COP 15: Reviving indigenous knowledge on biodiversity requires a radically different approach

December 15, 2022

When talking about tackling the global biodiversity crisis, valuable indigenous knowledge is often downplayed or yields to a western perspective. At the COP15, it is crucial to take different worldviews and knowledge systems into account, in order for protection measures to be effective and supported. But what does it take to meaningfully ‘revive’ indigenous knowledge?

At the ongoing United Nations biodiversity conference in Montreal (COP15), countries face the complex challenge of bending the curve of biodiversity loss. Among policymakers and scientists, indigenous knowledge has become increasingly recognised as an important complement to the knowledge base under agreements and new policies. However, according to Birgit Boogaard, researcher of the Knowledge, Technology and Innovation Group, indigenous knowledge on biodiversity is still underappreciated and often misunderstood. Together with WUR colleagues David Ludwig and Emmanuel Adu-Ampong and in cooperation with Bern Guri and Daniel Banuoku of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge and Organizational Development (CIKOD) in Ghana she studies how this knowledge could be revived and how it could help to protect biodiversity.

Despite the good intentions of involving indigenous people in global efforts to combat biodiversity loss, Boogaard says the role of indigenous knowledge systems is downplayed. ‘Scientists from Europe and North America tend to look at the world from a Western academic perspective, which is understandable. This dates back to the colonial legacy on the African continent’, she explains. ‘But with the usual scientific frameworks and existing theories you easily misunderstand African indigenous knowledge systems.’

Beyond practical knowledge

Indigenous knowledge systems go beyond useful practical knowledge. ‘We know quite a lot about different agricultural or ecological practices in different places on the African continent’, Boogaard continues. ‘But that practical knowledge is embedded in an African worldview.’

Daniel Banuoku, deputy executive director at CIKOD, describes the philosophy that drives African knowledge systems. ‘That philosophy is about how people understand the world and what the world looks like. These people believe the world is built around the relationships between humans, the physical world and the spiritual world. It's a complex science’, he says.

Building on centuries of experience

‘Thankfully, African indigenous knowledge has not been completely destructed’, says Boogaard, ‘because the value of such knowledge is unmistakable. In many African countries, we see a lot of emphasis on intensification of agriculture and global trade flows. These are often more based on outside knowledge than on indigenous knowledge, while we know that indigenous knowledge, at least in Ghana, actually contributes to biodiversity. People's experience has helped them maintain sustainable management of biological resources for centuries. This is why WUR and CIKOD joined forces to research how to revive African indigenous knowledge.’

The project's approach is building on more than 20 years of CIKOD's experience. As part of CIKOD, the African Learning Institute (ALI) together with David Fletcher of People Development (Canada), has organised trainings, where researchers, development practitioners, students and communities come together. In October 2022, WUR and CIKOD built on these previous trainings by organising a one-week ALI-training in Ghana to revive indigenous knowledge on biocultural diversity in Ghana’s agroecological food system. Participants of this workshop were people from villages in Ghana, from NGOs and from Ghanaian universities, alongside Wageningen University & Research.

Bringing worldviews together

Banuoku and Boogaard are convinced that it will take a radically different approach to achieve results in reviving indigenous knowledge. Their transdisciplinary approach is more or less the opposite of what often happens globally. Boogaard says: ‘The question is what happens if you bring people with different knowledge systems and different backgrounds together. We are not aiming to exclude Western academic knowledge. We start with indigenous knowledge and then see what exogenous knowledge can complement.’

The two project colleagues realise how complicated this process is. ‘People have their own work experience and education and their own worldview. When you bring all those people together, you need time and the right methods to align people. Then a new learning path begins’, says Banuoku. He and Boogaard have identified guiding principles for the process, based on insights from literature and practical experiences. ‘One of the things that makes the trainings innovative is that - by using an endogenous development approach - it starts from an African relationship between human beings and Mother Nature’, Boogaard says.

Precious egg

‘People with a Western educational and cultural background have a lot to learn, especially when talking about sustainability and biodiversity’, thinks Boogaard. ‘This is a very different role for science than we are used to. It requires a much more humble attitude of a scientist by first asking: Is there any way I can first learn from you, and then: Can I contribute something? We do not have the answers yet, but we have already learned so much from talking to people, visiting their land and schools, and sharing experiences. Now we’re analysing our findings and we hope to publish the results next year.’


Of course, not all indigenous knowledge is positive for biodiversity protection, but the worldview definitely is, according to Banuoku and Boogaard. In this context, they refer to the Sankofa bird, which is common symbol in Ghana and also part of the logo of CIKOD and ALI. The bird looks backwards, but its legs point forward. It carries a precious egg which could be seen as the indigenous knowledge about nature. The bird is a symbol of the need to critically reflect on the past to build a successful future, and hopefully set forth the biodiversity agenda worldwide.