OPINION: Indigenous Knowledge a missing link in environmental conservation

By Jacob Munoru

Traditional African cultural practices, previously regarded as inferior or incompetent, are increasingly gaining recognition as an important component of existing conservation strategies.

Local communities attach great value to traditional cultural practices, it is therefore apparent that official recognition of these practices will be an important factor complementing the current conservation knowledge.

Cultural factors can influence and regulate people’s behaviour towards forests or tree species and their habitats for instance among the Mt Kenya communities the Mugumo tree is considered sacred and traditional dwelling places for the Gods in some Kenyan communities are on the steep slopes of hills and mountains which are considered sacred, such beliefs and practices result in the preservation of these areas and act as important drivers of environmental change.

Traditional cultural practices among other strategies have promising potential to enhance sustainable resource use and conservation, therefore, realizing the desire for ecological and social sustainability.

Despite concerted conservation efforts, a considerable number of species is threatened with extinction mainly because of anthropogenic impacts such as deforestation, overexploitation, habitat destruction, the introduction of new exotic species and pollution.

Promotion of the use of cultural management knowledge coincides well with the philosophy of co-management approach that advocates sharing of power, rights, and responsibilities between the state and local resource users.

This argument is centred on the management capabilities of local communities and possible dangers of disregarding them. The fact that the communities have regular interactions and are more familiar with the resources in their environment than other potential actors makes them one of the best managers of the resource, who could contribute effectively to current conservation efforts.

Local communities understand the source of the water and for how long this resource can last if properly and efficiently utilized, and how to avoid acute shortages as is the case in our country now.

Traditional African cultural practices oversee and enforce community rules/regulations or taboos that when enforced, they act as a supreme court with the final say on all forest conservation matters. Their conservation role is still evident in some areas for example in Meru, the council of elders Njuri Ncheke shrine bushes, forests or woodlots and streams are well preserved, they act as carbon sinks in the areas where they are found therefore checking on pollution and global warming.

This has remained true despite cultural practices being marginalized by modern management systems and cultural dilution caused by immigration, formal education, and adaptation of modern religions.

Both colonial and post-colonial conservation policies ignored the potential role of traditional African cultural practices in contributing to conservation goals. Factors such as rapid population increase, inadequate local support for conservation policies, limited strategies for survival among the local communities and inadequate capacity of the government to fund law enforcement operations against illegal activities subject our forests to unsustainable use.

Our policymakers should, therefore, accord greater attention to traditional institutions so that local people’s conservation role is fairly acknowledged and potential synergies with conservation objectives realized.

The national and county governments should reward traditional people for sustainable conservation practices observed through their institutions and sensitize policy makers to include traditional conservation practices in conservation Agenda.

The practices both modern Silvicultural forest Management principles and the African traditional cultural practices in conservation are one of multiple strategies for complementing rather than replacing existing central management systems.

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