Does indigenous knowledge protects the world’s biodiversity — more than science? Listen to the episode here.

MRA: Science, as you know, is all about measurements. Take tigers — scientists in India are attaching radio-collars onto tigers to figure out their heart rate, where they’re moving, at what speed and so on. Or consider the bees, which are declining everywhere. Scientists use traps and observations to keep a log of their presence. Like many realms of knowledge, ecology — which is the study of living organisms and the environment — is being transformed by big data.

GV: A couple of months ago, I spoke to Dr. Tero Mustonen. He’s the head of the village of Selkie in Finland and a lead author of the landmark climate change report that was released last month by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I asked Tero what he thought of how science studies nature. For example, the way scientists measure and manage the steep declines of bees and other pollinators.

GV: Here’s what he said:

Tero Mustonen: Well, my response would be that –did anybody ask the pollinators?

GV: What? Ask the bees? But he was dead-serious.

Tero: Do you still have a community that speaks with the pollinators, the bees, or wasps or the flies or whatever the case. You will still find  in communities, some very remote area probably here in the north, where you will have extra ordinary women that can tell about the what the pollinator wants. And those there, we need extreme care and skills to create the face between the power and those remarkable indigenous communities to find wisdom.

Tero Mustonen: Ultimately, natural sciences are tools to understand the world, there are only tools, we don’t find questions of, should we do cloning or genetic modification in those processes. So what’s lacking from them is the wisdom of make making good life, good decisions, and wise survival for this planet. And that’s why indigenous knowledge on biodiversity matters the most. It can deliver on those two earlier points or numbers, historical baseline laws and others. But the most significant, at least as a practitioner, and coming from one of those villages, and facing this question 1000 times a year, why does it matter? Why does your fisherman or why does your old lady matter? I sometimes try to say that who speaks for the moose or who spoke for the fish? And what if there were people that still are listening? Because the natural world is pretty silent, they can only die off, but they will not come to a UN conference and say, Oh, we need a seat on the table. So it’s really those communities that are still embedded and have maintained these profound ways of coexisting with the natural world that we should be listening to very carefully.

MRA: You’re listening to Scrolls & Leaves, a world history podcast where we tell stories from the margins. This is a bonus episode, called Chatroom, where we interview experts.

MRA: Today, you’ll hear from Tero Mustonen on  what scientists can learn from indigenous and traditional communities. It’s going to require a bit of un-learning, so be fore-warned!

GV: Tero belongs to Snowchange Cooperative, an organization that interlinks science and indigenous knowledge. And he was part of a group of experts who recently met with US President Joe Biden to tell him about the indigenous views on Nature. This is Chatroom 19: Science vs. the Indigenous Take on Biodiversity. I’m Gayathri Vaidyanathan

MRA: And I’m Mary-Rose Abraham. And one more housekeeping note — if you can think of a friend who’d enjoy this podcast, why not just take a minute to pull up your whatsapp and share our website — This will help us immensely by getting the word out.

MRA: And finally, the next time you hear from us, it’ll be for the launch of season 1, tradewinds in 2 short weeks! We have 7 exciting episodes set on the Indian Ocean World Stay tuned! **

Indigenous Knowledge and biodiversity

GV: Next month, world leaders are getting together in China to discuss a treaty called the Convention on Biological Diversity. So nations have agreed they’ll halt and reverse biodiversity loss but they haven’t so far been very good at it. All previous attempts have failed.

MRA: And just to ensure we’re all on the same page, I want to define biodiversity. It’s the diversity of life in biological systems. If you have a garden, the biodiversity would be the various types of plants and insects and other creatures in it. Scientists measure biodiversity by counting species, or population size, or there’s also genetic diversity… a lot of metrics…

GV: Tero says that for indigenous people, biodiversity means something more complex, more comprehensive…

Tero: if you ask what is biodiversity from a cultural and rooted center. There is no such word. For example, in our traditional case, in eastern Finland, in Karelia, these villages, forest and the lakes were the world. So the old growth forests of the boreal, the Taiga,

GV: Boreal, taiga — those are ecosystems  …

Tero: where the humans were only a small, small, small, little entity, next to much bigger powers, including the winter. I mean, in our village, it used to be minus 40 in the ‘80s. And now we are lucky to get minus 15 In the winter. But let’s not go into climate change. The whole point is that the the perception of reality, the seen and the unseen, of how the community or culture looks at the world. And there are these checks and balances on how humans should be behaving in our conduct with other species.

I’ll give you a very practical example. No hunter takes the last moose. Or if we are fishing, we could then decide, as hunters and fishermen, or women what we will harvest this year, these lakes and then they will be put to rest or put aside for five years, we’ll go elsewhere in the land use, and still maintain a thriving society,

As seen from the traditional worldview, that we we need the help of the forest, we need the help of the lake, the roots, the plants, the animal life. It’s also extremely complex interplay between is the role of a human and what’s the role of a forest animal, certain kind of a relationship was maintained, that’s often found to be rather healthy.

