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Culture and systems of knowledge, cultivation and food, population and consumption

Posts Tagged ‘intangible cultural heritage

Wind and soil, culture and change

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With soils and humus, with grasses wild or cultivated, with water whose form may be a hill tarn or a great tropical river, has intangible cultural heritage found expression and renewal. Whether in the Himalayan hill districts of northern India, the central province of Sri Lanka with its hydraulic wonders, the great basin of the Tonle Sap in Cambodia whose bidirectional water flow is the basis of both ritual and an aquacultural livelihood, or the highland ‘aldeias’ of central Timor-Leste, in which an age-old institution that bans exploitation of the forest continues to be respected, the bio-physical foundation on which so much intangible cultural heritage depends has remained plentiful and as reliable as the seasons.

RG_WHR_77_coverBut no longer, for new disturbances have shaken this relationship and they are depleting these fundamental materials just as much as altering their very nature. The new uncertainty is undermining the intimate knowledge held by communities of natural processes in their specific locations, such as inter-annual variations in weather or the cycles of certain plant and animal species. Protecting such knowledge is of critical importance – not only for its role of being cultural heritage, and for respecting the wealth of accumulated and transmitted knowledge – but because it possesses the keys to living with change, and especially living with the effects and impacts of climate change.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity, the protection of wetlands, it is ICH practitioners and the communities they belong to who observe and interpret phenomena at scales much finer than formal scientists are familiar with, besides possessing the ability to draw upon considerable temporal depth in their observation. For the scientific world, such observations are invaluable contributions that advance our knowledge about climate change. For the local world, indigenous knowledge and cultural practices are the means with which the effects of climate change are negotiated so that livelihoods are maintained, ritual and cultivation continue, and survival remains meaningful.

[This short extract is taken from ‘How intangible cultural heritage adapts to a changing world’, my article in the current issue of the UNESCO World Heritage Review. The entire article can be read here (pdf 558kb).]

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The intangible cultural heritage of agriculture and food, via Unesco – rice ritual in Japan

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Ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan. When most of the ploughing is completed, girls called Saotome begin to prepare for the transplantation. They wear colourful dresses, and hats called Suge-gasa. Photo: UNESCO / ©2009 by Kitahiroshima-cho

UNESCO – the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization – has a deep and wide view of traditional knowledge and practices of sustainability. Not readily apparent inside the labyrinthine UN system, Unesco’s Culture sector has within it the section on Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH), which helps preserve, conserve and revitalise these practices.

The term “cultural heritage” has changed content considerably in recent decades, with much of that change having come about thanks to the conventions developed by Unesco. Although “cultural heritage” is usually seen as monuments, buildings of antiquity and sites of historical importance or natural significance, it also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.

In this framework, the UNESCO 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage brings together such knowledge – sometimes well documented and living, sometimes in grave danger of being extinguished. These are organised under what are called the Lists of the Convention. In this series, I will pick out those practices and expressions of knowledge that have to do with cultivation systems, agricultural ecologies and the community cultures surrounding food.

The first in this series is ‘Mibu no Hana Taue’, the ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan. This was inscribed in 2011 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Ritual of transplanting rice in Mibu, Hiroshima, Japan. On the day of the ritual, villagers bring more than a dozen cattle to Mibu Shrine to be dressed with elaborately decorated saddles called Hanagura and a colourful necklace. Photo: UNESCO / ©2009 by Kitahiroshima-cho

‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is an agricultural ritual in which people worship the deity of rice fields, and pray for a good growth and abundant harvest of the rice crops for the year through ploughing fields, and transplanting rice seedlings. The Mibu community, located in a mountainous area of Western Japan, has developed and transmitted “Mibu no Hana Taue.” Both the Mibu and neighbouring Kawahigashi communities have been areas of rice cropping for a long time.

‘Mibu no Hana Taue’ is carried out on the first Sunday of June every year after actual transplantations in the community are completed. Villagers gather at a large rice field, specially kept in reserve for the ritual. The deity of rice fields is welcomed, and a series of agricultural works such as ploughing, preparation for the transplantation and the actual transplantation are demonstrated in the presence of the deity. On the day of the ritual, villagers bring more than a dozen cattle to Mibu Shrine to be dressed with elaborately decorated saddles called Hanagura and a colourful necklace.

