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Rahul Goswami : the intangible cultural heritage in our changing world

26 November 2015


Rahul Goswami, dans le Tamil Nadu, Inde.
Rahul Goswami, dans le Tamil Nadu, Inde.
Photo: V. Kermani

The sacred groves in the district of Pathanamthitta, un southern India, are a meeting area for tradition and modernity. Protected by ancestral rules and customs, they are now havens of biodiversity. When intangible cultural heritage gets together with social and political willingness, the benefits are apparent.


‘Indigenous, local, and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change,’ according to the 2014 Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This clearly indicates that the formal earth sciences have learned to look with a new respect at their very much older forebear – cultural heritage with all its expressions, knowledge systems and methods of safeguarding.

 ‘Vulnerability under conditions of environmental change’ and ‘adaptation limits’ - environmental, political, and sociocultural - have been of much interest and concern to the authors of this Report. When these adaptation limits are crossed, communities and settlements suffer. And so, in order to avoid crossing the line, they need to be recognized early enough. This is a role that local communities can easily assume, provided there is social willingness and political support. Yet all too often, traditional knowledge is overlooked by administrative mechanisms.

The IPCC scientists consider that traditional knowledge ‘has not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts’ and that ‘integrating such forms of knowledge with existing practices increases the effectiveness of adaptation.’

Academic circles talk about ‘mitigation’ and ‘adaptation’, words and concepts that can scarcely be rendered in the languages and dialects spoken by the bearers of intangible cultural heritage and the holders of traditional knowledge. What is known on the ground is the realization that the rate of change is reaching at times beyond the capacities of communities, the strength of their intangible cultural heritage and the depth of their local knowledge.

Yet it is not climate change alone that is the villain, for the effects that endanger communities are practically always the amplification by a changing climate of existing environmental degradation, over-exploitation of a natural resources base, urban and industrial encroachment into ecological commons that have long survived because of the cautious thriftiness of its human stewards.

In the Indian Himalayan region, I was told by Vaneet Jishtu, taxonomist and conservationist, the profusion of medicinal herbs that are used in Ayurvedic traditional formulations was rich until the turn of the 19th century. He is growing a group of eight of these herbs, which together form the basis for a popular immunity-boosting elixir called chyawanprash, for not only has their occurrence in the hills dwindled precipitously, local communities have begun to lose the ability to recognize them in the wild.

In this case, climate change is forcing the herbs to shift to more congenial altitudes in the hills, but at the same time they are facing hitherto unseen competition in forest undergrowth and meadows from new plant species, a shrinking of their habitat because of expanding settlements and infrastructure projects, and finally over-exploitation of these species by commercial manufacturers of Ayurvedic medicines.

Local potential for problem solving

In coastal zones, especially in countries that are either experiencing or aspire to high economic growth rates, the competition for land involves communities that have used such land with care, urban and peri-urban settlements that are expanding and industry.

These communities have almost always included fisherfolk, whose knowledge of the ways of water is unparalleled. It is in the use of littoral land that their intangible cultural heritage lies, for theirs is an understanding of the means with which to live with an ocean’s gifts but also with its ferocity.


Pêcheur au Sri Lanka.
Pêcheur au Sri Lanka.
© Ourplace

Hence they are coastal engineers too, for between their settlements and the sea always lay a variegated buffer of fields, bunds, protective vegetation on dunes, sandy dunes, mangroves where there is no sandy verge, mud flats and reed marshes. All these features were maintained by coastal villages, each in its own fashion, and together they formed a coastal defence that absorbed the cyclonic tidal surges and the powerful winds.

Let's take the example of the Buginese, in Indonesia, whose intergenerationally transmitted knowledge of the marine ecosystem is extensive. Their complex arts of navigation and the piloting of fishing and trading vessels have developed synchronously with a detailed coastal terminology.

The specific vocabulary used by the Buginese for features such as the vegetated border above the beach, the inner reef, a reef with sea grasses, a reef with corals, the reef crest, the outer reef, patches of corals less than about 10 metres deep, patches of corals over about 10 metres deep, and so on is an extension of the dense intangible cultural heritage and traditional knowledge concerning the use of these features, or their importance in daily and seasonal life.

The ability of populations to marshal the resilience needed to adapt on their own terms rests upon languages through which bodies of knowledge and streams of learning emerge – the very names of natural cycles, of medicinal or agricultural preparations, of the qualities of water or the sequence of spiritual observances. This is an extraordinary linguistic diversity that we must help safeguard.

There were, not two generations ago, more words for ‘forest’ than there were dialects in South and South-East Asia. How many survive? When they do, so do the means to live sustainably, with a light footprint, alongside climate change

The traditional supporting the modern

Local potential for problem-solving, which rests upon the application of methods rooted in intangible cultural heritage can support modern resource management.

According to Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho, of the Haburas Foundation in Timor-Leste, traditional ecological knowledge can support modern marine and coastal resource management. ‘However, the way in which natural resource managers indoctrinated with scientific knowledge incorporate local knowledge, to improve and strengthen management systems, must be based on an understanding of circumstances (why is local knowledge the way it is?) and also whether people (the community) choose to follow or submit to the guidance of local knowledge,’ he says. ‘If this is not done, the process that they believe will strengthen natural resource management will actually become processes for the destruction of the intangible cultural heritage and create conflict within communities.’

When sacred places play a profane role

In the district of Pathanamthitta, in the state of Kerala (south India), several sacred groves are revered by the residents of the villages along the River Pamba, whose source lies high up in the Western Ghats.

When this verdant and water-rich district of south India is hit by the effects of a changing climate (in which monsoonal variations become more volatile, rainy spells more intense and dry ones more frequent), its storehouses of communally-maintained biodiversity are invaluable.


Nilgiri Tahr, Ghâts occidentaux
Nilgiri Tahr, Ghâts occidentaux
© S. Thangaraj Panner Selvam

They harbour medicinal plants essential to village communities for their treatment of illnesses, they also contain wild relatives of crop species that can help to improve cultivated varieties, and many sacred groves include water resources such as ponds and streams upon whose flow cultivation (large tracts of paddy downstream in Kerala) depends.

‘Here we maintained sacred areas of forest and established rules and customs to ensure their protection,’ explains Kummanam Rajasekhar, a social activist who has successfully led a public movement to protect the wetlands of the district. ‘These rules prohibit the felling of trees, the collection of any material from the forest floor, and the killing of all animals. Because of these protective restrictions, faithfully followed over generations, our sacred groves are now havens of biodiversity.’

In-depth indigenous observations

Coping with the effects of climate change is a daunting challenge, just as much as confronting the effects of destructive change such as resource extraction, over-exploitation of biodiversity, and the conversion of commons into settlement. Societies that harbour intangible cultural heritage and traditional knowledge are also those in which knowledge is regarded in ways that differ fundamentally from the scientific norm: over the seasons each practitioner learns more about insects, animals, soil types, weather patterns and myriad natural aspects as a profound systems-based understanding of the world in which people appreciate their own place within the environment.

In domains such as traditional medicine, forestry, the conservation of biodiversity and the protection of wetlands, it is intangible cultural heritage 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 depth in their observations.

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.

Rahul Goswami

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R. Goswami (India) is an expert on rural development and agro-ecological practices, sustainable development and intangible cultural heritage. He works in particular on encouragement of multi-disciplinary study of contemporary livelihoods and sustainability issues.

The full version of this article is available in World Heritage, n° 77 – October 2015