Indigenous knowledge settles question of a Bornean tree species: Study

Indigenous knowledge settles question of a Bornean tree species: Study

  • Awareness that much of the world’s biodiversity exists in lands and seas stewarded by Indigenous people and local communities has led scientists to reconsider the value of the knowledge systems that have achieved such successful results.
  • But when it comes to species taxonomy, scientists often overlook the deep understanding of species relationships held within Indigenous knowledge systems.
  • A new study from Malaysian Borneo found that two trees long recognized as distinct types by Indigenous Iban and Dusun communities, but classified as one species by Western taxonomists, are in fact genetically distinct species.
  • The researchers recommend that scientists engage more often with IPLCs, especially in tropical biodiversity hotspots, and that Indigenous and local knowledge be recognized as complementary to modern science.

When plant systematist Elliot Gardner first began collecting samples of a fruit-bearing tree in Malaysian Borneo, he thought he was looking at just one species. Western taxonomists had long considered both the cultivated and wild types of Artocarpus odoratissimus, a close relative of breadfruit and jackfruit, as a single species. But time and again, Indigenous Iban and Dusun field botanists told him they recognized the two types as completely separate species.

In a new study published in Current Biology, Gardner and his Indigenous and academic colleagues from Malaysia, the US, and Europe analyzed DNA samples from the two types of tree growing in Malaysian Borneo and from herbarium specimens. The results of their genetic tests confirm that the trees are indeed two distinct species.

The finding is the latest in a growing body of research that demonstrates the value of Indigenous and local knowledge to conservation science and sustainable land management.

Artocarpus odoratissimus
The fruit of the tree known to the Iban as lumok (Artocarpus odoratissimus) are large and juicy, similar to jackfruit. Image by Elliot Gardner

According to Gardner, from Florida International University and lead author of the study, the fact that Iban and Dusun Indigenous knowledge-derived classification of the trees was more accurate than Linnean taxonomy emphasizes how Indigenous knowledge holds key insights and should be recognized as complementary to modern science.

“The two kinds of knowledge can really complement one another if you have equal engagement,” Gardner told Mongabay. “Scientific taxonomy brings a broad, synthetic approach so that we can make sense of plants [across different countries] within the same system, and local knowledge brings a really intimate familiarity with the local plants.”

Iban people in Malaysia’s Sarawak state have long recognized the separate species as lumok, a robust, widely cultivated tree that produces juicy, tasty fruit; and a slender forest tree, known as pingan, that yields smaller, typically hairier fruits. Dusun people in Sabah state recognize the same two types, respectively naming them timadang and tonggom-onggom

The researchers recommend retaining the species name A. odoratissimus for the cultivated tree and naming the wild-growing tree A. mutabilis after a name put forth by Italian botanist Odoarto Beccari more than a century ago. While Gardner said it would be fitting to adapt one of the Indigenous names into the new scientific name, current nomenclature rules preclude that possibility in this particular case.

Iban field botanist
Jugah anak Tagi, a co-author of the study and Iban field botanist wearing a hat made from bark-cloth from an Artocarpus species. Image by Aida Shafreena Ahmad Puad

Beyond scientific value

Victoria Reyes-García, a research professor at the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies and the Autonomous University of Barcelona, ​​said the new study demonstrates the value of Indigenous and local knowledge (ILK) systems, but cautioned against valuing ILK only for what it contributes to science and conservation. Such an approach, she said, risks missing opportunities for meaningful engagement with Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs) that empowers them to establish conservation priorities on their own terms.

“Real engagement with indigenous knowledge holders requires not only considering and valuing their knowledge, but also considering and valuing their priorities on nature stewardship, including recognizing their right to manage their territories and resources,” said Reyes-García, who was not involved in the study.

Much of the world’s biodiversity exists in lands and seas that are traditionally owned, managed and used by IPLCs. Indigenous lands account for around one-fifth of Earth’s land area, yet they’re home to roughly 80% of the world’s biodiversity, according to a 2008 World Bank report. Moreover, a 2020 study found that at least 36% of the world’s remaining intact forest landscapes are found within Indigenous customary territories.

“This finding is making many scientists reconsider the value of the knowledge systems that have been able to maintain such biodiversity,” Reyes-García said.

As members of the fig family, the fleshy fruits of Artocarpus odoratissimus and A. mutabilis are valuable food for forest mammals like this orangutan. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay

As a result, the value of local and Indigenous knowledge is being incorporated into conservation policy initiatives such as the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Meanwhile, experts are calling for the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to better recognize IPLC rights and agency.