Traditional knowledge and climate change

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The Enawene Nawe people live in the basin of the Juruena River in the southern Amazon rainforest. They perform the Yaokwa ritual every year during the drought period to honour the Yakairiti spirits, thereby ensuring cosmic and social order for the different clans. The ritual links local biodiversity to a complex, symbolic cosmology that connects the different but inseparable domains of society, culture and nature. Photo: UNESCO ICH / IPHAN

The connection between traditional knowledge and climate change is one that inter-governmental agencies really ought to pay a great deal more attention to. Several UN agencies, amongst them UNESCO and FAO, have done some sustained work on the subject. Their work, together with that of researchers and community leaders amongst indigenous peoples, has deserved a closer look for many years. Now, when ‘tipping points’ have been reached in several agro-ecological zones, it does seem gratuitous to look for ‘solutions’ (as they like to call it nowadays) from those who don’t see the world in terms of ‘problems’ and ‘solutions’.

The traditional knowlege of tribal peoples, indigenous peoples, ‘adivasi’ (an Indian/South Asian term which means original inhabitant), or first peoples as they are called in parts of the northern hemisphere is now being seen as being a repository for all sorts of ‘solutions’ for problems caused by global warming, but also by the reckless growth of countries fixated on economic development. On the United Nations University (UNU) website, an article about ‘Why traditional knowledge holds the key to climate change’ by Gleb Raygorodetsky does a very good job of explaining the links and how they may, respectfully, be consulted.

I replied and commented on several of the points raised by Raygorodetsky. These appear below, and follow significant passages or statements in his article (in italics):

“Although indigenous peoples’ ‘low-carbon’ traditional ways of life have contributed little to climate change, indigenous peoples are the most adversely affected by it. This is largely a result of their historic dependence on local biological diversity, ecosystem services and cultural landscapes as a source of sustenance and well-being.”

The Limbe is a side-blown flute of hardwood or bamboo, traditionally used to perform Mongolian folk long songs. Through the use of circular breathing, Limbe performers are able to produce the continuous, wide-ranging melodies characteristic of the long song. Players breathe in through the nose while simultaneously blowing out through the mouth, using air stored in their cheeks to play the flute without interruption. Single stanzas of folk long song last approximately four to five minutes. A single song consists of three to five or more stanzas, which requires performance of the flute to continue uninterrupted for twelve to twenty-five minutes. Photo: UNESCO ICH / Ts.Tsevegsuren

It’s a good thing you’ve enclosed ‘low carbon’ in quotations here. Within these societies – indigenous, first peoples, tribal – this label has little meaning – as unhelpful as calling certain communities ‘low-hydrological’ (if the ecosystem they inhabit is a semi-arid zone) or ‘low-pelagic’ (where a coastal community practices only artisanal fishing).

“The very identity of indigenous peoples is inextricably linked with their lands, which are located predominantly at the social-ecological margins of human habitation…”

As urbanisation has proceeded these margins have become clearer. The homogenous economic choices made by many state governments in the last 60-70 years has encouraged urbanisation and the consequent marginalisation of the indigenous – a Hobson’s choice for many of these communities: ‘assimilate’ (and thereby run the risk of losing your identity) or be marginalised.

“…they utilize 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. In doing so, they maintain 80 per cent of the planet’s biodiversity in, or adjacent to, 85 per cent of the world’s protected areas. Indigenous lands also contain hundreds of gigatons of carbon — a recognition that is gradually dawning on industrialized countries that seek to secure significant carbon stocks in an effort to mitigate climate change.”

