Ancient ecological knowledge

The importance of cultural knowledge for conservation

Mark Hendricks, Science & Technology Editor Ω

Prasit Wangpakapattanawong gave a guest lecture on native ecological practices in Thailand at TRU on Wednesday March 12. Mark Hendricks/The Omega

Prasit Wangpakapattanawong gave a guest lecture on native ecological practices in Thailand at TRU on Wednesday March 12. Mark Hendricks/The Omega

It’s often thought that newer is better. We tend to favour modern science over ancient traditions, assuming that modern knowledge is superior. However, there is growing acceptance within the scientific community of the scientific relevance of the ecological knowledge of those who live so closely with the environment.

On Wednesday, March 11, as part of the International Days festivities, guest lecturer Prasit Wangpakapattanawong from Chiang Mai University in Thailand spoke about his research into native ecological practices in Thailand and the importance of this knowledge.

“Ethnobotany is not new, but it is becoming much more scientifically accepted,” Wangpakapattanawong said. “Anything to do with how local people use their plants, including food, medicine, fuel, construction and ceremony.”

Wangpakapattanawong is interested in native ecology because he thinks that it is possible to incorporate native ecological knowledge into western conservation practices.

Throughout his lecture, Wangpakapattanawong made numerous references to the First Nations people of Canada, comparing their traditional ecological knowledge to the ethnic groups in Northern Thailand.

“It doesn’t matter where we are in the world,” said Wangpakapattanawong with regards to the First Nations of Canada. “If the people live so close to nature, they know how to utilize it.”

Wangpakapattanawong found that despite the different ethnic groups that make up northern Thailand, those living in the same ecological areas adopt very similar ecological practices despite their cultural differences.

The traditional groups in Northern Thailand use a large variety of plants. For example, the Hmong women use 79 plants for female health in a wide variety of categories such as abdominal pain and fertility.

Despite this traditional knowledge, Wangpakapattanawong’s research found that many of the traditional practices are dying out. In his research he has found that each successive generation possesses less knowledge of the beneficial uses of local plants than the previous generation.

Wangpakapattanawong blames the decline in traditional ecological knowledge on the fact that young people are leaving the mountain villages. According to the villagers Wangpakapattanawong spoke to, the young generations aren’t interested in learning the old ways and thus we’re seeing knowledge degradation over the generations.

“The kids from the mountain villages are moving to the city and doing the jobs that we think are hard, working at gas stations and such,” Wangpakapattanawong said. “They don’t think of these jobs as hard because they know the mountain is where the real hard work is.”