GV: Tero says that up to 80% of the planet’s remaining intact biodiversity is in the homelands of traditional and indigenous communities. So, they must be getting something right. And the way scientists study biodiversity change has some problematic history…

Tero: The the old way of doing things is a power position from which certain change has been monitored and deducted using the indicators and a number of methodological choices from national institutes, governmental agencies, universities, scientists, and so and so on. And science is of course, a very powerful, analytical tool to understand biodiversity change, it will give you at its best, very precise, a number of species status and trends, extinction events, and combining that with other available data sources today, like with expeditions, and blah, blah, blah, all massive array of scientific tools that we have in our disposal.

Now, what’s often missing today from these conversations is that this kind of science was constructed from a power position 400 years ago. Many of the the colonial missions that set out from Europe, starting from 1500s, even 1400s, were asked they were assigned for description what they called foreign or native ecosystems and peoples with the underlying mission to control and convert these ecosystems into, into one type of economic landscape or, or the other.

In fact, there are others that have been talking about are saying ecological imperialism, where one type of ecosystem was actually reproduced in most parts of the planet, through the colonial process, I’m mostly referring to that kind of grass grassland ecosystem where European cattle, sheep, cows and horses were exported, to places ranging from Indonesia to Australia, to Brasilia, Canada, and of course, India and South East Asia and elsewhere. So, so, the point here is that when we monitor biodiversity, it has been in the past linked with very strongly with state power. And it has been utilized from that power position to create power narratives on on what constitutes reality, and then subsequently, what constitutes information on what’s changing, what’s biodiversity overall, what what are the species and when change happens? What does it imply or mean?

GV: Tero says indigenous knowledge can contribute to science in many ways…

Tero: It would give us baselines of ecosystem change that go much further back than what we have available using scientific terms. I’ll give you an example. Some of my colleagues have been working with Indigenous Australians on sea level change, and by working with a set of elders, who possess still these oral histories and knowledge is that they have been able to go back for 40,000 years in positioning indigenous Australian land use campsites which are now submerged under ocean. the first point here is that engagement with these communities is very beneficial for science, because the baseline information on what happened to and why why did it happen, may yield completely new discoveries.

MRA: The second reason is because indigenous languages and customs may contain deep insights about nature…

Tero: most of these indigenous and local communities are still embedded in their habitats in their ecosystems. And they often value and make deductions based on something called cultural indicators, which is then reflected in the local languages, dialects  . The point here is that working with the local languages and species, many new novel discoveries have been made, because of the exciting way a local dialect has been able to point range shifts, habitats of species. For example, over the past few years in the Arctic, there’s one whale species called narwhale, which is prominent between Greenland and Canada. And it has a long tooth. But it was only a few years ago that a group of scientists actually led by Inuit partners that are harvesting these whales. And they discovered completely novel behavior of this whale in the Arctic Ocean ecosystems. Where do they go? How do they breed? why some, some whales have 2 teeth instead of one? And what what’s the actual use of the tooth in the life cycle of very little known whale in the high Arctic?

GV: Finally, Tero says that such communities have wisdom that can help science and policymakers make the right choices. It’s not a joke that 80% of those intact landscapes are in surrendered indigenous territories, most often. In the tropics, in the High Arctic, Brasilia, and so on. So, so the evidence on the table points, that there’s something else going on, besides Western science of understanding biodiversity and managing it. What do traditional cultures and societies deduct for the current moment, what is their wisdom, and ethics and choices, which can be sometimes very profoundly different than the so called Western society or global society choices.

And here, I’ve tried to refer to the wisdom tradition of surviving cultures, like checks on overharvesting, the profound links that some of these societies appoint between animals and humans. This is not a trifle thing, if you listen carefully what’s being said. And the one word that comes out of all of it is really interconnectedness. That has been completely missed by biodiversity sciences, or if it has not been missed. It’s discussed in an analytical way that– Yeah, pollinators are connected with the way we are surviving and the birds are eating them. And insects are important, then, when we make the new highway, why don’t we leave two acres for a park? Because green spaces are created for humanity?

Well, if we really, genuinely can find people from any wisdom tradition that’s closely linked with an ecosystem. I think they see often these kind of choices as what your two year old niece would make children’s choices. Because the the fundamental understanding of many ecosystem embedded communities is that that you should never name or destroy your mother, you should never wipe out 80% or 100% of an ecosystem for human needs.

If you genuinely look at the indigenous governance of land, indigenous governance of biodiversity in their home areas, I think you will find back in the day, these communities were quite astounding, custodians of biodiversity in their homelands.


MRA: You were listening to Tero Mustonen on Scroll and Leaves. For more information and other episodes, visit, or follow us on Twitter at scrollsleaves, or on Instagram at scrolls and leaves, or like us on Facebook. Do stay tuned for fresh episodes coming up in season 1. See you then!

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