Yaokwa, the Enawene Nawe people’s ritual for the maintenance of social and cosmic order, is integrated into their everyday activities over the course of seven months during which the clans alternate responsibilities: one group embarks on fishing expeditions throughout the area while another prepares offerings of rock salt, fish and ritual food for the spirits, and performs music and dance. The ritual combines knowledge of agriculture, food processing, handicrafts (costumes, tools and musical instruments) and the construction of houses and fishing dams. Photo: UNESCO ICH / IPHAN

They are therefore the earth’s primary stewards, and what we today call ‘earth science’ would have had no baselines to build upon had it not been for their culturally-rooted practices of conservation and thriftiness. However, I don’t know that an altruistic recognition is dawning. It has dawned on those of us who work in related areas, who read and write about TK and exchange notes, but the industrialised countries and the ’emerging economies’ alike today tend to see carbon stocks as market commodities – their preservation, and through such preservation the protection of tribal homelands, becomes a by-product, not a constitutional guarantee.

“The ensuing community-based and collectively-held knowledge offers valuable insights, complementing scientific data…”

The other way round!

“While unmitigated climate change poses a growing threat to the survival of indigenous peoples, more often than not they continue to be excluded from the global processes of decision and policymaking, such as official UN climate negotiations, that are defining their future.”

This is sadly, clearly, starkly true. They are excluded not only from climate discussion and negotiations, but also from many other policy fora. This is how tribal communities, indigenous peoples are treated both by international treaties and within states. Within countries and nations, the degree of exclusion is often greater in fact, and they have negligible or no political voice and weight, are economically impoverished and turned into dependants on welfare formulae that are constantly under threat. It is a precarious existence within states.

“The consequences of such marginalization are that many globally sanctioned programmes aimed at mitigating the impacts of climate change — such as mega-dam projects constructed under the Clean Development Mechanisms (CDM) framework — further exacerbate the direct impacts of climate change on indigenous peoples, undermining their livelihoods even more.”

Well said. The CDM has brought havoc to tribal folk and rural communities alike and ought to be wound up as soon as possible – and not replaced by another ‘market mechanism’ invented by global finance. As you point out in the following paragraph, the mutations of REDD are hardly better.

“One significant manifestation of the marginalization of indigenous peoples from the climate change policy and decision-making is the paucity of references in the global climate change discourse to the existing traditional knowledge on climate change.”

Visible here is the tendency of ‘science’ – a formalised system based on a ‘method’ that is seen today as an internationalised standard which evolved from 20th century Western civilisation – to disregard any other form of knowledge repository as equally valid and therefore worth learning from.

“The last IPCC Assessment (AR4, published in 2007) noted that indigenous knowledge is ‘an invaluable basis for developing adaptation and natural resource management strategies in response to environmental and other forms of change’.”

Naqqa-li is the oldest form of dramatic performance in the Islamic Republic of Iran and has long played an important role in society, from the courts to the villages. The performer – the Naqqa-l – recounts stories in verse or prose accompanied by gestures and movements, and sometimes instrumental music and painted scrolls. Naqqa-li was formerly performed in coffeehouses, tents of nomads, houses, and historical venues such as ancient caravanserais. Photo: UNESCO ICH / Department of Traditional Arts at the Research Center of ICHHTO

Then we must from the ‘outside’ take forward the UNU Traditional Knowledge Initiative (UNU-TKI) and the IPCC partnership to impress upon the IPCC AR5 authors, more than 800 of them, that TK must move from being a peripheral acknowledgement to a cornerstone of the IPCC’s work. Here is their calendar.

To the four points you have listed I would add a fifth, that of pursuing these four strenuously at the national and sub-national levels, for it is there that such recognition is most needed, and it is from there that reporting to the IPCC (and to the UNFCCC) is done.

The five points you have mentioned as being covered in more detail by the technical report currently being finalized for the IPCC are excellent summaries. When turned into guidelines they will go a long way towards educating ‘the scientific method’ about cosmologies that currently exist among indigenous societies, in which expressions of culture, transmission of values and inter-dependence are intrinsic elements. These are the subject of a UNESCO Convention, the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and their importance to what we currently call ‘sustainable development’ cannot be over-emphasised.

“It is unfortunate, however, that many government policies limit options and reduce choices, thereby constraining, restricting and undermining indigenous peoples’ efforts to adapt. This is reflected in counterproductive policies, including those leading to increased sedentarization, restricted access to traditional territories, substitution of traditional livelihoods, impoverished crop or herd diversity, reduced harvesting opportunities, and erosion of the transmission of indigenous knowledge, values, attitudes and worldviews.”

