Summer 2004

Local traditional knowledge and global environmental programs:
prospects for interaction

Tamara Semenova,
Senior Researcher, Russian Research Institute for Cultural and Natural Heritage
Russia 129366 Moscow , Kosmonavtov str., 2, tel. +7 095 286 13 19, Fax +7 095 286 13 24, email:

This report contains information about global ecological projects and programs. We hope that their data and inclusive participatory structures will be useful for public organisations and scientific institutions that closely work with the local population and indigenous communities in the field.

Keen interest for traditional and local knowledge applied by indigenous populations for diverse productions and use of energy and resources is nowadays increasing. Many traditional habits and skills are environmentally safe and highly effective from the point of view of economy and energy utilisation. However, in the local communities or in the rural and native settlements (in Russian: sel’skie posyolki) these skills and knowledge are constantly, and sometimes quickly, being destroyed and disappear. At the same time the majority of the population in these settlements has no access to modern technologies, and in some cases is forced to apply highly detrimental economic methods and practices, often with unfavorable environmental outcomes. These facts lead to the increasing awareness of a considerable gap between the global initiatives and programs, aimed at technological and social human progress and simultaneous achievement of a secure and environmentally sustainable future. It is getting ever more evident that sustainable economic development is not attainable at the global and regional level, if an essentially important process of the sustainable development is not ensured at the local level.

Is there any connection between the traditional natural skills and know-how of the indigenous population and the attempts to solve the existing problems by establishing global programs? What is the role of traditional knowledge in the environmental projects? We will try to clarify these questions here and look at the prospects and forms of their interaction.

The first and principal document for our analysis is the so-called ‘Agenda 21’ (Agenda 21: A Blueprint for Action for Global Sustainable Development into the 21st Century), adopted by a majority of the states at the Summit in Rio-de-Janeiro in 1992. This second global conference on environmental protection, was organised by the United Nations, and later supported by many initiatives, including global conventions and ecological programs. Agenda 21 has been recognised as an Action Plan along with the Declaration on Environment and Development, signed by the states at this Summit .

The Rio Declaration affirms that the only way to secure the long-term economic progress of mankind is to ensure the protection of the environmental. Partnership is one of the principles of the development: nations could achieve prosperity and well-being by establishing a partnership between the governments, state citizens and stakeholders in the social development of the community. Agenda 21 deals with 27 principles of development in 40 chapters. The principle 22 reads:

“Indigenous people and their communities and other local communities have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. States should recognise and duly support their identity, culture and interests and enable their effective participation in the achievement of sustainable development.”

In chapter 26 Recognising and Strengthening the Role of Indigenous People and Their Communities, three principal tasks have been formulated as a basis for indigenous peoples and their communities to establish partnership with governments in order to elaborate a common approach towards integration of environmental protection and development. These are:

  1. Establishment of a process to empower indi­genous people and their communities through measures …
  2. … to strengthen the active participation of indigenous people and their communities in the national formulation of policies, laws and programmes relating to resource management and other development processes that may affect them …
  3. Involvement of indigenous people and their communities at the national and local levels in resource management and conservation strategies …

The Declaration of the World Summit on Sustainable Development ( Rio +10) in Johannesburg in 2002 has once more stated the importance of indigenous peoples – “we re-affirm the vital role of indigenous peoples in the sustainable development”. Recognition of this role is reflected in the establishment of the Permanent Forum of Indigenous Peoples within the Social and Economic Council of the UN (ECOSOC). The Permanent Forum includes about a dozen persons, the representatives of the nominated states, including the officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation , and the indigenous peoples from non-governmental organisations of all continents. At present one representative from Russia , Mr. Pavel Sulyandziga, vice-president of RAIPON, is elected to the Permanent Forum.

The process of political recognition of indigenous peoples is strengthened by the raising awareness that it is highly important to involve local communities and apply their traditional knowledge for poverty eradication and sustainable development. International organisations and financial institutions are targeting the implementation of the Millennium Goals adopted by most of the states at the global summit of the World Bank in 2001. Fundamental values to be declared in this document include, among others, the tolerance, nature conservation and common responsibility. The main focus is on solving the economic, social and environmental problems, and in particular, on interconnectedness of these issues. Interdisciplinary interaction is a complicated task due to the different scales of problems to be solved at the local, regional and global levels. That is the reason why improvement of the management, its humanistic dimension – ‘good governance’ – becomes one of the new priority trends in the planning of the projects and programs.

