Life with Crocodiles: Reintroducing Human-Wildlife Coexistence in the Philippines

Credit: Jan van der Ploeg

Project Contributor: Jan van der Ploeg

Young Agta girl spearfishing in the Disulap River Philippine crocodile sanctuary in the municipality of San Mariano, Isabela Province, Luzon, Philipines. Credit: Jan van der Ploeg.

The Northern Sierra Madre on the island of Luzon, Philippines, is one of the most ecologically valuable areas in the world. The area is also under severe threat from logging, destructive fishing, agricultural conversion, infrastructure development and hunting, all of which threaten biodiversity in the last forest frontier on Luzon. Rural communities depend heavily on ecosystem functions and forest products. One of the most severely threatened species in the region is the Philippine crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis), now critically endangered throughout the Philippines. Over-hunting of crocodiles for the leather industry, large-scale habitat destruction (including wetland drainage and conversion to irrigated rice—a predominant crop with the “green revolution”), and the introduction and widespread use of destructive fishing methods (dynamite, better nets, electro-fishing), all have contributed to this species’ drastic decline (Weerd and Ploeg, 2004).

Another important contributing factor has been the loss of indigenous peoples’ traditions and understanding of the species, including ancestral beliefs that once maintained crocodile populations. Local people, particularly fishers, traditionally were knowledgeable about the behaviour and ecology of the crocodile and its habitat (wetland ecosystems). Fishers’ knowledge was generally based on opportunistic observations over a long period of time and was passed down across generations through stories and myths. Traditional beliefs and practices included strong taboos against killing and eating crocodiles. For example, in the past, the indigenous Kalinga communities in the remote area of the municipality of San Mariano in the Sierra Madre mountain range would not kill crocodiles because they believed the crocodile would take revenge through powerful spirits. People would make offerings to crocodiles in religious ceremonies or before crossing rivers, showing the veneration local communities had for crocodiles.

Over the past fifty years, however, tremendous changes have occurred in the livelihoods, education and culture of local people, as well as in their environment, leading to the loss of many of these traditions. Economic circumstances, massive immigration into the region, the expansion of the State, “modernization” and acculturation into mainstream Filipino society—including modern education that teaches little or nothing about the local environment—all have eroded traditional forms of knowledge about biodiversity. In addition, the degradation of the local environment poses severe threats to sustaining local knowledge about biodiversity, as traditional certainties about continue reading–>

Countering the Loss of Knowledge, Practices, and Species on Flores Island, Indonesia

Credit: Jeanine Pfeiffer

Project Contributor: Jeanine Pfeiffer with the Tado Community, the Waerebo Community and Elizabeth Gish

Agustinus Angkol, a traditional Tado elder and herbarium researcher, showing one of the medicinal plants he collected

Tado and Waerebo are Manggarai ethnic communities located on Flores Island in East Nusa Tenggara province, eastern Indonesia. Despite being linguistically, culturally and ecologically rich, East Nusa Tenggara is perhaps the most neglected region of Indonesia. Manggarai traditional knowledge and practices are gradually being eroded due to political, economic, cultural, and ecological pressures. Government support of individualized land ownership certificates (versus communal lands administered by a council of tribal elders) and promotion of industrialized hybrid crop varieties have nearly wiped out the traditional circular lingko fields, and led to localized and regional extinction of upland heirloom rice landraces such as rain-fed rice (mavo). The national government also promotes non-native trees as cash crops (for example, cashew, coffee, eucalyptus) over the maintenance of native tree species.

The biggest obstacles faced in sustaining the natural world, language and culture of Manggarai are: increasing population and the need for wood for new houses which puts stress on the local forests; the increased need for food that is causing land conversion from forests to agriculture; and foreign cultures coming into the community, which bring about change in the local languages and dialects. Further, widespread conversion to Catholicism is leading to the loss of nature-based rituals related to sacred trees and stone monoliths, ignorance about the plant and animal products used in the rituals, and the denial of knowledge of ceremonial practices performed during those rituals. Knowledge of the more formalized, ceremonial (adat) language is in decline. As well, economic reasons are making it more difficult to perform traditional rituals involving animal sacrifices because the price of pigs and oxen increases every year.

Increasing rarity of culturally important flora and fauna that have been over-harvested or lost due to habitat destruction or invasive species is resulting in younger Manggarai generations that lack cognizance of hundreds of species their elders were intimately familiar with. Commercialization of the traditional whip dance (caci) for Indonesian and foreign tourists disassociates a whole suite of rituals from their ancestral cultural meanings. In the past, caci was only performed on auspicious dates or for deep cultural reasons approved by the elders. Other problems contributing to the loss of cultural diversity include shame or lack of interest by younger continue reading–>

Local Knowledge and Self-Determination for Conservation: The Case of the Irular of Tamil Nadu, India

Project Contributor: C. Manjula

Irular people inhabiting the southern part of India are one of the 635 indigenous tribal communities of the country. The population of indigenous tribal peoples in India, known collectively as Adivasis (original inhabitants), is estimated to be over 84 million people. Despite these high numbers, these communities usually live on the margins of society, eking out a living by collecting subsistence materials from the forests, hunting small game and working as daily wage earners. However, alienation of people from the forests started during the British colonial period when forests came to be “properties of the government” rather than community owned. This continued through independent India. There were some attempts at addressing the injustice meted to such communities. For example, the State Forest Department was willing to come forward and work in close collaboration with such communities through NGOs and community-based organizations to reforest degraded forestland and give back some of the income accrued to the local community.