That is a cogent, if depressing, summary of the many limits that government policy binds itself with. If we are urban, we are economically discriminated against if our consumption is less than a current optimal mean; if we are rural, we are gradually forced into producing goods and relinquishing our scarce natural resources in order that this consumption mean be satisfied; if we are indigenous and tribal, we are utterly ignored and our customary rights and traditional livelihoods are trampled upon.

Can the UNU(TKI)-IPCC cooperation remove this blind spot and right some of the wrongs committed in the name of ‘development’? I should hope so. It sounds like a careful and considered beginning, and yet we can’t see more time spent on ultimately inconclusive negotiations on climate, as happened recently in Durban. M K Gandhi had once said it well: “Make haste slowly.”

The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya, and chemodiversity

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The Kallawaya are an itinerant community of healers and herbalists living in the Bolvian Andes. The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Photo: UNESCO/J Tubiana

The Kallawaya are an itinerant community of healers and herbalists living in the Bolvian Andes. The Andean Cosmovision of the Kallawaya was inscribed in 2008 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Photo: UNESCO/J Tubiana

In a short and insightful commentary in the latest issue of the Unesco Courier, Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani has discussed ‘chemodiversity’ as being “one component of biodiversity”. It’s a truth we often miss or overlook. The latest issue of the Unesco Courier, 2001 January-March, celebrates 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry.

Since the Earth Summit (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1992), da Silva Bolzani has written, the exploitation of natural resources and the socio-economic benefits of bioprospecting have become increasingly poignant issues. One of the principal goals of the Convention on biological diversity, which was adopted at the Summit, is “the conservation of biological diversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of genetic resources.” But bioprospecting, which consists of making an inventory of the components of biodiversity with a view to ensuring their conservation and sustainable use, has, on the contrary, not ceased to be misused to further the interests of industry, which often patents the substances as they are found.

The tenth Conference of Parties to the Convention, held in Nagoya (Japan) in October this year, will change the picture, though, as it reached a legally binding agreement on the fair and equitable use of genetic resources. As from 2012, this Protocol will regulate commercial and scientific relations between countries which possess not only most of the organic substances, but also the knowledge – often non-scientific – surrounding these resources, and those countries wishing to use them for industrial purposes. A new page has turned in the history of the exploitation of the extraordinary chemodiversity of so-called ‘megadiverse’ countries.

Chemodiversity is one component of biodiversity. Secondary metabolites – alkaloids, lignans, terpenes, phenylpropanoids, tanins, latex, resins and the thousands of other substances identified so far – which have a whole host of functions in the life of plants, are also playing a crucial role in the development of new drugs. And, although we are living in the era of combinatory chemistry, with high-speed screening and molecular engineering, we still continue to turn to nature for the raw materials behind many medically and economically successful new treatments. Nature has provided over half of the chemical substances that have been approved by regulatory bodies across the world over the past 40 years.

[Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani is Professor of Chemistry at the Institute of Chemistry-UNESP, (Araraquara, Sao Paulo, Brazil) and Past President of the Brazilian Chemical Society (2008 – 2010)]

Knowledge and change, the intangible and development

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The Koutammakou landscape in north-eastern Togo

The Koutammakou landscape in north-eastern Togo: This cultural landscape extends into neighbouring Benin, is home to the Batammariba whose remarkable mud tower-houses (Takienta) have come to be seen as a symbol of Togo. In this landscape, nature is strongly associated with the rituals and beliefs of society. The 50,000-ha cultural landscape is remarkable due to the architecture of its tower-houses which are a reflection of social structure; its farmland and forest; and the associations between people and landscape. Picture: UNESCO

Energy Bulletin, the website which discusses transition, peak oil and ideas of adaptation, has carried an article I have written about intangible cultural heritage and sustainable development.

Before sustainable development came to assume an academic formality (the new ‘earth systems’ science is built around the concept), it drew heavily from intangible cultural heritage (ICH) as expressed through the customs and practices used to transmit traditional knowledge.

