Whose knowledge?

27, September 2020
Bram Steenhuisen
Equality of knowledge and recognition for the experience of the natural world in the lives of Indigenous Peoples and local communities can boost nature conservation as well as human dignity and wellbeing.
A Karen man offering fire to the spirits at the 198th edition of the Fire Festival, Kawkareik Township, 7 February 2020. Photo credit: Bram Steenhuisen.
A Karen man offering fire to the spirits at the 198th edition of the Fire Festival, Kawkareik Township, Kayin State, Myanmar, 7 February 2020. Photo credit: Bram Steenhuisen.

As the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity (2011-2020) draws to a close, one noteworthy development has been increased recognition that Indigenous Peoples and local communities' knowledge of the natural world needs to play a vital role in conservation.*

In 2017, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) adopted an approach that explicitly recognizes and works with indigenous knowledge. The Convention on Biological Diversity Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework is also discussing the role indigenous knowledge has in the framework. Similarly, most nature conservation organizations that base their work on the natural sciences say they now integrate indigenous knowledge into their programs. How that commitment plays out in reality remains a challenge. 

Indigenous Peoples' land, while only 22 percent of the Earth's land surface, contains 80 percent of the world's biodiversity, and at least 40 percent of protected areas worldwide. Yet collaboration between nature conservation agencies and Indigenous Peoples and local communities remains a challenge. This is surprising, especially when considering the scale and persistence of conservation efforts facilitated by Indigenous Peoples and local communities.

Instead, conservation conflicts in Myanmar and elsewhere bear witness to the disconnection and injustices between Indigenous Peoples and external conservation efforts. Indigenous Peoples and local communities have repeatedly said their knowledge and experience of the natural world are misunderstood and unrecognized. This undermines nature conservation efforts as well as human dignity and wellbeing.

In early 2020, Karen researcher Man Han Chit Htoo and I interviewed 47 Karen people living near the forest in Thandaung Gyi and Kawkareik townships in Kayin State, Myanmar, for research on Karen perceptions of the forest. Our findings underline the importance of understanding how different perceptions of reality inform a particular system of practice and knowledge. This is known as ontology and mainly concerns who or what is perceived to exist in this world and how these elements interrelate as part of a worldview.

The town of Leik Tho, Kayin State, Myanmar.
The town of Leik Tho, Kayin State, Myanmar. 

The Karen we spoke to recognized countless spirits, called nats, who acted as 'guardians of the forest'. Karen, and others in Myanmar, understand nats to be real and important actors alongside humans and animals. People request permission from the nats to hunt an animal or to cut down a tree. In our interviews, the Karen spoke about a similarity of minds between humans and non-humans, about enabling relationships and communication with nats, and in some cases even metamorphosis from nat to animal and nat to human. In contrast to the Karen ontology, natural scientists work on the basis of a scientific ontology that perceives humans and non-humans to have similar bodies in terms of DNA and anatomy, but different minds. 

These differences in ontology matter for nature conservation. While natural scientists, Indigenous Peoples and local communities may all care about the forest and work to preserve it, their understanding of what the forest is and how it functions differ significantly. 

Much like the act of breathing sustains our bodies, we are unaware that our thoughts and actions are informed by our underlying ontology. When external conservationists interpret indigenous knowledge without any context of its ontology, they fail to fully grasp this knowledge and its importance. To an indigenous person, the application of indigenous knowledge while discounting the ontology is considered short-sighted, offensive or worse.

Apart from creating conflict, not understanding indigenous knowledge and practices in the context of their ontology inevitably leads to missed opportunities for nature conservation. For example, the Karen hunters we interviewed said animal parts only have healing or protective power if they come from animals that died of natural causes. Be it antlers from deer or ivory from elephants, they considered it futile to shoot animals for their body parts. For only when the nat has abandoned the animal, thereby removing its power, is a human capable of catching or shooting it. In this case, indigenous ontology informs local hunting etiquettes that favour species conservation.

Understanding indigenous knowledge by reference to the underlying indigenous ontology is one thing. Accepting it as equal to scientific knowledge is another. 

Visitors at the Nawbu Mountain Sacred Natural Site, Thandaung Gyi
Visitors at the Nawbu Mountain Sacred Natural Site, Thandaung Gyi, Kayin State, Myanmar.

Conservation organizations tend to focus on incorporating indigenous knowledge. They filter out bits that suit scientific standards and classify the rest as tradition or folklore. By doing this, conservation organizations can further marginalize and stigmatize important aspects of indigenous knowledge. If we are to have equality of knowledge, then we must accept  the plurality of different ontologies at play in a nature conservation collaboration. 

The respect and mutual appreciation that equality of knowledge produces enables a more nuanced understanding of the issues that fuel conservation conflict. For example, let us look at the debate about Indigenous Peoples and local communities living inside nature conservation areas. Practically every Karen we interviewed noted many areas in the forest that are significant to their ethnic identity. This includes the presence of particular animals, plants or tree species, rocks, mountains and sites with a historic or spiritual meaning. On the one hand, people said it was important to enter the forest to make offerings to the most powerful spirits to keep them appeased. On the other hand, parts of the 'deep forest' were often considered the abode of particularly bad spirits, sites off limits to humans, better left undisturbed. As one Karen man put it: "You cannot disturb the nats but you also cannot abandon the nats. You cannot just enter the forest and do whatever you want, but you can also not abandon it and just leave the place where the nats live."

In Thailand, the Royal Forest Department accepts the demarcation of sacred forest sanctuaries based on indigenous ontology, not scientific criteria. Elsewhere too, sacred natural sites preserve natural areas that are both sacred to Indigenous Peoples and local communities as well as ecologically meaningful to scientists.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) is close to completing Best Practice Guidelines for the Cultural and Spiritual Significance of Nature. The purpose of the guide is to assist nature conservation organizations to open up to more inclusive and equitable ways of dealing with spirits and the multiple realities of Indigenous Peoples and religious groups alike.

To create nature conservation that is based on equality of knowledge, we need to find solutions that make sense in both indigenous and scientific knowledge systems. Everyone wins when a conservation measure is beneficial for spirits who live in that area as well as the genomic diversity of species on the red list of IUCN. We must accept both systems of knowledge to ensure that the upcoming 2021-2030 United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration will not only be biodiverse and ecologically thriving, but also peaceful and just.


*Author’s note: Indigenous Peoples and local communities (IPLC) is a term for "ethnic groups who are descended from and identify with the original inhabitants of a given region, [and] are affected by global environmental change because they often rely directly on their immediate environments and local natural resources for meeting basic livelihood needs" (Angelsen et al.; Pecl et al., in Reyes-García, 2019, 3).

Bram Steenhuisen is MSc graduate of the Forest and Nature Conservation group at Wageningen University & Research. The research described here informed his thesis "Karen Perceptions of the Forest", which builds on the work of anthropologist Philippe Descola. Steenhuisen in currently based in Myanmar.