A specific example under this trend is the international project of Millennium Ecosystem Assessment covering all major ecosystems of the planet. In Russia this project is still in the initial phase, and the circumpolar region (Arctic ecosystems) is not yet considered in the subprojects. In general, the project is challenging a wide range of tasks, including the following:

  1. to provide the different users (including local communities) with the information on eco­system state, local resources and most rational ways of their utilisation and management;
  2. to evaluate the relation between the ecosystem state and well-being of the population (sum­ming up the ‘ecosystem services’);
  3. to involve the population into the ecosystem management at the local level.

In contrast to previous research and mainly global assessments of the ecosystems, this project is focused on the uniqueness of ecosystems and practices of their use, in essence there is planned an inventory of the natural agricultural systems. It is connected with decreasing confidence of the local communities in the global political decision-making. In substance, the project objective is an enhancement of the local component in all estimations and in the process of ecosystem management. The representation of the indigenous peoples (Ms. Esther Camac from Costa-Rica) in the International Consultative Committee of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment was envisaged from the project initiation. This committee accumulates information on subprojects, implemented by local and indigenous communities within the aforementioned project.

On 17-20 March 2004 in Alexandria ( Egypt ) an International conference was organised under this project: “Bridging Scales and Epistemologies: Integration of Traditional Knowledge and Science in the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment”. Many indigenous representatives from various world regions participated in the conference. The conference objective was to make the project outcomes accessible and useful for local communities (including indigenous peoples), as well as present the tools for the environmental and ecosystem monitoring with the local participation (indicators, interview, questionnaires, maps, reports, databases etc.).

At the conference the bulk of the presentations criticised that local traditional knowledge was inadequately not considered in the global assessments. At the same time it was clearly stated that there is a lack of social conditions and institutions for consideration of such knowledge. For indigenous peoples the conference resolutions, as well as the subprojects’ outcomes are of high interest. They comprise the following issues:

The conference incorporated presentations of inter­esting pilot projects on the following themes:

The representatives of the indigenous communities have expressed their views on the integration of different types of knowledge in the following statements:

  1. indigenous communities are able to commu­nicate and use scientific knowledge;
  2. ecosystem assessment by indigenous commu­nities is distinguished by both emotional and spiritual dimensions and expression of their connection to the land;
  3. indigenous communities have their own vision of the future and well-being, where economic, social, cultural and spiritual components constitute an entuty, a vision that differs from Western values;
  4. indigenous communities are capable to react to the ecosystem changes and integrate (or successfully apply) scientific knowledge;
  5. Western authors shall introduce the ethic approach into the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Project, because the ideology of ecosystem service evaluation might cause a threat to the system of values of indigenous communities, and the indigenous representatives shall be included into the team for the risk assessment;
  6. the project is based on the ideology of the UN (and the member-states), what results in the priority assessment of the ecosystem goods and services instead of needs of people. This paradigm of the project shall be subsequently modified.

The conference recognised that public and private institutions, responsible for ecosystem management, are not yet holistic and multi-level and do not adequately reflect the interests of different actors. Significant work is needed on legal, institutional and capacity building issues. Recognition of local knowledge shall also be reflected in the global financial actions. Participation in the international project of Millennium Ecosystem Assessment is of high interest in case of further implementation of its subprojects on biodiversity conservation and sustainable development of indigenous lands.

Integration of traditional and scientific knowledge might also be implemented under the new project of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), funded by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF) on integrated ecosystem approach to conserve biodiversity and minimise habitat fragmentation in the Russian Arctic (ECORA). The Russian Ministry of Natural Resources has recently launched this project in cooperation with international partners. The ultimate goal of this project is to foster nature protection in the regions outside the existing protected areas network. This objective assumes the close interaction with the local population, which in the pilot regions Kolguev Island , Kolyma River Basin and Chukotkan Peninsula are represented by indigenous peoples. The representative of RAIPON is included in the ECORA Steering Committee, a very important action from the point of view of practical project implementation, because the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment project also aims at research and solution of the environmental problems intrinsically related to the socio-economic conditions.

Essentially topical to the ECORA project is the program on Ecological Knowledge in the Arctic Transborder Territories , which envisages environmental monitoring and is implemented with the participation of indigenous communities. The project period is 1996-2004. It covers Arctic regions in Canada and USA . Descriptions of the concept, methods and intermediate results are posted on the Internet.

