    Modern education and technology claim traditional or indigenous knowledge to be unscientific

Our modern education and technology systems seem to claim traditional knowledge as unscientific and unacceptable. Although this seems to be a tendency in Sri Lanka, as we have mentioned above, the world is now moving towards a new paradigm shift by incorporating traditional/indigenous knowledge in natural and cultural heritage protection and management processes. 

Although there are many potential features of traditional knowledge, there are notable challenges faced when it comes to harnessing the fullest potential of them. Therefore, certain steps must be followed to earn the best results of utilising traditional knowledge in forest and wildlife conservation. As Prof. Ranasinghe explained, we can organise them as below:

- We must raise awareness:

Raising awareness about traditional knowledge and understanding its importance is a challenge we must address at the earliest. For that, identifying our traditional knowledge systems, documenting and recording them, distributing and exchanging the knowledge are essential. 

- Validation and valuation and pilot projects:

It is also important to conduct research on traditional knowledge. By conducting test projects to see how certain traditional knowledge works on certain conservation aspects of forests and wildlife, the challenges and potentials can be identified. These test projects can be short-term as well as long-term. 

There are many areas that need improvement if we are to implement our traditional knowledge systems in environmental conservation, said Prof. Ranasinghe. These are:

-    Collection and compilation of traditional/indigenous knowledge scattered in the country

-    Information, communication, and educational strategy to be operational

-    Research in traditional knowledge programmes that can be implemented

-    Capacity building of stakeholders using existing traditional knowledge

-    Institutional mechanism for incorporating/mainstreaming traditional knowledge 

In the research article titled Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Practices for Forest Conservation in Thathe Vondo in Limpopo Province, South Africa by Dr. Ndidzulafhi Sinthumule and Mbuelo Laura Mashau, says that scientific literature suggests that scientific knowledge is not the only knowledge and wisdom for sustainable forest management. 

It is reported that international bodies have also recognised and emphasised the value of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) practices in the conservation of biological diversity. For instance, Article 8 (j) of The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity explicitly states the need to,  “Respect, preserve and maintain innovation and practices of indigenous and local communities related to sustainable use of biological diversity,” (United Nations, 1992 p.6). 

Traditional knowledge adds value to nature

Doing a little more research on this subject we came to know that traditional knowledge is considered as essential in forest management by scientists and conservation experts globally. Age-old customs, myths, rituals, and taboos have always played a large role in conserving forests in many parts of the globe. 

Traditional knowledge is an intangible component that has the potential for being translated into commercial benefits by providing leads for the development of useful products and processes. However, as Prof. Ranasinghe explained, there are many challenges we have to face if we are to implement our traditional knowledge in forest and wildlife conservation today. 

Therefore, it is important to change the mindset of the masses if we are to implement traditional knowledge into our research and development system. In many countries in South America and Africa, there are indigenous beliefs that the local communities value and do not look down upon. These beliefs, myths, and taboos, which are a part of intangible cultural heritage, are practically in action in those regions. It also includes folk knowledge. 

Traditional or indigenous knowledge is the intangible part of a country’s or communities’ cultural heritage and it is something that is deep-rooted in peoples’ subconscious for centuries. They are the results of humans’ adaptations and responses to the natural environments they have lived in for centuries. Hence there are many artistic practices including cosmological beliefs, totems, proverbs, folk stories and poems, folk dances, medicinal practices, and many myths. 

These beliefs, rituals, and myths have contributed largely to resource management and disaster management. These beliefs would restrict people from cutting trees limitlessly, hunting animals, and any form of exploitation of the natural environment. It happens because the existence of folk beliefs, myths, and rituals, adds value to natural resources such as forests, rivers, oceans, mountains, and wild animals. They personify these natural resources and elements. 

Through this, people respect and value nature and at the same time develop a fear of it, which leads to their protection. Also, there is a great space dedicated to the idea of gratitude for traditional knowledge, which means, people would pay their gratitude to nature every now and then and also for the unseen forces of nature. This idea was woven around the concept of being grateful to nature for providing water, food, air, warmth and so forth for humans.

In brief, and if we decode it to the core, in traditional knowledge, the idea of gratitude seems to be the centre of everything, wrapped along with a sense of fear and respect. This concept could surpass any other modern practice and theory of conservation and management if we put it into practice. 

It is a fading heritage

Traditional knowledge or indigenous knowledge is a part of the intangible heritage of local communities. In Sri Lanka, this part of our culture, the intangible heritage, is a fading aspect. We are forgetting our roots. On the other hand, our natural heritage is under threat. Our forests are rapidly fading away while our wildlife is under severe threat. Every single day we hear something devastating when it comes to our wildlife. Also, by using our traditional knowledge of forest and wildlife conservation, we are giving life to our intangible cultural heritage; therefore we are connecting back the two aspects of heritage; nature and culture. 

As we have explained above, the basic concept or the core of our traditional knowledge, being grateful for nature is something we need to bring back to life and put into practice. No matter how much we put weight into modern conservation practices, unless we feel grateful towards nature, nothing would work completely. As the late Dr.Roland Silva would always say, we need love, more than laws to protect our heritage. 

“For centuries, cultures throughout the world have used indigenous technologies to navigate life’s complexities. From navigator-priests in Micronesia to mystics in India, vast sums of knowledge are available if we but recognise it.” 

— Elizabeth Kapu’uwailani Lindsey


By Ama H. Vanniarachchy | Published: 2:00 AM Nov 20 2021

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