That is why there has been a multiplicity of terms used in the field of sustainable development to designate this concept: indigenous technical knowledge, traditional environmental knowledge, rural

Whatever the preference, this is a body of knowledge that has been nurtured and built upon by groups of people through generations of living in close contact with nature. It is usually specific to the local environment, and therefore highly adapted to the requirements of local people and conditions. At the same time it is creative and experimental, constantly incorporating influences from outside and innovating from within to meet new conditions. UNESCO’s 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage states this explicitly in Article 2:

“This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity.”

The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia, Brazil

The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia, Brazil: the Samba de Roda, which involves music, dance and poetry, is a popular festive event that developed in the State of Bahia, in the region of Recôncavo during the seventeenth century. The Samba de Roda was eventually taken by migrants to Rio de Janeiro, where it influenced the evolution of the urban samba that became a symbol of Brazilian national identity in the twentieth century. Picture: UNESCO

These three examples [these are available in the Energy Bulletin article] illustrate the value of intangible cultural heritage to the evolving crises of our times: food, energy and climate change. In the communal rice-growing, locally irrigated societies of Sri Lanka are to be found the lessons of the local self-reliance which has today become a community movement in many countries.

The ‘transition’ movements in North America and Western Europe, which are contributing greatly to a wider and participatory understanding of sustainable societies, now embody ideas and practices that have been at work for centuries in the rice-growing communities of Sri Lanka (as also elsewhere in South and South-East Asia). The water tribunals of Valencia and Murcia (which is on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity) serve as an inspiring testament to the strength and validity of an ancient system of adjudicating rights and resources.

In an increasingly water-scarce and water-stressed world, it is community-based systems such as this one that promise equity with an authority that is easily accepted because of its cultural roots. Here too, the implication of the Water Tribunals’ inclusion on the Representative List is that generic legal systems may provide protection in law and relief in statute, but it is local authority that rest on knowledge-based tradition that provides the most relevant solution.

The Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah Epic, Egypt

The Al-Sirah Al-Hilaliyyah Epic, Egypt: this oral poem, also known as the Hilali epic, recounts the saga of the Bani Hilal Bedouin tribe and its migration from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa in the tenth century. As one of the major epic poems that developed within the Arabic folk tradition, the Hilali is the only epic still performed in its integral musical form. Picture: UNESCO

Climate change has altered weather patterns and crop seasons, and in regions where land is suitable neither for dryland agriculture nor irrigation, it is the thoughtful management of rangelands that is the only long-term conservation technique. The extraordinary flexibility of the Qashqai derives equally from their dense store of botanical and livestock knowledge, and serves as an example of the durability of a society in a difficult landscape.

One of the strengths of the 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage is that it widens the scope of recognition to traditional knowledge by revealing its cultural roots, which is respected and transmitted through customary systems and expression. How is traditional or indigenous knowledge an invaluable aspect of intangible cultural heritage? Just as ICH is embedded in community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals, unique to a particular culture and society, traditional knowledge is the basis for decision-making in that culture or society concerning matters of agriculture, health, natural resource management and community organisation.

A great deal of it is tacit knowledge and may not readily be coded. Indigenous knowledge provides the basis for problem-solving strategies for local communities, especially the monetarily poor and those communities outside formal (usually urban-denominated) systems of labour and production. This aspect of ICH represents a critically important component of global knowledge on development issues, yet it is an underutilised resource in the development process.

Normal service is resumed

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Two young ladies on their way to the Jomo Kenyatta Convention Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. Infrastructure in the capital's central district is missing utterly in the shanty towns.

Apologies for the long break.

I had visited Nairobi, Kenya, for the annual meeting on intangible cultural heritage, an important Unesco activity. The meet is officially called the Fifth Intergovernmental Committee Meeting, and the committee is one of the organs of the 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Nairobi is a large quite densely populated city typical of the sort of growth one sees in the South – organic and community-driven with little evidence of planning and less evidence of services the further away from the centre one travels.

The city is a magnet for rural populations which cannot find work in their provinces or for whom agriculture has become just too difficult to pursue as a livelihood. In the city, they join the informal labour pool and if possible learn skills that will help them get the next job.

Written by makanaka

November 24, 2010 at 18:53