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Indigenous knowledge and biodiversity

The wealth of living things on the earth is the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolutionary history. Since the emergence of Homo sapiens from the ranks of humanoid primates, biodiversity and humanity have become inextricably linked. Human cultures have adapted to many diverse habitats. They have used, altered and nurtured biological resources to meet countless needs. As a result of plant and animal domestication, and resource harvesting, a tremendous interdependence has evolved between “natural” and “human-induced” biodiversity.

For centuries rural peoples have encouraged and relied upon biodiversity for their livelihoods. Farmers have managed genetic resources for as long as they have cultivated crops. For some 12 000 years, they have selected varieties of crops and livestock breeds to meet environmental conditions and diverse nutritional and social needs. The immense genetic diversity of traditional farming systems is the product of human innovation and experimentation — both historic and ongoing. This has been recognized in FAO by the resolution on farmers' rights that acknowledges the past, present and future contributions of farmers in conserving, improving and making available plant genetic resources, and that they should be rewarded for their contributions.

For a large number of developing countries, self-reliance in food production will depend on improving low-input agriculture in difficult environmental conditions. The raw materials for these improvements are the biological resources sustained in forests, rangelands, fields and farms. The accumulated knowledge of farmers, coupled with access to modern technologies, provides the key to developing sustainable agricultural systems.

In many parts of the world, wild species and natural habitats still help support household food security — access by all people at all times to the food they need for a healthy life. In Nepal, for example, 135 tree species are used as fodder. In Ghana, three-quarters of the population look to wildlife for most of their animal protein.

Access to advanced science and technology contributes to reducing human suffering and promoting economic development. But there is a growing recognition of the value of indigenous knowledge to address global agricultural, health and environmental problems. And there is increasing awareness that conservation and use of biodiversity must be concerned not only with genes, genotypes, species and ecosystems, but also with the traditional knowledge that has helped to produce and maintain this diversity.

Traditional medicines

An estimated three-quarters of prescription drugs derived from plants were discovered because of their prior use in indigenous medicine. Forest-dwelling indigenous people employ at least 1 300 plant species for medicines and related purposes. Over 60 species of plants are used to treat skin infections in the Amazon region alone.

Traditional food plants

For generations, subsistence farmers have been producing or gathering plants in the wild or semi-wild that have long been accepted as desirable sources of food. At least 1 000 million people are estimated to use such traditional plants to satisfy their food needs. They are essential to the diets of rural subsistence households throughout the developing world, providing sources of energy, vitamins and minerals.

Many countries, however, are experiencing a shift away from traditional foods, resulting in a narrowing of the food base. Failure to appreciate their benefits, together with a growing demand for imported foods, is reducing availability and consumption of these foods. Since 1985, FAO, in cooperation with governments, has been endeavouring to reverse this trend. In association with research institutions, FAO is also promoting genetic improvements in traditional plants and development of technologies for preparing foods based on these plants that are acceptable in urban markets.

Farming system diversity in the developing world

Four broad agro-ecological zones account for 90 percent of agricultural production in developing countries: drylands and areas of uncertain rainfall; humid and per-humid lowlands; irrigated areas; and hill and mountain areas. Each of these zones has a range of farming systems and a mixture of traditional and modern intensive production systems.

Humid and per-humid lowlandsHill and mountain areas
Population: 1 000 million+Population: 500 million+
Area: 3 100 million haArea: 1 000 million ha
Features: mostly forested areas; environmental deterioration, mainly caused by the loss of tree cover; reasonable food security (80 percent of root and tuber production in developing world).Features: many areas with slopes of more than 30 percent gradient; most forms of environmental deterioration evident, particularly soil erosion; food insecurity increasing.
 Major systems:
Major systems:• hill farming (for example, in the Himalayan and Andean zones)
• shifting cultivation 
• plantations (e.g. rubber)• dairy and grazing (for example, in Latin America)
• horticulture (widespread) 
• extensive grazing (mainly in Latin America) 
Irrigated and naturally flooded areasDrylands and areas of uncertain rainfall
Population: 1 000 million+Population: 500 million+
Area: 215 million haArea: 3 400 million ha
Features: limitations include high costs, waterlogging, salinization, and pollution of groundwater; crucial to food security (60 percent of grain production in developing world).Features: less than 500 mm rainfall in drylands or semi-humid with light erratic rainfall; some 6 million ha lost annually through desertification; food insecurity common.
Major systems:Major systems:
• lowland rice-based• pastoral
• irrigated farming (many crops)• upland cereal-based
• aquaculture (minor)• some plantations (e.g. sisal)
• intensive animal production• horticulture (on small irrigated areas.
• horticulture 

Traditional expertise for fisheries development

The International Centre for Living Aquatic Resources Management (ICLARM), in the Philippines, is tapping traditional knowledge to conserve and utilize fish genetic resources. Together with FAO, it is assembling a comprehensive database on all of the 24 000 species of cartilaginous and bony fishes in the world. In addition to scientific and technical information, the database incorporates indigenous knowledge — common names, traditional management practices and practical or symbolic uses of each species.

