Indigenous storytelling: biocultural conservation  

Monday 4th September 2017
Maasai story telling gatherPhoto: Joan de la Malla [Full Size

The Maasai indigenous peoples of the Kenyan Rift Valley have a rich tradition of oral storytelling as a way of passing indigenous environmental knowledge across generations. In Scotland  Gaberlunzie and his wallet was an itinerant traveling story teller in his youth. It would come as no surprise if adult lemmings also tell their young stories!

Who knows how far back into prehistory some of the ancient myths and legends go? We could be hearing echoes that stretch back to the peoples who erected the great stone circles and built the mighty brochs in the stories we still tell today. One thing is sure, we should not dismiss the oral tradition as only being capable of preserving stories for just a few centuries.

Ancient Scotland was not one nation with one people but a diverse patchwork of indigenous and invading peoples who brought with them their own cultures, traditions and stories. If we could travel through the country in 800 AD we would find many different peoples, all with their own languages and all with a love of poetry which extolled the virtues of brave warriors. In the south were the Anglo Saxons, a Germanic/English people whose territory stretched down to the River Humber in England.

Helsingin yliopisto (University of Helsinki)  notes some of the areas hosting most of the world’s biodiversity are those inhabited by indigenous peoples. In the same way that biodiversity is being eroded, so too is the world’s cultural diversity. As a result, there have been several calls to promote biocultural conservation approaches that sustain both biodiversity and indigenous cultures.

Researchers (left) Álvaro Fernández-Lla Mazares and Mar Cabeza (right) from the Faculty of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Helsinki, Finland, are inviting conservation practitioners to tap into the art of storytelling to revitalise the biocultural heritage of indigenous peoples.

"While listening to stories, conservation practitioners may become more aware of indigenous worldviews, so the act of storytelling may facilitate dialogue. By promoting such encounters, the tradition of storytelling is then revitalised, helping to maintain intergenerational exchanges and transmission of local environmental knowledge,"  saysFernández-Llamazares .By integrating knowledge with feelings, indigenous stories offer an ideal platform for establishing emotional connections with landscapes and their wildlife, ultimately fostering a sense of place.

“Listening to indigenous stories is a humbling experience, which implies actively learning from the wisdom of indigenous peoples,” Cabeza says.

Indigenous peoples have repeatedly said that humility – from both conservation scientists and practitioners − is a critical trait needed to work jointly for conservation. It is crucial to respect the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples, as well as the customary mechanisms of control, ownership and transmission of indigenous stories.

Storytelling projects in conservation contexts have included a local radio programme using storytelling to encourage lemur conservation in Madagascar, a mobile storybooth documenting community efforts to conserve nature in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of the United States or a project assisting indigenous youth to document traditional wildlife stories from their elders in North Kenya.

"These original initiatives bridge the gap between cultural revitalisation and nature conservation and hold promise for opening new frontiers in biocultural conservation," Fernández-Llamazares says.

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