Under the aegis of the Arctic Council a pilot project on “Conservation Value of Sacred Sites of Indigenous Peoples in the Arctic ” was carried out in 2001-2002 jointly by the RAIPON and international organisations, the Arctic Council’s Indigenous Peoples’ Secretariat ( IPS ) and the Working Group of the Arctic Council on Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF). Data from the final report on this project are available on RAIPON’s website. Namely two pilot areas in the Yamalo-Nenets and Koryak autonomous regions were investigated by indigenous peoples. 70 interviews were conducted with the Nenets elders in the Tazovsky district of theYamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug, and 263 sacred sites were identified, described, and mapped. In the Olyutorsky district of the Koryak Autonomous Okrug there were 30 people (Koryak, Chukchi, Even) interviewed, and 84 sacred sites described and identified on the map. All sacred sites were registered and documented according to a standard questionnaire, which was personally filled in by indigenous interviewers at the meeting with each respondent. Audio and video records, as well as photos were taken. As a result, substantial information on sacred sites has been collected, a number of sites were visited and described in detail. Processed materials, archived records and findings, analysis of the available information sources and literature form the basis of the project report’s classification of the sacred sites. Recommendations for their protection at the local, national and international levels are given. In the amendments to the report, vast and diverse information has been published, although much significant material is not yet processed and published.

The methodology of these projects might be successfully used and applied for organising a training seminar, proposed by UNEP/GRID-Arendal to be held in St. Petersburg next year, on Community Based Nature Resource Management with particular attention to the problems and conditions in the Russian Federation .

The ecosystem approach has gained a greater significance since adoption of the Convention on Biodiversity Conservation ( CBD ) in 1998. The international community makes additional efforts to legitimise traditional knowledge in all programs, concepts, approaches, tools and action plans for biodiversity management (in particular, through implementation of the Decision 6.10 of the CBD Article 8, where indigenous peoples take part as principal executives via expert committees, elaboration of documents, pilot projects etc.). Activities under the Convention and its projects constitute a parallel processes of integration of traditional and scientific knowledge at different levels, mutually beneficial for all stakeholders.

In this context it is worth to mention several other initiatives of the largest international organisations. The Arctic Program of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has been implemented since the late 1990s. This program affirms the priority of the traditional knowledge of Arctic indigenous peoples along with its ecological value and significance. Arctic Strategy of the International Union for Nature Conservation (IUCN) also indicates the importance of aboriginal knowledge for nature protection and rational use of resources, as well as the need to integrate scientific and traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples.

The World Bank has recently elaborated a new political document discussed and modified through the process of consultations with indigenous peoples. Though this policy document has been criticised for the insufficient use of indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge, it still serves as a good example of adjusting political strategy by a global financial institute in response to the needs of local communities. In spite of considerable indulgences in the application of declared environmental standards, it is expected that the practice of preliminary consultations on the World Bank projects with indigenous peoples will be maintained.

The Convention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and its article 169 in particular, is a fundamental document regulating rights of indigenous peoples and responsibilities of the state in ensuring their well-being and development. Unfortunately, the Convention is not yet ratified by the Russian Federation , therefore it is necessary to fight for the recognition of basic rights by available instruments. It is especially important to ensure the participation of the local population in the self-governance and decision-making at the local, regional and national levels.

In connection with the latter issue, RAIPON recently conducted a survey and collected data from over 400 traditional, indigenous settlements. The survey revealed that these settlements are extremely isolated from the ‘outer world’ and other communities. Accessibility of information and mass media are of high importance for local residents. The question on availability of mass media and authorities was answered as shown by the following table:

This evaluation clearly demonstrates that the opinion of local and indigenous people practically is not available for the decision-making process, and without public organisations able to champion interests of their members, these opinions cannot be taken into consideration by governments and power structures. The objective to enhance the potential and build the capacity of the existing non-governmental organisations is very important and actual.

Other instruments can also be used for the evaluation of local and traditional knowledge application.

On 23-27 June 2004 in Elista, capital of the Kalmykian Republic in Russia , there was held an international seminar on Traditional Knowledge and Modern Technology for the Sustainable Management of Dryland Ecosystems. This seminar made use of the UN Convention on Combating Desertification (UNCCD) for its practical work. The role of the indigenous knowledge is recognised in the Convention Article 18, which calls for the protection, promotion and use of traditional knowledge to combat desertification. At the 6th session of the UNCCD Conference ( Havana , Cuba , 25 August- 5 September, 2003 ) the parties had adopted the decision 16/ COP .6 titled “Traditional Knowledge” with the intention to conduct a pilot research and to study experiences on application and protection of the traditional knowledge.

