Storytelling empowers indigenous people to conserve their environments

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The moon rides high over the Bolivian Amazon as the Tsimané people crowd around the fire to tell stories. A conservation scientist sits among them, leans in to catch every word, and realizes how much he stands to learn from their rich indigenous knowledge.

Indigenous storytelling is a powerful tool for preserving biocultural diversity, says Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, an environmental researcher at the University of Helsinki in Finland. Having heard stories in Bolivia, Costa Rica, Kenya and Madagascar, he has now proposed that storytelling could transform how conservationists work with native peoples. His article appeared in a recent issue of Conservation Letters.

Fernández-Llamazares wrote the article with renowned conservation scientist Mar Cabeza, also at the University of Helsinki. In her years of fieldwork, Cabeza has collected stories to share with her daughter. In them, she saw the potential to involve indigenous people in protecting their own environments.

“We were doing fieldwork in Kenya and listening to stories from the Daasanach and Maasai peoples,” said Fernández-Llamazares in an interview. “As we sat around the fire, we started thinking about ways storytelling could be brought to conservation contexts.”

Stories give character to local wildlife, voices to trees and spiritual resonance to the sunrise. They connect indigenous people to their environment and guide their interactions with it.

Historically, conservationists uprooted indigenous cultures under the banner of saving the environment. Believing they knew best, they discounted native knowledge and evicted people from their ancestral lands to make way for progress.

Fernández-Llamazares and Cabeza propose that conservationists rise above this historic malpractice by listening to indigenous stories.

“Indigenous people have long said they want to see more humility from conservation scientists and practitioners,” said Fernández-Llamazares. “The key is to consider every knowledge system as valid.”

Stories tie people to their landscape, their heritage and one another. Storytelling sparks dialogue between generations and provides a time and place for ideas to be shared. In this way, stories preserve culture—and could help preserve the environment as well, wrote Fernández-Llamazares.

In his paper, Fernández-Llamazares described projects that have turned this rhetoric into practice. They include an IUCN-funded radio series on lemur conservation in Madagascar and an exhibition of Tsimané traditional myths in Bolivia. The key to efforts like these is to “embrace indigenous people as legitimate collaborators, equal-to-equal,” he said.

The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) embodies this philosophy. ACT partners with South American indigenous communities to preserve rainforests and traditional culture.

“In the Amazon, indigenous communities deeply value the forest and consider it an essential aspect of their territory, which is integrally tied to their own identity,” said ACT anthropologist Rudo Kemper. Their storytelling traditions are similarly vital and are at equal risk of being lost, he said.

ACT recently started a project with the Matawai Maroons in Suriname to preserve their oral histories, training youth to record interviews with their elders. So far, the researchers have collected stories from more than 50 locations within Matawai ancestral lands. They are developing a digital map, available both online and offline, where the stories can be uploaded and “tied to space and territory,” Kemper told Mongabay.

Fernández-Llamazares hopes projects like these will become a major trend in biocultural conservation. However, he delivers a word of caution: “We need to be very careful these projects are done according to indigenous standing traditions,” he said. “Otherwise, the knowledge system you’re trying to revitalize could actually be eroded.”

An ideal conservation team keeps this wisdom in mind and engages indigenous people “full of genuine curiosity and joy, and an innate passion for stories and willingness to learn,” he said.

“I’d also recommend a bit of humility.”

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