The price of arrogance

 作者:颛孙籽     |      日期:2019-03-08 08:14:03
By Rob Edwards EARLY one morning in July, Jaco Evik killed a bowhead whale in the sea off Baffin Island in northeastern Canada. The 73-year-old Inuit and his crew dragged the 13-metre mammal ashore, cut it up and took it home to the remote Arctic village of Pangnirtung. There, like his forefathers before him, he celebrated his catch with 300 fellow Inuit. Elders gave long speeches and the whale’s flippers, tongue and blubber-coated skin, known as muktuk, were eaten. For 65 years, bowheads have been a protected species. But on this occasion the kill was not only legal, it was also endorsed by conservationists and scientists. Twice in the past three years, the Canadian government has given the Inuit around Baffin Island permission to hunt a bowhead whale. Its decision to relax the ban marked a watershed in scientific attitudes to indigenous knowledge. For the first time, scientists took heed of what the Inuit knew about the animals—and had to accept their claim that the bowhead whale was more abundant than supposedly scientific surveys had concluded. All around the globe, scientists have too often ignored local or traditional understanding of the environment. But biologists are beginning to realise that information amassed over the centuries by indigenous peoples about wildlife, agriculture and medicine can be more accurate than information gained from modern scientific investigation. “Science is standing on the shoulders of centuries of innovation by traditional hunters, healers and farmers,” says Daniel Buckles, a senior scientist with the Canadian government’s International Development Research Centre in Ottawa. Buckles says this explains multinational companies’ interest in bioprospecting—scouring the world for the high-yielding food crop of the future or a herbal extract that will cure cancer. “About 80 per cent of the medicines in use in the world are derived from medicinal plants traditionally used by people,” he points out. “Scientists are learning to pay a lot more attention to local knowledge, not to discount it.” Canada is one of the pioneers of this approach. The recommendation to allow the Inuit to hunt bowhead whales came from the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board, which has brought together Inuit representatives and government scientists to advise the government on conservation around Baffin Island. Since the board was set up in 1994, its researchers have gathered information about the whales by interviewing 257 Inuit from 18 communities. Most of them reported that numbers had increased substantially since the 1950s. As a result, scientists have revised their estimates of the bowhead population in the eastern Canadian Arctic. Keith Hay, the wildlife biologist who coordinates the board’s Bowhead Traditional Knowledge Study, says there are about 350 bowheads in the bays east of Baffin Island rather than the “few tens” scientists had believed. This makes it sustainable for the Inuit in the area to take one a year for ceremonial purposes, he argues. Hay points out that scientists constrained by tight budgets and conventional techniques often gain only a fragmentary understanding of wildlife and its environment. The Inuit, however, whose ancestors have been living in close contact with the land for centuries, have accumulated a wealth of detailed knowledge based on year-round observation over a wide area. By tapping into that knowledge, Hay has learnt a great deal about the biology of bowheads. “Things like annual and long-term variation in numbers and distribution, relative abundance and locations of calves and other age classes, presence of different stocks of whales and their migration patterns,” he says. “Scientists may only have small or discontinuous fragments of all these things.” On the other side of the world, biologists in China are coming to similar conclusions in their work on yaks. The nomads of the Tibetan plateau depend on these animals for milk, meat and wool. Ning Wu at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Biology in Chengdu argues that government scientists trying to improve the stock should have taken note of the traditional wisdom of Tibetan herdsmen, who have been breeding yaks for the past three thousand years. Attempts to boost milk and beef production by crossing yaks with lowland beef and dairy cattle ended in failure. The crossbred animals not only quickly succumbed to the cold climate of the Tibetan plateau, they also produced less milk than expected, he says. In contrast, nomadic herdsmen have a sophisticated understanding of which breeds of yak should be crossbred in what combinations and for how many generations. “Pastoral societies have for thousands of years been developing indigenous knowledge about breeding and crossbreeding along rational lines,” says Wu. “When experts are called in, they are always outsiders who are concerned mainly with so-called modern approaches.” A recent ecological study showed that the traditions of some tribes do help sustain the environment and improve productivity. But one of its authors, Carl Folke of Stockholm University, cautions against becoming too dewy-eyed about indigenous peoples. The natives of New Guinea inflict heavy damage on plants and animals through hunting and deforestation, despite having detailed knowledge of them, he says. “Exaggerated claims of traditional ecological wisdom require a reality check.” Folke’s coauthor, Fikret Berkes of the University of Manitoba in Canada, says that traditional knowledge and conventional science should complement each other, rather than compete. He points to errors by US and Canadian government scientists attempting to manage caribou populations. These mistakes could have been avoided, says Berkes, if they had combined their census data with intelligence about the health of the herds gathered by Cree Indians from their regular measurements of the animals’ fat content, which give a good indication of whether caribou populations are rising or falling. Other environmental scientists point out that traditional knowledge may have limited value outside its context. Curtis Freese, a Montana-based consultant to the World Wide Fund for Nature, says that such knowledge can be invaluable if resources are being harvested only to feed local communities, but of little help when large numbers of fish or animals are being culled for sale internationally. “Traditional knowledge has never had to deal with commercial markets.” But Buckles is keen to stress that it can be in scientists’ own interests to heed local knowledge, and has a story to illustrate the point. Over the past 20 years, he says, hill farmers in Honduras have developed a successful method of using the vigorous climbing legume known as velvet bean (Mucuna pruriens) to help cultivate maize, their staple food. The farmers grow the velvet bean between rows of maize and cut it down to form a mulch that prevents weeds, fertilises the soil and germinates to grow again. Buckles thought he could reduce labour by sowing the velvet bean at the same time as the maize, instead of a month later as Honduran farmers do. It took him two years to discover that, when he did this, the velvet bean grew so fast that it swamped and killed the maize. “If we had paid more attention to what the farmers had said,” he admits,