May 21, 2014

Indigenous Knowledge Spurs Local Biocultural Recovery in Ethiopian Community

6626BCB0-075B-4AA4-B805-575CE0E4EC95 By Pernilla Malmer, Stockholm Resilience Centre and Million Belay, MELCA-Ethiopia

Food production is at the centre of Earth’s biological and cultural – or “biocultural” – diversity. The Telecho community in Ethiopia is just one out of millions of communities worldwide where cultivated crops and animal breeds have been nurtured and adapted to local conditions over time, constantly shaping and reshaping the social-ecological landscape forming the foundation for human wellbeing. The community is highly dependent on farming. The main crops are barley and wheat and they greatly value their traditional varieties. The foods prepared from their own crops are essential for their food sovereignty, cultural identity and wellbeing.

The Telecho community, like so many others, has also been learning to live with change and uncertainty. The community has experienced a constant flow of influences that have had a critical impact on biocultural diversity. Recently, MELCA–Ethiopia, an indigenous NGO in Ethiopia, facilitated an eco-cultural mapping experience in Telecho. The mapping exercise was a shock to the community, as they compared the past and the present and realized how much of their seeds, rivers, streams, soil, forests and wildlife they had lost. All of the signs of ecosystem degradation were there.

This erosion was also reflected in their culture and customs. The young did not respect the old, sacred sites were becoming degraded, rituals were abandoned and knowledge was eroding when the seeds and medicinal plants disappeared. Thus, the community also created a future map showing the direction they wished to go. MELCA–Ethiopia agreed to accompany the community in their quest to reclaim their biocultural diversity.

Since then, the community has undertaken various visits to other communities who have already begun this reclamation. MELCA has supported them in soil and water conservation, a Participatory Variety Selection and bulking seeds initiative has been undertaken in collaboration with researchers, and a seed bank has been built. They are learning from crisis and are nurturing their biocultural diversity to enhance reorganization and renewal, and combine different kinds of knowledge for learning.

This includes combining different systems of knowledge. After going through the shock of losing their seeds and cultural landscape, they have now managed to reclaimthe majority of them. This is one example of many more positive developments that have started in Telecho. Today, Telecho is not only a story of abrupt changes and the resulting degradation of cultural and biological diversity. It is also the story of how the people, by starting up eco-cultural mapping, have, step by step, revitalized their earlier degraded lands, and recaptured their lost seeds and knowledge.

If diverse cultural practices and worldviews are central to the management of biological diversity, then a key linkage between nature and culture is the knowledge upon which these practices and worldviews are based. The resulting respect and recognition enables further transmission and use of this knowledge, providing a base for further needed knowledge generation for adaptation and transformation.

The case of Telecho illustrates that in many regions, and for many aspects of ecosystem governance, the most critical source of knowledge resides among local users and managers. Thus, recognizing and strengthening existing systems for learning and for responding with experience to change and novel conditions is essential for successful revitalization and restoration, and can further lead to innovation and identification of desirable pathways into the future.


Outlining three phases of a Multiple Evidence Base approach: joint problem definition, generating an enriched picture with contributions from multiple sources of evidence, and joint analysis and evaluation of knowledge.

This potential is increasingly being acknowledged in science and policy spheres, such as in the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). A recent article, “Connecting Diverse Knowledge Systems for Enhanced Ecosystem Governance: The Multiple Evidence Base Approach” argues for recognition and respect of mechanisms for evaluating knowledge within respective knowledge systems, rather than validating one system using another.

The Multiple Evidence Base (MEB) emerged in response to the explicit demand to better recognize and respect the contribution of indigenous and local knowledge. In on-going work, Telecho will be one of several piloting communities from different cultures, ecosystems and countries to experiment with implementing the MEB on the ground in a transdisciplinary research project, with the aim of creating synergies across knowledge systems. In order to tackle urgent challenges for the biodiversity, food and culture, the community will define their problems and challenges based on their worldviews, deep knowledge and experiences of governing the landscape. An enriched picture will be generated from these multiple sources of evidence.

The next step will then be a joint analysis of the enriched picture, paying attention to complementarities, synergies, and contradictions across the diverse sources of knowledge. Hopefully, this work will enhance the understanding of the realities surrounding each piloting community and create the base for a co-production of new knowledge to continue the restoration and revitalization of their biodiversity, culture and food systems.

Photo by Million Belay
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