Decoding ancient wisdom for effective management of natural resources

Trees and forests held as sacred by indigenous communities are now being associated with important water conservation functions. According to Mowo et al, this suggests that communities were aware that these resources contributed to their well-being, and scientific explanations may well be found for these traditional beliefs. In an article published in Human Organization, the researchers call for systematic studies to decode the indigenous knowledge behind useful traditional beliefs so that these can be defended scientifically. Summarising the findings of a study on informal local institutions in Ethiopia and Tanzania, the article describes how local institutions can be harnessed for effective natural resource management.


Local institutions perform important functions including conflict resolution

Sustainable management of natural resources in the highlands of eastern Africa is a major concern because of the diversity of products emanating from these highlands and the impending threats from an in­creasing human population. Rural communities operate within informal institutions—households, kin groups, hamlets and villages—based upon informal norms and practices. Acting as custodians of local knowledge and having the ability to connect members of different communi­ties to mobilize collective action, these institutions are fundamental to effective natural resource management (NRM).

Often, the term ‘local’ is equated with whatever is ‘not national’. But, surely, ‘local’ is more than just ‘not national’. Local institutions provide a basis for collective action; for building consensus; for coordination and management; and for collecting, analysing and evaluating information. The fact that people at the local level know each other well, have more rapport and a sense of belonging, provides opportunities for managing natural resources on a self-ruling and self-sufficient basis. This needs to be recognized and appreciated.

To exploit the potential of local institutions in NRM, an in-depth understanding of their evolution, goals, operations, objectives, strengths and weaknesses is essential. Formal and informal institutions not only coexist but also interact in a complex and dynamic manner. The coexistence and interdependence of the two are inescapable in NRM. In spite of that, the convergence of the two has not been adequately researched. Scientists from the World Agroforestry Centre studied traditional local institutions in the highlands of Ethiopia and Tanzania to address this gap, and specifically to identify opportunities for building environmentally sustainable, economically viable and socially acceptable NRM interventions. Managing resources and landscapes is an important focus of the CGIAR’s Collaborative Research Project 6 on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry—of which the Centre is a key partner.

The area studied were Gununo in Areka District and Galessa in Ginchi District (in Southern and Central Ethiopia respectively) and Baga in Lushoto District (Northeastern Tan­zania). Key informants were selected based on gender, resource endowment, familiarity with their communities and spatial lo­cation. For all sites, three time-periods were considered, based on periods during which major changes occurred that affected the performance of local institutions.

It was found that local institutions have diverse functions, but all seem to relate directly or indirectly to NRM, specifically in activities relating to land, livestock and labour sharing. In Ethiopia, land institutions have greatly influenced land management, with long leases motivating renters to make long-term investments such as soil conservation and agroforestry. On the contrary, short-term leases discourage farmers from making long-term land im­provements, contributing to land degradation. Farmers and policymakers must, therefore, be encouraged to consider leasehold terms to safeguard the long-term productivity of the land.

Mutual assistance institutions raise financial capital within communities and enable members to acquire highly-priced goods and services, hire labour for land preparation and soil conservation, buy food and drinks to support traditional collective action activities, or invest in new enterprises.

Tra­ditional leaders, beliefs and rituals play an indirect but essential role in NRM. The association of sacred trees with important water conservation functions suggests that scientific explanations may be found for useful traditional practices. However, most of the local institutions dealing with traditional beliefs, rituals and sacred forests are fading in importance due to modern education, exposure to new religions and changes in administrative governance. Being unable to provide a ‘scien­tific’ basis for such beliefs, guardians of these institutions are deemed ‘primitive’. It is critical that the ancient wisdom behind local beliefs and practices is decoded to provide scientific justifications for them and ensure their continuity into modern times.

Traditional informal institutions have a long history of successful land management and conflict resolution but much remains to be learned about their effectiveness in NRM, and their potential compatibility with the formal system. The study recommends research that can help to develop practical strategies for harnessing local institutions for NRM—and merging them with formal institutions for maximum impact.

Download the full article.

Mowo JG, Adimassu Z, Catacutan D, Tanui J, Masuki K, Lyamchai C. 2013. The importance of local traditional institutions in the management of natural resources in the highlands of East Africa Human Organization 72 (2): 1-10'

Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on

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