Tribal peoples have an unparalleled understanding of their environment, which is key to the sustainable agriculture and lifestyles which they have pursued for generations. But with climate change, weather patterns and ecosystems face disruption. Could traditional tribal knowledge, of such huge potential value for sustainable living, be made obsolete by global warming? Unpublished, 18 November 1998.
Modern, large-scale, high-input, market-oriented agriculture cannot conceivably feed the world. Only low-input small-scale, subsistence agriculture, based on traditional knowledge and practices, can conceivably do so, and we have been at pains to point this out in the pages of The Ecologist for nearly 29 years.
One important reason is that traditional agricultural practices are based on detailed knowledge, accumulated over centuries and in some cases over millennia. Such knowledge is based on a remarkable understanding of natural phenomena which, as Madhu Ramnath  notes, can only come “from a lifestyle which has a direct day-to-day contact with its surroundings”.
This knowledge enables tribals in the forests of central India to know exactly when key seasonal events, which play a critical role in their agricultural activities, are likely to occur. Thus they can predict the onset of the annual monsoon when black ants begin to appear in long winding rows from cracks in the ground, when the goborliti birds begin to migrate away from the forest, when certain plants like the kadoma and the thummi which has a root like that of turmeric, begin to flower, and the kenil red ants, which build their nests in the folds of green leaves of certain trees, stop laying their eggs. The tribals can even tell which stage of the monsoon is in progress because they know that certain mushrooms which appear during the wet season do so in a very specific order, and they know how the order relates to the different stages of the monsoon.
This knowledge also enables the tribals to predict and interpret the nature of slight diversions from the norm. In 1987, for instance, the monsoon was an abnormal one and the plants and animals deviated from their usual patterns of behaviour. Thus the manai mushroom, which normally appears at the end of the monsoon, was seen in the first days of September. The wild boars that normally dig up the thick roots of the thummi plant, after the monsoons, dug them up and ate them well before the rains ended. Nests of the kenil red ants with eggs and young ones continued to be found as late as August, and the goborliti bird prematurely returned to the forests in the first days of September.
For the tribals, ants, mushrooms and boars, as Madhu Ramnath notes “are not just food to be gathered and hunted; they are also the guides and calendars of the forest”. As he tells us, “Their behaviour tells the people when to plough their land and whether their grain should be sown on sloping ground or flat ground”, and a host of other things too.
However, this invaluable knowledge is of use only if the diversions from the climatic norm occur within certain limits, which so far they have. Indeed meteorological reports show that over the last century the date of the onset of the monsoon has diverted by little more than seven days from the norm.
With global warming the deviations are likely to get very much bigger. The nature of the monsoon too is likely to change – possibly dramatically – which will impose correspondingly dramatic changes on the behaviour of the “guides and calendars of the forests”, and if global warming continues – which it will do unless very radical action is taken now – this behaviour will become increasingly unpredictable. In other words, global warming will make all this traditional knowledge totally irrelevant as it will the highly sophisticated farming practices that it has made possible, and that, as already mentioned, are in general the only ones that can feed the rural masses of the Third World.
It is worth noting that there is no effective substitute for this extraordinary knowledge. As Madhu Ramnath reminds us, even with today’s super computers, scientists are incapable of understanding the wind and temperature conditions over the oceans that will determine exactly when the monsoons will occur, and even if they could, it is more than unlikely that this knowledge would be made readily accessible to the tribal peoples whose very existence depends on their ability to remain outside the orbit of the formal economy.
 Madhu Ramnath, “Predicting the Monsoon: Modern Science Versus Traditional Wisdom”, The Ecologist Vol. 18 No. 6, 1988. Madhu Ramnath spent a number of months each year and for many years, living with a group of Derva Gonds in the forests of Baster – on the border between Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. He was eventually accepted as a member of this social group.Back to top