Nepalese woman in front of shelves filled with jars of various seeds.

The Purkot community seed bank (Nepal) conserves 136 local varieties of 43 cultivated plant species. It produces 20 tonnes of enhanced-variety seeds for farmers, and sells them locally.

© Pitambar Shrestha/LI-BIRD

Preserving local and indigenous knowledge to protect biodiversity

Updated 05.10.2023

In an unprecedented context of declining biodiversity, a team of scientists has just published a paper calling for the preservation of local and indigenous knowledge of biodiversity, alongside that of plants.

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According to the latest global assessment report on biodiversity, published in 2019 by the IPBES (Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services), biodiversity has never been in such poor health. 75% of land surfaces have been altered significantly, while 85% of wet areas have disappeared, etc. A team of experts including botanists, ecologists and ethno-biologists published an op-ed highlighting a little-known aspect of biodiversity protection, i.e. the importance of local and indigenous plant knowledge. “The keepers of this know-how have vast knowledge of plants, their ecology and harvesting, as well as how to prepare, use, store, germinate and plant them. They represent a living memory of both farmed and wild plants”, says Irene Teixidor-Toneu, IRD ethno-ecologist at the Mediterranean Institute of Marine and Terrestrial Biodiversity and Ecology (IMBE) in Marseille.

Local knowledge under threat

Despite their advanced knowledge, these experts are rarely associated with the ex-situ seed collections in botanical gardens and gene banks currently serving to preserve biodiversity. 

Members of the Purkot community seed bank (Nepal) exchange seeds during a local festival organized by the Nepali Community Seed Banks Association (encompassing 23 banks).

© Pitambar Shrestha/LI-BIRD

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This knowledge, like biodiversity, is under threat from several angles. As it is often passed down informally and orally, it is impacted by the disappearance of language and the non-recognition of local and indigenous peoples’ rights which ultimately diminish these communities. Added to this is the pressure exerted by the seed industry, which tends to erase traditional knowledge”, the specialist points out. “It’s paradoxical, because the more we understand the threat to this local and indigenous knowledge, the more we also realise how crucial it is to the biological preservation of plants, the potential for sustainable plant use and fair distribution of genetic resources.

Concrete actions

How can we thus combine seed preservation and local and indigenous knowledge? The authors of the article list seven actions to foster this co-preservation. One suggestion is to facilitate access to genetic material, for example via a freer movement of seeds between preservation sites and the local associations keeping these seeds alive.  “When seeds are stored in a gene bank, they remain frozen and no longer evolve. Not only are they disconnected from their associated knowledge, they also end up disconnected from the environments they once existed in, without any certainty they can be planted in future climates!” bemoans the scientist. 


Selling plants at a local market in the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley, Mexico.

© Tiziana Ulian

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Other actions include adopting policies to encourage seed exchange, an approach which many national legislations currently oppose; or storing information on local and indigenous knowledge in gene bank databases, as a way to officially recognize this knowledge and prevent its potential pillaging by companies. In order to patent a procedure for the use of a genetic resource, a company must prove that there is no precedent to this use, an aspect which is often “omitted” due to the lack of recorded data on local and indigenous knowledge. Restoring knowledge to communities, in particular those whose know-how has partially or fully disappeared, is another proposal.

Rediscovering Scottish cabbage and Mexican functional food

Up-and-running initiatives are already demonstrating the feasibility of these actions. 

A seed technician and local community member gathering useful plants in San Rafael, Coxcatlán, as part of the MGU-Useful Plants project in Mexico.

© Tiziana Ulian

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KVANN is a Norwegian association which promotes seed exchange. They set out to find easy-to-grow seeds adapted to northern climates, and discovered Shetland kale (Scotland). The association managed to reconstitute the growing techniques for this cabbage thanks to historical, archaeological and ethnographic resources, despite the fact that this knowledge was no longer put to use. Their efforts helped to “revive” this ancient cabbage, and the knowledge surrounding it is being shared once more”, Irene Teixidor-Toneu enthuses. 

On the other side of the world, in Mexico, the MGU - Useful Plants Project, coordinated by the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens (UK), helped to improve knowledge-sharing around more than 150 wild plants used as medicine and functional food in the Tehuacán-Cuicatlán Valley. These plants are now being grown by local inhabitants or in school gardens, thus helping to preserve and transmit knowledge of their cultivation, properties and use to the widest audience possible. “These initiatives are encouraging, but we need them to become mainstream. This is the whole aim of our article; to encourage and facilitate their widescale development”, the researcher concludes.