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Recognising indigenous pollination conservation practices

By Dr Ro Hill

March 12, 2019

a group of people in a forest at the base of a tree discussing and looking up
Experts sharing information walking through the landscape talking together in Thai, English and Karen, with translation. Image: Jitirapa Bumroongchai

POLLINATORS such as bees are an integral part of traditional farming of the Karen people of Hin Lad Nai in the Chiang Rai province of Thailand.

There is even a local Karen saying: “We should walk like the bees.”

Community leader Chaiprasert Phoka says: “When the bees fly, they fly better together and look after each other and the interest of the whole community of bees. They live in harmony together and increase the biodiversity in the forest with their actions, like we do.”

“Our community has been revitalizing our forest since it was heavily damaged by the logging concession in the 80s. We are requesting the government to recognize the rights of the Karen people to continue our customary and sustainable use of biodiversity.”

In 2010, the Thai Government declared the Hin Lad Nai territory a Special Cultural Zone, to recognise Karen cultural rights and ancestral territories, including Karen practices to sustain pollinators and produce valuable products such as forest honey and tea, while protecting the rich forest biodiversity.

In January, a group of indigenous pollinator experts and scientists from different parts of the world – including Panama, Myanmar, Guatemala, the Philippines, Antigua and Barbuda, New Zealand, Kenya and India – came together in Thailand in the Hin Lad Nai territory. The dialogue was convened by SwedBio and Stockholm Resilience Centre, the Indigenous organizations PASD and IMPECT, UNESCO, with in-kind contributions from CSIRO and CESD, and the Karen Indigenous community of Hin Lad Nai as critical contributor and local host.

The dialogue participants were there to hand back and discuss outcomes from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Assessment Report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production to many indigenous peoples and local communities who contributed their knowledge to the assessment, starting with a meeting in Panama five years earlier.

IPBES is the first global environmental assessment agency to bring the rich knowledge and understanding of Indigenous peoples into global biodiversity assessments. Their efforts started in 2014 at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris when a group of scientists and Indigenous pollinator experts from Guatemala, New Zealand and Australia came up with the idea of global dialogue.

Following a global call, knowledge-holders from indigenous peoples and local communities came together in Panama City, hosted by UNESCO, to share and show their knowledge about pollinators and pollen in food production.

Elmer Enrico Gonzalez Lopez summarised the views of indigenous experts: “We do not see pollination as a separate theme. Rather that everything—trees, rivers, the wind, even human beings—participates in the process. We cannot separate them.”

The Panama Dialogue was the first step in efforts to ensure Indigenous and Local Knowledge was included in the IPBES Assessment. Further literature analysis and dialogues produced a rich picture of how indigenous peoples and local communities manage and understand pollinators.

Acknowledging Indigenous knowledge

Large parts of our planet, including many high biodiversity areas, are managed by indigenous peoples.

Indigenous peoples and local communities have many unique practices to keep bees—by far the most important food pollinator—and collect honey, like the Gurung people of Nepal whose innovative rope ladder technology allows them to harvest foster bees in-situ, rather than moving them to hives.

a man on a rope ladder at a cliff face using long bamboo sticks to kmock honey combs into a basket
Gurung man collecting the Apis dorsata laboriosa honeycombs on cliffs in Nepal. Image: Andrew Newey

What’s more, their philosophies on biocultural diversity recognise the continuing co-evolution and adaptation between people and nature. This co-evolution has generated ecological knowledge, spiritual beliefs and practices across generations, such as the Wandjina-bee honey links. According to Ngariniyin artist Sandra Mungulu “Wandjinas (ancestral beings from the Dreaming, present in the landscape today) keep the countryside fresh and healthy which allows the native bees to produce high-quality Waanungga, bush honey”.

Aborignal painting showing ancestral beings and bees
‘Wandjina and Waanungga’, artist Sandra Mungulu (b. 1960), acrylic on canvas. Sandra explains “The Wandjinas (ancestral beings, present in the landscape today), keep the countryside clean for the bees to make Waanungga (honey).” © Sandra Mungulu/Copyright Agency, 2019.

These and other practices were highlighted in the Assessment.

As Elmer González, from the autonomous Indigenous territory of Guna Yala in Panama, said ats the January meeting in Thailand:

“Securing the territory and our knowledge systems is the key. It is important that both these are addressed when talking with governments about protecting biodiversity and ecosystems,” he said.

a group of people sitting on the forest floor discussing around a couple of large posters
Indigenous participants from Guatemala, Thailand and Philippines discussing some of the key messages displayed on the posters at the Hin Lad Nai walking workshop. Image: R. Hill/CSIRO

Being in the Karen community allowed participants many opportunities to link the findings of the Assessment with the local contexts and identify similarities with their own community’s work – back in places like Mexico, Africa and South America. CSIRO has now made the posters prepared for the workshop available so they can be translated into other languages and used in workshops all over the world, empowering further community action on handing-back the messages from the Assessment.

Saving the pollinators

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) Assessment Report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production showed that pollinators such as bees, birds, bats and butterflies are in decline globally, which threatens biodiversity and food production all over the world.

While the Assessment highlighted many pollinator-friendly practices of Indigenous and local communities, such as the Karen community’s home gardens, rotational cropping and fallows, it fell short of presenting a global synthesis of their holistic approaches.

Co-authors of the Assessment, scientists and indigenous experts, decided to do more work together to present this more holistic approach, and map where we know it’s happening—to give a better sense of the global scope and significance of these “biocultural approaches” to pollinator conservation. The results of this global synthesis have now been published in Nature Sustainability .

The synthesis identified seven policies that can support Indigenous peoples and local communities’ customary sustainable practices, such as recognising their territorial rights and food sovereignty.

Respecting and recognizing their rights over natural resources is essential for long-term pollinator conservation. Local community-driven conservation initiatives can be successful and should be encouraged.

As the paper concludes: “Further efforts are needed to promote and increase the exchange and integration of knowledge on pollinators and pollination between the scientific world and indigenous pollinators and local communities working towards common conservation goals.”


CSIRO’s Dr Ro Hill is a Coordinating Lead Author of the Assessment, and member of the IPBES Indigenous and Local Knowledge Expert Taskforce

Read more in Nature Sustainability

One comment on “Recognising indigenous pollination conservation practices

  1. Edgar Pérez says:

    Great insights about the recognition of indigenous practices. Great and deep changes in states policy makers must be developed. Instead of recognition, policies evolved in to a productive-sector leaving away their own people, the rural people. Karen people and their biocultural lands should be recognized by Thailand government, there are a lot of mechanisms to do it, including some cathegories of protected areas.

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