Why is it  Important to Know about Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge?  

Asim Mudgal
Asim Mudgal
Asim Mudgal is an aspiring writer creating space for self-development and inclusivity.


Indigenous Peoples at the front of the People’s Climate March, joined by actor Leonardo DiCaprio. Photo by Nova Saigo.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) is driven by the hundreds or thousands of years of ecological knowledge carried by indigenous or native peoples, which directly connect them to the environment. Eventually, the knowledge gained over the centuries was passed from generation to generation orally. It tends to be collectively owned and takes the form of stories, songs, folklore, proverbs, cultural values, beliefs, rituals, community laws, the local language, and agricultural practices, including the development of plant species and animal breeds. 

Respectively, the debate over the adoption of traditional ecological knowledge for sustainable development is questionable owing to its limitations. However, there is a scope of gifts from knowledge acquired from indigenous perspectives. Additionally, knowing why it is important to know about traditional ecological knowledge also helps.

In contemporary times where the world is facing climate change, natural disasters, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, destabilised ecological services, food, and nutritional inequality, and problems with sanitation, TEK could bring hope for sustainable development and lifestyles. Moreover, the research conducted by the United Nations has found that Indigenous peoples and local communities have accumulated knowledge and values about nature over generations. Simultaneously, over 80% of the planet's remaining biodiversity is stewarded by indigenous peoples. There has been a growing acceptance of TEK globally that has created a linkage between TEK and sustainable development. If we talk about that on a national level, we have to go through a process on a ground level. Although, India's policies such as the Biological Diversity Act, 2002; Forest Rights Act, 2006, and Intellectual Property Rights have been emerging for possessing TEK and sharing benefits with the local community. At the same time, the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library (TKDL) in India aspires to document, protect, and promote TEK and indigenous cultural practices.

Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Practices in Communities. 

Over time, traditional methods have been practised by tribal communities to combat the management of the environment ecologically. Such methods are still prevalent in many parts of the North-East, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and other regions of India. For example, Johad (an ancient practise of Rajasthan) is a dam that collects rainwater to replenish the supply of underground water. 

Zabo, which means' ‘impounding water ’, is an ingenious method of catching rainwater runoff from the mountains. It is located at an altitude of 1270 m in Kikruma, a quaint village nestled in a rain-shadow area of the Phek district of Nagaland. Centuries ago, the village evolved a self-organizing system to take care of its water, forest, and farm management. Surangas continue to be one of the relatively less well-known and gradually disappearing traditional water harvesting systems in the Kasargod district of Kerala. 

Most tribal communities conserve plants because of their faith in 'Magico"—a religious belief that plants are the habitats of Gods and Goddesses. This culture is dominant in the tribal pockets of Central India, such as the Balaghat, Dindori, and Mandala districts of Madhya Pradesh. Also, the Kawardha and Bilaspur districts of Chhattisgarh state. Many communities in the northeastern states of Assam (Karbi-Anglong community) and Meghalaya practise bamboo drip irrigation. For many generations, the Soliga and the Lingayat communities of the Malai Madeswara (MM) Hills of South India have adopted TEK as a vital part of their food, medicine, culture, and ethnic practises, which has led to harmony with nature. 

Many of the northeastern regions have been following traditional beliefs for forest management, and one such belief is Sacred Groves. According to local belief, Sacred Groves or Sacred Forests are the home of a deity who protects the village from natural calamities, famine, and diseases. At the same time, they are also providing vital requirements for daily life, such as fuel, food, construction materials, water, medicinal herbs, edible plants, etc. In the northeastern state of Manipur, there have been 166 sacred grooves reported that harbour 173 plant species representing 145 genera and 70 families. Similarly, the Sacred Groves of Assam is locally known as Dikhos by the Dimasa community. Through experiential learning over many generations, the local folks of Meghalaya have developed Betel Leaf Agroforestry Systems. Further, it has emerged as a reasonably sustainable agroforestry system, inflicting a stripped impact on plant diversity. 

Folk medicine/traditional medicine is widely practised in North-Eastern India. Several Indian folk medicine plants or their extracts have already been adopted by Western modern medicine, e.g., Psylliumhusk for bowel problems and Cassia fistula for antibiotic activity. According to the World Health Organization, 80% of the rural population in developing Asian and African countries uses locally available medicinal plants for their primary health care needs.

The northern regions had a story of South Bihar, where the traditional floodwater harvesting system is practiced, known as Ahar-Pyne. Ahars are reservoirs consisting of embankments across the line of the drainage with two side embankments running backwards up to the line of the drainage, gradually losing their height because of the gradient of the surface. Pyne is the local name for the diversion channels. These channels may be of various sizes. The small ones are those found originating in ahars and carrying the water from the ahars to cultivable plots.

The Ahar Pyne system in Gaya, South Bihar (Source: Hindi Water Portal)

Apart from these traditional systems, many other practises are being followed in communities across the globe. Here, we have discussed a few of them to give insights into the importance of the ecological method and practices.

Why is it important to know about Traditional Ecological Knowledge: 

As discussed in the section on Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Practices in Communities, we learned a lot about the traditional approaches used by community people to build an environment to preserve ecology. Furthermore, we gain an understanding of medicinal plants used to benefit our system. Over decades, this folk medicine helped local communities heal, and we should protect the natural medicine acquired from forest products. Hence, the idea of health benefits from traditional plants could be fruitful for regions. 

Most of the indigenous group's lives have been dependent on forests and the environment. Likewise, they are likely to be most affected by climate change. As stated in the interview by David Kaimowitz, Senior Forestry Officer, Food and Agriculture Organizations of the United Nations, one cannot protect forests without Indigenous peoples. We know that forests do better when indigenous land rights are respected, with lower deforestation rates and carbon emissions. Without them, we could not win the race to save the planet. 

Gleb Raygorodetsky (researcher at United Nations University) defined indigenous knowledge as the observed phenomena that help in interpreting livelihood, security, and well-being as crucial elements of adaptation. Further, he adds that although indigenous knowledge is new to climate science, it has been long recognised as a source of information in domains such as agroforestry, traditional medicine, biodiversity conservation, customary resource management, impact assessment, natural disaster preparedness, and response. Additionally, the process is because of the fact that indigenous people are keen observers of nature. 

Following the virtue of resources and data, Indigenous ecological knowledge and people should get their voice for progressive, sustainable developments and fighting the climate crisis traditionally. Hence, adopting traditional ecological knowledge is one-way faith toward a better existence.