Mass media


(% of settlements)

unavailable (% of settlements)







local newspapers



regional press



national (central) press





(% of settlements)

inaccessible (% of settlements)

local militia



local deputies



local administration



regional administration, deputies and authorities



deputies of federal (national) level



The UNESCO Department on Ecological Sciences since 1971 has implemented the multidisciplinary program “Man and the Biosphere” ( MAB ), aimed at nature conservation, environmental research and harmonisation of the resources use. In this scientific program there has been established a global network of biosphere reserves with 440 protected sites in 97 countries. This network can be used for monitoring and as a polygon of the sustainable ecosystem management with the application of traditional knowledge and modern technologies. One of the MAB projects on sustainable management in the marginal drylands (ICARDA) with studies of the traditional practices and know-how has been implemented in 8 countries. In this project the local population is a principal participant defining, evaluating and raising awareness about the local systems of community resources management for the conservation of the biological diversity and ecological sustainability in order to overcome the negative social and environmental consequences. Methods of the evaluation are incorporated into the project design, comprising collection of information and its assessment according to the following three elements:

  1. State of existing natural resources: A detailed description of the current state of existing ecosystem services in terms of its natural resources – water, soil, biodiversity – at the local level and their relationships at spatial and temporal scales.
  2. Characterisation of stresses: An overall characterisation of the typical environmental stresses including scarcity of water, land degradation, overgrazing, irrational cultivation and reliance on agriculture, social stresses and social services deficiency, and urbanisation dynamics and its effect on local inhabitants’ traditions and culture.
  3. Description of indigenous, adaptive and innovative approaches: The adaptation of the local communities to the conditions in the key area and its hinterland and whether such adaptations are sustainable in the long-term was assessed in the field through interviews and observations. Various management approaches and technologies – indigenous, adaptive and innovative – were considered, including water resource management practices, management of rangelands and grazing patterns, soil degradation identification, land suitability for agriculture, etc.

An Environmental Information System (EIS) based on a participatory geo-information system ( GIS ) is suggested to administer the required master database of the project. It is structured to manage all forms of information, of spatial (base maps, satellite imagery and the like), and non-spatial character (texts, tables, graphs, statistics and the like) from existing literature, previous projects, field observation, data analyses and their interpretations. This will facilitate the data archiving, analysis and query as well as combination of the scientific, administrative and social data obtained for the local inhabitants in one common repository. Implementing this GIS -database will enable comparative evaluation of study sites and dissemination of information amongst the partner institutions. The detailed comprehensive methodology of the project is described in the report of the UN University (UNU) in 2003.

One of the largest projects covering traditional knowledge issues has been launched by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). This initiative has been supported by UNESCO, UNDP, GEF, governmental and non-governmental organisations for global recognition, preservation and sustainable development of the Globally-Important Ingenious Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS Project).

Such systems comprise mainly crop or mobile animal-based agriculture which optimise resource use and mitigate the risk of overgrazing. These ingenious systems are well adapted to highly variable ecosystems, in particular, with significant climatic and seasonal variations. Such systems are intertwined with carefully adapted social institutions for access to common resources and ecosystems management. Deep knowledge of the dynamics of the ecosystems in the territory with highly specialised ecological niches is the basis for these lands’ traditional management.

Such outstanding and highly specific traditional management systems, or cultures have co-evolved over centuries with the landscape and its components. They are noteworthy for their contribution to biodiversity conservation, sustainable land and water and landscape management and the provision of food, livelihood security and quality of life. Many provide globally important goods and services well beyond their geographical limits.

Under the current circumstances from the perspective of the developing communities and their agricultural systems it is not so important to dwell upon the limits of applicability of local knowledge systems versus scientific knowledge. What is more interesting and relevant is how to develop approaches that successfully integrate the comparative strengths of both types of systems. These attempts need to be participatory and inclusive by definition and would have implications for the role of the expert, moving from a provider of information to a nexus between scientific knowledge system and local communities.

One more step in this direction is to be made under the European Landscape Convention. It is aiming at the protection of the rural landscapes, as well as local land use practices and management systems. In the Guide on Rural Heritage, prepared under the Convention, the local practices, traditions, knowledge and technologies are considered as most important heritage items. The entire document is earmarked by an idea of the heritage protection, in particular preservation of the living heritage as a most important component of the sustainable development.



Arctic Council:
Commission of the European Communities:
ECORA project:
Globally-Important Ingenious Agricultural Heritage Systems Project:
GRID/ Arendal:
Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, Conventions…:
Implementation of the UN Millennium Declaration (2003):
International Labour Organisation:
MAB programme:
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Project:
United Nations Organisation:
WWF Arctic Programme: