Editorial: Adapting technology to tradition

For centuries, the Mbendjele Pygmies have lived their hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the dense Congo Basin jungle in the north of the Republic of Congo. They use the same basic methods of tracking and killing animals as they have for generations. But when they go into the forest these days, as well as their bows and poisoned arrows, the Mbendjeles take along GPS receivers.

The land that the Mbendjeles have long considered home is at risk from logging companies cutting down large areas of the forest. Unfortunately, this is a common story for most of the 350 million indigenous peoples worldwide whose traditional homelands are threatened by the removal of valuable natural resources by businesses determined to meet the demands of global markets. But rather than let the modern world encroach on their territory, indigenous communities are now adapting technology and using it to protect their land and traditional lifestyles.

The Mbendjeles use the GPS receivers to plot culturally significant sites for the logging company working in their region. These sites include villages, burial grounds and food and water sources. The company incorporates the data into its harvest maps which are then used by workers on the ground to inform them of the locations that must be protected. What used to be just another tree in the world’s second largest tropical forest is now recognized by the company as a valuable resource to the Mbendjeles. Soon, a radio station, partly funded by the loggers and run by the Mbendjeles, will keep the villagers informed of future logging plans for the area and provide an opportunity for discussion and improved communication between these semi-nomadic people.

Farming for all

By using technology to produce accurate maps, indigenous peoples can help those outside the community to recognize important locations and ensure the sites remain untouched. In northern Cameroon, GPS technology is also being used to protect animals. Lions from nearby Waza National Park have been straying into local villages and attacking livestock. A single, full-grown lion can kill one cow a week, causing losses amounting to thousands of dollars a year for farmers in the area. Farmers are now retaliating by shooting the lions.

Researchers from the Institute of Environmental Sciences, based in Leiden University, have fitted GPS collars to five lions. Information on the movements of the lions transmits to a website via text messages sent from a mobile phone attached to the collar. The project team also works with nomadic Bororo herdsmen to plot the routes of traditional cattle trails. The information on the movements of the lions and cattle helps identify potential conflict zones that the farmers can then avoid.

In Western Australia, the indigenous Ngalia people have been working to protect their territory since the 1980s and have used a wide variety of technologies in that time. Participatory video has been particularly successful in involving younger community members in preserving traditional knowledge. Web 2.0 applications have enabled collaboration with other indigenous communities, and the development of websites helps to raise awareness of the Ngalia with a wider audience.

Indigenous peoples all over the world are today using technology to record and protect their traditional knowledge and culture. Communities are gathering details on their environments and the available food sources. They are documenting and preserving agricultural methods that have been passed down through centuries. Far from being primitive, these techniques have been tried, tested and developed to perfectly suit local conditions. And it is not only small communities who rely on these traditional means. It is estimated that two thirds of the world’s population depend on food produced by traditional farming methods. It is vitally important then, that this indigenous knowledge is preserved and shared for many generations to come.

02 April 2008

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