Traditional plant for disease vector control

Endod, Phytolacca dodecandra, commonly known as the African soap berry, is a perennial plant that has been cultivated for centuries in many parts of Africa where its berries are traditionally used as a laundry soap and shampoo. In 1964, the Ethiopian biologist, Aklilu Lemma, observed that downstream from where people were washing clothes with endod berries, dead snails were found floating in the water. Further research revealed that sun-dried and crushed endod berries are lethal to all major species of snails — but do not harm animals or people, and are completely biodegradable.

For Africa, where one of the most serious diseases, schistosomiasis, is transmitted by freshwater snails, discovery of a low-cost and biodegradable lumicide represents a major breakthrough. According to WHO, more than 200 million people are infected with schistosomiasis, which kills an estimated 200 000 people every year. With support from international donors, endod is undergoing further toxicological studies to ensure its safety. Dr Lemma views it as a product of traditional knowledge that can be developed by and for African communities.


In Africa, an estimated 80 percent of vitamin A and more than a third of vitamin C are supplied by traditional food plants.

Apart from the macadamia nut of Australia, every one of the fruits and nuts used in western countries was grown first by indigenous people.

The world market value of pharmaceuticals derived from plants used in traditional medicine exceeds US$43 000 million, but less than 0.001 percent of the profits has gone to the indigenous people who led researchers to them.

Indigenous populations and their knowledge are threatened with imminent destruction. In the Amazon alone, over 90 different groups of Indians are thought to have died out during this century.

More than 200 varieties of sweet potato can be identified by the Ifugao of Luzon in the Philippines; Jívaro farmers in the Amazon grow over 100 varieties of cassava; and in the central Andes 50 to 70 potato varieties can be found in a single locality.

Mixed farming using crops and livestock is frequently the most sustainable form of agriculture in a region.

Natural insecticide from a traditional tree

For centuries, Indian farmers have used seeds from the neem tree Azadirachta indica as a natural insecticide to protect crops and stored grain. Drawing on traditional knowledge and practices, scientists have isolated compounds that are extremely effective against insects, even in minute quantities. They reportedly control more than 200 species of insects, mites and nematodes, including major pests such as locusts, rice and maize borers, pulse beetles and rice weevils. Yet neem extracts do not harm birds, mammals and beneficial insects such as bees. Unlike most synthetic pesticides, insects apparently do not develop resistance to neem extracts because they contain several biologically active ingredients.

The commercial potential of neem-based pesticides has attracted the attention of companies in India and in industrialized countries. In 1993, the world's first commercial-scale facility designed and built for neem-based natural biopesticide production opened in India, capable of processing 20 tonnes of neem seed per day. Scientists continue to study the potential of neem for treating a number of diseases and, in particular, as a contraceptive agent. Neem is also reported to have fungicidal, antibacterial and even antiviral properties.

Traditional agrosilviculture using the alder tree

In Nagaland, an agricultural system has evolved that centres on the alder tree Alnus nepalensis. The tree is a source of fuelwood, timber and mulch while bacteria that grow in nodules on its roots capture atmospheric nitrogen adding to soil fertility. In the fields, alongside the alder trees farmers grow main crops of maize, Job's tears, millet, potato, barley and wheat and secondary crops of chilli, pumpkin and taro.

Pollarded alder tree

The alder tree cycle starts when the tree is pollarded: the main trunk of a six-to ten-year-old tree is cut off at a height of about two metres from the ground. It then sprouts 50 to 150 shoots or coppices, all of which except for five or six are cut when they are one year old. Many of these trimmings are burnt together with crop waste to add fertilizing wood ash to the soil. A second crop is grown in the fertilized field.

The field is then left fallow for two to four years to allow the trees to grow. After this time, when the remaining coppices are about six metres long and 15 centimetres in diameter, the tree is pollarded again.

The main uses for these larger coppices are for fuelwood and poles. About 120 ha of alder plantation can provide all the fuelwood needed by 100 Naga families.

The traditional role of women

Women have played a silent yet central role in the sustainable use of biological resources. In most of the developing world they have primary responsibility for household food security. Women produce an estimated 80 percent of food in Africa, 60 percent in Asia and the Pacific and 40 percent in Latin America. Their role as producers and gatherers of foodstuffs, medicines and fuel, and as drawers of water, involves them daily in the management of natural resources. In some parts of the developing world, home gardens cultivated by women represent some of the most complex agrosilvipastoral systems known.

Because of their knowledge of forests, crops, soils, water management, medicinal plants, growing techniques and seed varieties, women hold considerable responsibility for and knowledge of sustainable agriculture systems. Until recently, their role as conservers and users of genetic diversity, and as natural resource managers, was largely ignored. Now, there is growing recognition that conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity will not be possible unless women are involved in decision-making and the control of resource management and production.

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