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Harnessing indigenous knowledge for the benefit of all

By Tania Moyikwa, Master’s Student, UCT
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In our quest for understanding how the spaces we live in function, how we impact upon them and how they change over time, long-term monitoring of our environment remains a key piece in the puzzle.

Acquisition of environmental and social knowledge is beneficial in the planning of managerial procedures for the environment. There are several ways to acquire knowledge, which include observations or learning through experience.

Science is one example of an epistemology, while belief is another. Often, science is regarded as more valid and factual whilst other epistemologies are deemed more fictional or anecdotal.

In working with people and the environment it is important to consider as many different epistemologies as possible and recognise them in efforts to come up with effective managerial procedures. This would also be valuable in making sure conflicts around environmental issues are kept minimal and that the capacity to adapt to environmental change is maximised.


Tania Moyikwa at an abalone farm in Doring Bay

Environmental impacts on fishing communities

My interest is in fishing communities and the changes in the marine ecosystems they depend on. Our marine resources are under considerable pressure. On the one hand we have climate change, a global reality, while on the other we have economic development, population pressure and over-fishing.

These stressors, acting in combination, can have a significant negative impact on our natural resources. To try to limit and understand the impacts, we need to better understand the environment and the people who rely on its resources.

From a science point of view, there are numerous instruments that can be used to collect data which inform us about the status of our environment. Most of the sophisticated equipment used to collect data, such as satellites, are relatively new, thus historical data can be lacking. This makes it difficult to identify long-term trends and possible changes in the environment that can be traced to climate change.

Tapping into indigenous knowledge

Humans have been around for a very long time (compared to the new scientific equipment) and they have experienced environmental changes, which can be a source of knowledge for researchers. With my Master’s project I aim to promote indigenous knowledge as a valid epistemology around climate change subjects, and local people as observers of this change.

An initial step towards completing this project has been to have a meaningful conversation with local long-term fishers around climate change and environmental changes they or their forefathers might have observed. I engaged with fishermen and -women from three coastal communities based on the west coast and four communities from the east coast for a period of three days (7-9 March 2017).

The fishers showed an impressive understanding of how these two regions differ in terms of water properties and the ecosystems found in them. They are also aware of seasonal changes. Many of the wind patterns they described and how they are changing agree with most literature sources based on scientific evidence.


Eastern Cape fishers are trained to use the ABALOBI App in Lamberts Bay

Indigenous knowledge meets technology

It is so that a human mind can only remember so much and possibly has some bias in memory. To limit this, an app called ABALOBI has been introduced to the fishers. This app allows them to keep online data such as fish catches, weather and fishing-related finances, helping to preserve this valuable information.

The take-away message here is that indigenous knowledge has a very high potential to be incorporated in climatic or ecological studies to complement or fill in some gaps science might have. This would be instrumental in driving ‘bottom up’ management, especially in coastal areas.

I am very excited to dive deep into the subject and learn more about long-term monitoring from different epistemologies.

Tania is carrying out her Master’s research in the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science at the University of Cape Town, under the supervision of Serge Raemaekers, Laura Blamey, Ross Blamey and Juliet Hermes, Manager of SAEON’s Egagasini Node. She has been collaborating with SAEON since being part of its education programme six years ago.

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