Mātauranga: Bringing indigenous knowledge to IPBES

A Bakaya man from the Central African Republic climbs a tree in search of honey. Pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds play an important part in the cultures and livelihoods of indigenous groups around the world. Photo: Timothy Allen
Mar 2016

The newly-formed global scientific body faces a test of whether it can include indigenous and local voices in its efforts. There isn't much time to waste, experts say.

When it came time for Maori elders from New Zealand to introduce themselves at an international workshop held in Panama in 2014, they opened with a mōteatea, or a traditional chant. It was just one of the ways that this meeting, organised by the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), didn’t run like an ordinary scienctific gathering. The dialogue brought together indigenous groups from across the globe to discuss an important topic: the bees, butterflies, birds and bats that pollinate crops and other flowering plants.

“When we opened the meeting, we spent a lot of time understanding who we were and who was present,”  says Phil Lyver, an ecologist at Landcare Research in New Zealand and a former co-chair of the IPBES Task Force on Indigenous and Local Knowledge Systems. “Normally, that doesn’t occur at a science meeting.”

This unusual gathering is one example of how IPBES, a global platform that assesses research on the planet’s ecosystems, is different than other international efforts that have come before it. The organisation released its first major international assessment on pollinators last month at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, which included information gathered during the workshop in Panama. And many experts involved say that it represents a new way of doing such assessments — one that brings in diverse voices and ways of looking at the world.

Proponents argue that efforts to include more indigenous and local knowledge – and knowledge from business leaders – in initiatives like those spearheaded by IPBES aren’t just important for the spirit of international collaboration. They’re also crucial for how people around the world use research to make smart choices.

“One of the things that this assessment enabled us to do is see a lot more about these [indigenous] practices,” says Rosemary Hill, a principle research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia and one of the authors of the pollination assessment. Traditionally, “they have been relatively invisible to the scientific communities.”

Global Dialogue

This inclusive approach has emerged, in part, from a growing appreciation of “biocultural diversity” in the scientific community. The concept recognizes that humans have long played an important, and not necessarily harmful, role in shaping biodiversity, says Pernilla Malmer, a senior adviser on agriculture and biodiversity at the Stockholm Resilience Centre of Stockholm University.

“We have so much focus on humans destroying biodiversity,” says Malmer, who is part of a programme at the Stockholm Resilience Center called SwedBio that has launched a multi-year effort to study how IPBES and other bodies can include indigenous and local knowledge in their scientific processes. But “biocultural diversity emphasises that we have contributed and still are contributing to biodiversity.”

It's a theme that fits well into IPBES' goal of spurring "science for policy," or packaging scientific information so that leaders around the world can use it to shape their decisions. Still, incorporating diverse voices into that discussion isn't easy, Lyver says. Bringing together indigenous groups and scientists takes time and funding and means working across disparate languages. These groups also carry deep ties to their surrounding environments, a type of knowledge that Maori call “mātauranga.”

It’s that same mātauranga that the meeting in Panama was held to address. Several authors of the IPBES assessment on pollination attended the workshop, as did representatives from indigenous groups in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. They included a delegation from the Ogiek peoples in Kenya. The Ogiek are “honey hunters” who have historically made seasonal migrations from the lowlands of Kenya to the highlands as they followed the activities of honey-producing bees. The five-day event gave these communities the chance to share the importance of pollinators to their livelihood and cultures. The Ogiek related a prayer that they recite during their harvesting journeys, which includes the lines, “god give us a generation of children/give us honey.” After the workshop, task force members and the indigenous participants collaborated to produce case studies that were then included in the pollination assessment.

For Lyver, who has Maori heritage and a tribal affiliation with the Ngāti Toarangatira people, there was a lot to learn. The two Maori elders at the workshop, for instance, could list the densities of wild honey bee hives in their traditional harvesting territory over a span of 60 years. While the European honeybee (Apis mellifera) was only introduced to New Zealand in the early 1800s, many Maori tribes have harvested honey for more than a century, using it in medicines and as a teething aid for babies. Based on the oral records of the elders, these hives were plentiful in the 1950s but began to dwindle in following decades before disappearing entirely by 2000 — a trend that mirrors the decline of honeybee populations in Europe and North America. “The elders were, through the decades, understanding the changes in the density of these hives, right until the point that they were gone,” Lyver says.

Indigenous groups like these also have an important part to play in reversing the loss of pollinators, says Hill, who serves on the indigenous knowledge task force. “A lot of [indigenous] peoples manage landscapes so that there are patches of gardens; there are patches of forest; there are patches of open ground,” she says. “That type of diversity in the landscape fosters pollinators.”

In Central America, she says, many people, including those from traditional Mayan communities, keep home gardens for growing vegetables, chiles and flowers. One census of these gardens found more than 800 species of plants. That’s a much higher diversity than what you’d find in large-scale agricultural plots and a boon for flower-visiting bees. It’s that sort of diversity that communities around the world will need to embrace to safeguard populations of bees and other pollinators, Hill says.

“This is something that people have been talking about for a long time: bringing science and indigenous and local knowledge together in these assessments. We’ve shown that it can be done in a good way that’s respectful to everyone,” she says. But “I think there’s a lot more work to be done before we really get this right.”

Moving forward

One part of getting it right means including indigenous and local voices in the discussions surrounding IPBES’ assessments right from the start, says Pernilla Malmer of the Stockholm Resilience Center. That will ensure that these groups can play a central role in shaping the initiatives. In 2015, IPBES launched four “regional” assessments of biodiversity and ecosystem services, focusing on trends in different parts of the planet. “I really think that this is possible to do in a very good way,” says Pernilla Malmer of the Stockholm Resilience Center, “especially if we start now to connect this [knowledge] more directly to the regional assessment.”

She adds that it’s also something that IPBES needs to do before it’s too late. In some cases, indigenous cultures and knowledge are disappearing as fast as global diversity. Lyver says that many Maori have moved to cities or are otherwise cut off from harvesting traditional resources like honey and seabirds. As groups lose indigenous words for describing plants and animals, and lose their daily contact with biodiversity, they also lose the mātauranga. He sees workshops like the one his team held in Panama as crucial steps for IPBES to meet indigenous groups where they live and still connect to bees, birds and other life.

“It’s really important to get to those communities that are still engaged in the harvest and use of their biodiversity,” Lyver says. “Because that’s where I think the gold will reside.”

Future Earth has funded two clusters to provide scientific support for IPBES: Global Biodiversity Assessment and Monitoring, Prediction and Reporting and Scientific Support for IPBES Knowledge Generation.