Indigenous leaders: Traditional knowledge can save the planet

Maasai men overlook the Kenyan landscape.

Maasai men overlook the Kenyan landscape. (© Conservation International/photo by Will Turner)

Editor’s note: Could observing the stars or planting bushes help the world adapt to climate change impacts? Conservation International’s 2016 indigenous fellows think so. Martha Ntoipo hails from a Maasai village in northern Tanzania; Jamer López is a Shipibo-Conibo man from the Peruvian Amazon. Below, they discuss their research on traditional knowledge in their own communities and its implications for conservation and the future. (Note: the thoughts and opinions expressed on Human Nature are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of CI.)

Question: What first inspired you to get involved in this kind of work?

Ntoipo: My father is a polygamist with seven wives; the youngest is a little older than my daughter. I grew up seeing the situation with my mother and stepmothers, and I clashed with my dad. He wanted me to marry a person he chose — actually, he chose six men, and I refused all of them. I felt that something needs to change, and that I should be part of that change.

After high school I went back to my community and started training and creating awareness among women of their rights, and trying to make men understand that women are the holders of much of the traditional knowledge that dictates how we relate to the natural world. It wasn’t easy; at first men were reluctant, and women were scared. But the good thing is if you are one of them, they tend to listen.

López: I could see that my community and others in Amazonia are losing traditional knowledge. Currently there are lots of people studying traditional knowledge within these communities, but generally they come from the outside. I was drawn to this work because I felt it was my responsibility as a young man who is part of this culture.

Martha Ntoipo and Jamer López, Conservation International's 2016 indigenous fellows

Martha Ntoipo, a Maasai woman from Tanzania, and Jamer López, a Shipibo-Conibo man from the Peruvian Amazon, are CI’s 2016 indigenous fellows. They are using their fellowships to research traditional knowledge in their communities. (© Conservation International)

Q: How have you seen things change in your community within your lifetime?

Ntoipo: When I was growing up, women didn’t speak in front of men. Now, women are more active and confident — they speak out. There are still problems with gender-based violence, but women no longer accept that violence is part of their life. They also own property; in the past, the only thing Maasai women owned were the utensils inside the house.

López: There have been a lot of climate change impacts. Since the 1980s, my community has experienced very strong floods, strong winds, droughts and the toppling of trees because flooding weakened their roots. Some people migrated to the city; others went to communities in the highlands. But the communities, without knowing in conceptual terms what climate change means, started to conduct activities to adapt based on knowledge used by the grandparents, the women, the leaders of the community.

In the two communities where I work, women are taking new leadership roles every day. In recent years, men have more frequently left town to look for jobs; they go to the cities or build farms in the highlands, and must be away for weeks at a time. Meanwhile the women remain at home, and must take on tasks previously relegated to men in order for the community to survive, such as making political decisions.

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Q: How can traditional knowledge not only help your own people, but also the larger world?

Ntoipo: The Tanzanian Meterological Agency told us that we will have floods because of El Niño … but it’s not happening, so no one believes them anymore. When the Maasais predict something, it happens as they predicted.

One woman told me: “Nature speaks to us. It’s just for us to listen.” If the morning and evening stars are just above the horizon, the rainy season is coming and everything will be fine. But when the stars are near the middle of the sky, it means drought. You can even look at the intestines of slaughtered animals to see if a great drought is coming.

The government has modern technologies, but if they listen to us they can make more precise predictions and help the nation — and the people who depend on the forests — plan ahead. The scientists want their way and the traditional peoples want their way, but if they can work together, it will resolve a lot of conflicts and bring peace.

López: My community is in an area with a lot of flooding, so on the edges of the farms they grow certain bushes and other plants. This jungle helps protect crops from the strong current that comes from the flooding of the river.

I believe there should be a space in which traditional knowledge like this is combined with science, because nowadays they are completely divided. Scientific knowledge must be validated through a scientific process, which takes a lot of effort and is very difficult, whereas traditional knowledge is already being used; we have validated it through practice over many generations because it gives beneficial results.


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Q: What are the biggest challenges you see for your community?

Ntoipo: If the Maasai were honored for what we have done to preserve the wild animals, I would be proud of the national park system. But it has been like a curse to my community; we have been evicted from our ancestral lands, people are killed, bomas [homesteads] are being burned, we can’t graze our cattle in the national parks. Wildlife and cattle have long grazed together — why not now? The animals are still there because we have lived in harmony with them long before there were any regulations, and that’s why the government gets revenue from the national parks. The government has said “This is none of your business, so stay away.” The Maasai stayed away, and the government is now seeing the consequences. We are losing thousands of elephants and rhinos. If the government brought the Maasai on board, this would not be happening. If the Maasai feel like a partner, they will do so much more than you can ask for.

In terms of expanding the role of women in Maasai society, the biggest barrier is culture. Women are considered children throughout their lives. If Maasai men don’t change their mindset and accept women as their partners, it will be a very difficult thing. But things are changing, slowly. The younger generations are more receptive. Young men talk to their wives respectfully.

López: You don’t collect this amount of knowledge in two days. I spent eight months working intensively, taking the time to build trust. Many people have researched traditional knowledge here, but according to the elders, they told the researchers just half of what they know. The most essential knowledge was kept private within the community. As someone the community trusts, I have tried to point out that this knowledge belongs to everybody.

This knowledge must be globalized. Just like math — everyone studies math globally, so why can’t traditional knowledge be the same? I think when this reciprocity takes place everywhere, the world will be sustainable.

Martha Ntoipo is the executive director of the Tanzanian Pastoralist Information and Development Organization. Her fellowship project focuses on incorporating gender-based traditional knowledge in biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation and mitigation in the Maasai communities in northern Tanzania. Jamer López is an emerging Shipibo-Conibo leader and researcher from Peru. His fellowship focuses on local knowledge regarding agro-ecological systems and climate change adaptation.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Human Nature.

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