Indigenous Knowledge and Customary Law in Natural Resource Management

Lands and territories inhabited by most indigenous peoples across the globe are rich in natural resources. Through generations of experimentation and as custodians, the indigenous peoples have developed an expansive body of knowledge for sustainable use and management of these resources. The continuity of this knowledge and sustainable use and management practices of these resources are enforced through rules, beliefs and taboos which form a part of their customary laws.

Indigenous peoples possess systematic knowledge of plants, animals and natural phenomena of the ecosystems and their surroundings. This rich knowledge coupled with their close relationship with their lands have enabled them to live in harmony with nature. However, with the colonization of their lands and territories over the centuries, the process of plundering the resources and dispossessions began. Additionally, statutory laws were imposed on them which marginalized their customary laws that regulate the application of their knowledge on the management of the natural resources within their territories. The situation has continued to aggravate over the last few decades with the coming of the era of economic development, which is aggressively pursued by private companies. In addition, indigenous peoples are being pushed out or evicted from their homelands in the name of conservation of natural resources. Both these trends are occurring with the backing of the state. Nonetheless, indigenous peoples continue to assert and practice their distinctive way of life and worldviews on a narrow margin.

However, along with this conflict, there is also an increasing realization of the invaluable role of the indigenous knowledge systems and customary laws in securing the health of the planet and the capacity of the global community to respond to the present and future challenges in food and health security. This is now being echoed in various researches conducted and in the agenda of development or conservation, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and a host of others.

Initiatives are also being taken by national governments to recognize indigenous knowl¬edge systems and customary laws for the stated reasons. Increasingly, its effectiveness or success in conservation and sustainable utilization of biological resources are being acknowledged by national governments. However, there is still a large gap in understand¬ing the modalities and mechanisms which will be necessary for indigenous knowledge and customary law to secure the central role in the sustainable management and use of natural resources in their lands and territories.

It is in this context that two case studies were conducted – one in Yuhu Village, Yulong county, Yunnan, China and the second in Haruku village, Haruku Island, Indonesia. Both the cases highlighted the importance of indigenous knowledge and customary law for the success of conservation and sustainable development initiatives as the way forward.

These two villages in the two countries were chosen for conducting the case studies because there are merits in the efforts made by the communities in applying indigenous knowledge and customary law in the management of natural resources. Further, there is an increasing acknowledgement and effort made by their governments to apply them more effectively. The case studies highlighted these in an attempt to shed some light in the search for a solution.

These studies were carried out under the Collaborative Management and Learning Network (CMLN) project of AIPP which is funded by the SwedBio. CMLN encourages dialogues between the communities living in Protected Areas (PAs) and the park authorities to pro¬mote co-management and shared governance.

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