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The Endurance of Tribal Knowledge

March 5th 2023

Asking the question

In the year 2000, American ethnobotanist Paul Alan Cox asked the question, “will tribal knowledge survive the millennium?” As the world becomes increasingly globalised, and approximately one indigenous language dies out every other week, the question Cox asks still has sense and relevance. Twenty-one years later, however, I travelled to a village deep within the central Peruvian Amazon, where despite transformational changes taking place, local villagers showed me how their tribal knowledge does, in fact, endure. 

(Photo by Marianne Kalinowski)

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Words of wisdom

In the Huánuco region of the central Amazon, tuk-tuks pollute the air, illegal gold mining sparks conflict, deforestation causes environmental destruction and a rapidly expanding global economy increasingly undermines local trade. Nevertheless, inhabitants of the Puerta Inca village are using innovation to adapt themselves and their ancient knowledge to a village now unrecognisable from the one they grew up in. 

Percy Tiptop Sandoval is one such person. A kind and humble man descended from a lineage of modest farmers, he now co-runs an NGO eco-tourism project in the village he grew up in. Sitting across from each other in the village meeting space, nursing precious cups of English breakfast tea (usually impossible to find in this part of Peru), he explained to me his dilemma. “Many of the things I have learnt in my life are about the fields – growing and farming vegetation – however I am now no longer able to do them. Today, people prefer to buy or import their produce from another city. The question is, then, what can we do, if we cannot sell our things?”

Instead of succumbing to the temptation of profiting from one of the many illegal activities rife in the region, Percy instead applies his accumulated ecological knowledge in a different way – through tourism. He told me, “What I understand about what I am doing here is that I am looking after the [tourists] who come. There are things you can do safely in the jungle, and things that are not safe. Tourists are able to visit this area because of what I know because I have years of knowledge of the jungle that I can share with them.” 

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) in Practice

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(Photo by Marianne Kalinowski)

I soon experienced this first hand, accompanying Percy and several other travellers on an overnight trip through the rainforest to an off-the-beaten-path hidden waterfall. Along the way, Percy pointed out various types of trees and explained to us their different uses of them – the cumala tree with supple wood that can be used for timber, and the kapok tree which grows spikes and thorns to serve as an incredible natural defence mechanism. He explained how when he was just 12 years old, he spent several days lost in the rainforest, sleeping high in the tree branches to avoid animals prowling the forest floor and eventually using his refined senses to guide himself out. I experienced the importance of this heightened awareness when we veered off course and for several hours became suffocatingly lost, finding ourselves drifting ever closer towards the mountain range where civilization cuts off completely and wild panthers roam the land. Before the jungle consumed us, however, Percy used his highly attuned senses to listen to the sound of distant water, eventually guiding us back towards the river that promised safety and a place to camp for the night. 

Back in the town centre, where a single room serves as a town hall, bar and occasionally a cinema space, Percy explained to me – “I walk in the jungle and I know it well, I know what types of trees there are, I know what each of the snakes are, which are dangerous which are not … There are some things that I still do not know, but for the most part, I know.” Tourists like myself, on the other hand, “don’t know which trees have spikes and can prick them, they do not know which insects could have a really strong bite, or if a snake comes which type of snake it is.” What makes this knowledge type that Percy possesses particularly unique, is that it was passed down to him by his parents, who similarly learnt these things from those who lived generations before them.

Photographing wildlife rangerVolunteer in Peru | WorkingAbroadTheoretics 

Traditional ecological knowledge as a theoretical concept was first defined by ecologist Fikret Berkes in 2012, ten years before I embarked on my own quest to try to understand it. Berkes’ definition is the most comprehensive I have come across, stating “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and the environment”. What distinguishes traditional ecological knowledge from the term ‘Indigenous knowledge’ is that it concerns the land – ancient methods of how best to cultivate, manage and preserve it. 

Today, Indigenous communities live on 20% of the world’s territory but protect 80% of its total biodiversity. TEK is essential to this ongoing conservation effort, as it is the backbone of many environmental protection methods still relevant to solving the climate crisis of today. For example, in Africa, local and Indigenous people observe the land in order to predict rainfall, seasonal weather changes and wind direction to improve their farming and agricultural management – often in ways that complex modern weather systems cannot.

data collection peruVolunteer in Peru | WorkingAbroadOpportunities 

Tourism, although itself a defining feature of modernity, is paradoxically keeping TEK alive in some instances. If you want to work with local people or take part in a project in Peru or the Amazon, you can browse some of WorkingAbroad’s many volunteer programmes. There are ways to participate in these breathtaking landscapes that do not involve destruction or consumption, but ecological restoration and cultural education. Work closely with the Amazon wildcat and other neotropical animals by volunteering for WorkingAbroad’s Amazon Ecology and Wildlife Rehabilitation Programme.

As Percy has proven, tribal knowledge survives today because it is able to adapt, it is able to endure. Working against the odds, Amazonian villagers are showing us how they navigate some of the challenges of modernity – using ancient traditional knowledge that has passed through generations and will surely assist in the lives of many more.

Written by WorkingAbroad Blogger Anna Juliet Stephens

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