Indigenous people, the masters of sustainability

Indigenous people everywhere have had a long and prosperous relation with the environment for far longer than any other group of people in different areas. It is well known that their intimate relation with their local environment has lead them to successfully preserve and even enhance biodiversity (Gadgil et al, 1993), something modern science has been struggling with. This precious knowledge has been long ignored, but must be integrated in future environmental decisions as it may as well be a major game changer in understanding complex systems.

“Indigenous knowledge is herein defined as a cumulative body of knowledge and beliefs handed down through generations by cultural transmission about the relationship of living beings, (including humans) with one another and with the environment”

Berkes, 1993

Modern scientific knowledge has undoubtedly been successful in improving human life conditions in an accelerated rate. Regarding the environment, this form of knowledge has been accompanied by a view that the human being is apart of, or over the natural world (Gadgil et al, 1993), view that has brought booming understanding of simpler systems, but has failed responding to complex ecological systems. On the other hand Indigenous knowledge may add a more integrated approach to environmental issues. This knowledge has been or is being acquired at a much slower rate, but it includes a perspective from within nature itself, as ethnical groups are deeply connected with the environment and not “over” it.


Powerful image showing indigenous connection with nature. “Guajá indian breastfeeding a baby peccary at Maranhao.” Photo by Pisco del Gaiso, published by World Press (1992).

It is therefore essential to complement modern scientific learnings with other sources of knowledge as Indigenous knowledge. Its not one or the other, both must work together to provide insight regarding biodiversity and other environmental concerns. Gadgil et al (1992) calls it combining diachronic Indigenous observation with western synchronic observation, this is, knowing how something has developed through time (diachronic) as well as knowing its current state.


Berkes, F. (1993). Traditional ecological knowledge in perspective. In: Traditional Ecological Knowledge.Unesco Canada/MAB,Ottawa.(In press).

Gadgil, M., Berkes, F., & Folke, C. (1993). Indigenous knowledge for biodiversity conservation. Ambio, 151-156.

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