We can learn sustainability from traditional communities

28 Oktober 2020

We have been dubbed storytelling animals and for good reason. The stories we tell shape our views of the world and influence our behaviors towards nature.

Many currently popular stories portray the earth as a commodity. Capitalism sees profit and economic growth as the ideals for a nation and if there is considerable demand for various products, it is considered to be a boon. Free trade, hand in hand with globalization, can be ecologically harmful, however, as the Earth’s natural resources are limited.

Many scholars and environmental activists believe that globalization is one of the major causes of environmental destruction. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva claims that “[t]he global economic crisis is arguably a result of the predominantly Western industrialized nations’ distorted conception of nature and humans’ relationship with the natural world.”

But there is another way.

Indigenous stories are part of the identity of a community’s members and these stories can make a significant impact on shaping a more positive cognitive framework related to nature. American cognitive linguist George Philip Lakoff argues that human beings utilize unconscious structures to conceptualize events. Consequently, these “schemas” or “frames” need to be chosen correctly to form a harmonious relationship with nature.

Traditional ecological knowledge can act as a positive framework for activating ideologies of sustainability. The narratives of traditional knowledge can facilitate ecofriendly mindsets, which can show respect to all the biotic and abiotic components of ecosystems. There is certainly a growing need for positive stories by which we can save the ecosystems. Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) with its stories can help build up ecological salience so we can regain a harmonious relationship with nature.

Many indigenous people have had an unbroken and close relationship with nature which is antithetical to practices of unsustainable exploitation. David Suzuki, a Canadian environmentalist, emphasizes the importance of traditional knowledge at “a time of imminent global ecocatastrophe.”

TEK, many experts argue, is not only descriptive knowledge of nature but also knowledge that can foster positive interactions with nature. This knowledge system can be handed down from one generation to the next and serve as the foundation of a community in protecting its environment.

Sadly, however, much of such knowledge is now getting lost in the face of relentless modernization. Still, there are many communities across the globe which continue to follow indigenous forms of knowledge. They observe nature carefully and act according to signals communicated by natural elements.

In Papua New Guinea indigenous communities observe the behavior of plants, animals, and other natural elements to interpret and forecast upcoming changes and impending disasters. These signals alert local communities, allowing them to prepare and prevent.

Some local communities can predict oncoming cyclones and heavy floods by listening to the sound of thunder and noting the direction and strength of mountain breezes. An impending tsunami is often indicated by seagulls flying away from the coast. When bats, snakes and other animals retreat from volcanic spots, then a volcanic eruption might be imminent.

The importance of Traditional Ecological Knowledge is increasingly being recognized by many governments. India has started mobilizing indigenous knowledge for environmental, economic and ecological gain. The Government of India with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) set a Community-based Disaster Risk Management programme (CBDRM) in 2002 to strengthen and build resilience through promoting community participation.

The Disaster Risk Management Asia Community has outlined different traditional community practices for Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR). “To protect crops from floods, farmers in Tamilnadu (India) use flood resistant paddy seed along with indigenous agricultural practices,” it explains.

On the coasts of West Bengal and Orissa in India “farmers tie bamboo pegs and hang fried fenugreek leaves on river banks to save fishes from floods. Indigenous communities from Orissa and Andhra Pradesh practice shifting cultivation and grow drought resistant tuber crops which follow a cycle providing enough space for conservation.”

A conservation architect Rohit Jigyasu reports that at the time of  the 2001 Gujarat earthquake “typical Bhunga dwellings of the local Banni tribe in the Kutch region in India survived remarkably well because of their design and construction technology, while many new constructions collapsed.”

As the climate changes more and more people worldwide are investing in modern technologies for disaster management and mitigation. However, many of these methods are unsustainable and can be destructive to nature. The integration of modern technologies with Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) shows a prospective avenue towards mitigation with sustainability as the driving force.

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