Beyond informing scientists on plant taxonomy, Indigenous and local knowledge has led to many positive conservation outcomes in Southeast Asia. For example, in Indonesia, Pagu and Gua communities employ sustainable fisheries and coral reef management through locally managed marine areas that are underpinned by adaptive management based on traditional knowledge. In Malaysia, Dusun communities use mixed planting and agroforestry to reduce the risk of forest fire and stabilize ground prone to landslides. In Thailand, Karen villagers, in partnership with researchers, have demonstrated the efficacy of controlled slash-and-burn agriculture for sustaining biodiversity and carbon stocks. And in Laos, K’Hmu and Puan communities have developed their own flood-monitoring systems based on their traditional knowledge.

Reyes-García said that in addition to being successful stewards of their ecosystems, IPLCs also contribute to biodiversity conservation “through their fight against activities that degrade nature.” She cited the case of Dayak people in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province asserting their rights to protect their customary forests, wetlands and rivers from palm oil expansion.

Artocarpus odoratissimus fruits
Artocarpus odoratissimus fruits for sale in a market in Malaysia. Image by Green Baron via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

No name, no action

Aida Shafreena Ahmad Puad, professor of molecular plant systematics at the University of Malaysia, Sarawak, and second author of the study, said that formally naming species and establishing their correct taxonomy is vital to ensure they don’t slip toward extinction unnoticed. “If you have two different species and you put them together in modern taxonomy, you will lose them if you are not careful,” she said. “Especially when deforestation is so rapid in this part of the world.”

“The whole global species conservation infrastructure is based on things having a name and being recognized,” Gardner said. “So if something doesn’t have its own name, it doesn’t get on species lists and it doesn’t get assessed for things like the IUCN Red List.”

Although the newly described tree species, A. mutabilis, grows in abundance in Borneo’s lowland forests, including in several national parks, and is not considered at risk of extinction, Gardner noted that its habitat is broadly threatened by oil palm expansion and other drivers of deforestation. He said that in the face of the biodiversity crisis, leveraging all forms of knowledge will give conservationists the best chance of safeguarding species.

“The more people can engage scientific knowledge with local knowledge to develop a fuller understanding of biodiversity and really make sure we’re aware of all the species we can be aware of, will only improve things,” Gardner added.

The study authors warn that just as biodiversity is under threat of climate change, Indigenous knowledge is in turn threatened by societal change. “A lot of younger people move from rural areas to urban areas for economic opportunity and there’s a lot of social change, so traditional knowledge is not necessarily being passed on in the same way,” Gardner said. He said helping communities to document their knowledge and more engagement from scientists might help to preserve and perpetuate it.

But knowledge slipping through the cracks between generations is not the only threat. In a recent study, experts raised concerns about the “pervasive and ubiquitous” erosion of knowledge due to “globalization, government policies, capitalism, colonialism, and other rapid social-ecological changes” that threaten the relationships between IPLCs and their environments.

“While ILK systems can be adaptable and resilient, the foundations of these knowledge systems are compromised by ongoing suppression, misrepresentation, appropriation, assimilation, disconnection, and destruction of biocultural heritage,” said Reyes-García, who is a co-author of the report.

She added that the report authors “call for the recognition and support of Indigenous Peoples and local communities, their knowledge systems, their languages, stewardship rights, ties to lands and waters, and the biocultural integrity of their territories — on which we all depend. ”

banner image: Lowland tropical rainforest in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Lowland forest is the main habitat of the Artocarpus trees. Image by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay


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Fa, J. E., Watson, J. E., Leiper, I., Potapov, P., Evans, T. D., Burgess, N. D., … Garnett, S. T. (2020). Importance of Indigenous Peoples’ lands for the conservation of intact forest landscapes. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment18(3), 135-140. doi:10.1002/fee.2148

Reyes-García, V., Fernández-Llamazares, Á., Aumeeruddy-Thomas, Y., Benyei, P., Bussmann, RW, Diamond, SK, … Brondizio ES (2021). Recognizing Indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights and agency in the post-2020 Biodiversity Agenda. Ambio, 51, 84-92. doi:10.1007/s13280-021-01561-7

Fernández-Llamazares, Á., Lepofsky, D., Lertzman, K., Armstrong, C. G., Brondizio, E. S., Gavin, M. C., … Vaughan, M. B. (2021). Scientists’ warning to humanity on threats to Indigenous and local knowledge systems. Journal of Ethnobiology41(2). doi:10.2993/0278-0771-41.2.144

Carolyn Cowan is a staff writer for Mongabay† Follow her on Twitter @CarolynCowan11

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Article published by Hayat

Conservation, Cryptic Species, Forests, Indigenous Communities, Indigenous Culture, Indigenous Peoples, New Species, Rainforests, Science, Species, Taxonomy, Traditional Knowledge, Tropical Forests


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