The research study “Plant Resources: Traditional Knowledge of Irulars of Northern Tamil Nadu”  was part of a doctoral program that took place from 2000-2004 at the University of Madras in India, with partial support from the Conservation Foundation, UK. The project sought to document the wealth of knowledge of Irular people in six northern districts of Tamil Nadu. The study was the continuation of a project of the Irular Tribal Women’s Welfare Society, an NGO that works with the Irular people on their plant knowledge and helps them in economic and social terms. The study documented the knowledge of 62 Irular healers, and showed that they use around 388 plant species for food and medicinal purposes. It also determined how local knowledge of plant biodiversity used for medicines, food, hunting, and ceremonial purposes acts to conserve biodiversity. The Irular healers pray to their natural environment in order to ask for forgiveness for taking or cutting the plants. They also are careful to take only what they need: if roots are needed for medicines, for example, they are very careful about collecting only the quantity necessary for treatment. As well, they make the effort to try to plant and maintain uncommon species. This conservation ethic has changed, however, due to government departments taking over the responsibility for conservation, which was traditionally the communities’ responsibility.

Two important observations made during the study point to the importance of self-determination and retaining local continue reading–>

Endangered Languages, Endangered Knowledge: Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese of India

Credit: Anvita Abbi

Project Contributor: Anvita Abbi Project Website:

Peje, an Andamanese, cutting a bamboo for making bows Credit: Anvita Abbi

The Andamanese represent the last survivors of the pre-Neolithic population of Southeast Asia. Genetic research (Thangaraj et al, 2005) indicates that the Andamanese tribes are the remnants of the first migration from Africa that took place 70,000 years ago. Of the 50 remaining Great Andamanese people who live in the Strait Island and in the city of Port Blair, in the Union Territory of the Andaman Islands of India, there are only seven terminal speakers of the Great Andamanese language, popularly known as Jero. Even these few speakers have stopped speaking the language among themselves. The present-day Great Andamanese language is a mixed variety of 3-4 languages once spoken on these islands. The project “Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese”  was funded by the Hans Rausing Endangered Language Fund under the Major Documentation Project, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, U.K. The project highlighted the need for policy to assist in the revitalization of threatened languages and cultures. Its primary objective was to obtain first-hand knowledge of the linguistic situation of the aboriginal communities, as a basis for developing an interactive tri-lingual dictionary (Hindi-English-Great Andamanese). Another important reason for undertaking this project was to confirm the hypothesis that the Great Andamanese seemed to be a language distinct from the rest of the tribal languages of the islands, implying that this could have been the sixth language family of India. This has now been confirmed and corroborated by geneticists.

The project gathered oral histories, pictures of the local habitat, audio and video recordings of the surviving speakers, as well as sociolinguistic sketches. These sketches highlight local beliefs and behaviours, indigenous names of the islands and their different locations, as well as indigenous knowledge pertaining to the biodiversity that once existed in the islands, which is stored in the lexicon. Recorded information includes the names of a large variety of crabs and fish, various words pertaining to different areas of sea shore and deep sea, uses of different kinds of leaves for hunting and gathering activities as well as for medicinal purposes, and local ecological knowledge of impending environmental disasters. A remarkable example in this regard is the perception that the Great Andamanese people had of the approaching tsunami that hit the region in 2004 and the means continue reading–>

Recording Traditional Knowledge of Biodiversity for the People’s Biodiversity Register of India

Project Contributor: Yogesh Gokhale

India is rich in biodiversity resources and the associated traditional knowledge of the properties and uses of these resources. However, the social, political, economic, technological and cultural milieu is changing rapidly, and this is significantly affecting the way in which India’s living resources are being used. Further, India is lacking in well-organized, well-substantiated, well-documented information on this knowledge. There is a steady erosion of knowledge and practices of traditional systems – knowledge and practices that still have much to offer to humanity. The challenge is how to establish a relationship of mutual respect between traditional systems and formal science and how to synthesize the knowledge and practices of these two ways of understanding. The Indian National Government considers it imperative that traditional systems of information on biodiversity and associated knowledge be documented in order to protect the interests of the “ecosystem people” of India: people who have played a vital role in conserving the country’s biodiversity, in augmenting it by developing thousands of varieties of cultivated plants and domesticated animals, and in developing a vast body of knowledge about their sustainable use (Gadgil 2002).

This kind of system is now under development through the National Biological Diversity Act of India (2002), which mandates that local knowledge of biodiversity be registered in a national database, called the People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR). The register is filling the need for the documentation and organization of oral and traditional knowledge that people choose to disclose, in addition to local innovation, all of which often goes unrecorded. There is little ground-level understanding of the various processes involved, and the PBR is designed to generate such an information base. Local knowledge that is being registered includes utilitarian uses of biodiversity such as for food, fodder, firewood, medicines used in the Ayurveda traditional medicinal system of India, as well as knowledge of traditional conservation practices such as sacred groves and sacred water bodies. In the latter case, the sacred areas that are set aside are acknowledged by the national government of India and are given recognition as heritage sites. The register also includes local peoples’ perceptions of ongoing and desired patterns of biodiversity management. Other legislation, such as the system of Panchayati Raj for the decentralization of administration and ecosystem management, gives special attention to local traditions and allows for the local-level implementation of India’s biocultural policy in a coordinated effort at implementation continue reading–>