Preserving Traditional Knowledge in Drylands

Drylands are home to some of the most widely recognized indigenous groups in the world. The Masaii, Bedouin and Berbers, amongst others, have been immortalized in many popular books and films. Many indigenous groups in drylands have retained specialized traditional knowledge and a close association with biodiversity resources.
Dryland species, such as lions, figure strongly in traditional cultural practices such as rites of passage.
About 70% of the traditionally used wild plants in North Africa have potential economic value.
Seeds from the senna plant (Cassia italica) have long been used in the Middle East as a laxative.
Milkweed (Calotropis procera) has traditionally been used to fill hollow teeth, produce charcoal, and heal rheumatism.

Traditional knowledge is widely employed in drylands where water scarcity, poor soil conditions, and frequent drought present unique challenges to local livelihoods. Even today many dryland management techniques are based on centuries-old traditions. The irrigation of agricultural land in the Sahara, for example, is based on a water collection and distribution process first employed in 800 B.C.
Traditional nomadic livelihoods in drylands typically blend herding with hunting and gathering and small-scale agriculture.
More sedentary oasis communities in desert regions have long relied on date and olive crops and the grazing of small livestock.
Common property and access regimes are more common in drylands than in any other ecosystem.

Traditional knowledge of drylands is, however, coming under threat as government incentives and land laws can act as perverse incentives against their propagation. Furthermore, as populations continue to increase in dryland areas previously sustainable management practices become unsustainable.

In recognition of the value of traditional knowledge to the conservation and sustainable use of drylands biodiversity a number of Governments are stepping up efforts to preserve this valuable information.
The Government of Uganda has developed an indigenous knowledge management plan.
Burkina Faso, Malawi, Kenya and Tanzania are launching processes to develop similar plans.

In Shinyanga, one of Tanzania's poorest and driest regions, land degradation resulted in a decline of harvest and income for the Sukuma people who have cultivated the land for centuries.  The Shinyanga Soil Conservation Programme, otherwise known as the HASHI project, based its efforts to restore the land on reviving ngitilis, natural resource enclosures based on the indigenous land management system.  Ngitili was originally developed by the Sukuma people in response to acute animal feed shortages caused by droughts, the loss of grazing land to crops, and declining land productivity.  To restore ngitili, local populations used residual natural seed and root stock, and trees were planted around homesteads.  Trees were also planted on field boundaries and farm perimeters, improving soil fertility while providing firewood.    The benefits of ngitili restoration are undeniable:
The cash value benefits derived from ngitili in Shinyanga were estimated to be US$14 per person per month - the average monthly spending per person in rural Tanzania is US$8.50.
Maintaining ngitili has enabled some villagers - mainly through sales of timber and other wood products - to pay school fees, purchase new farm equipment, and hire agricultural labor.
Income generated by communal ngitili has been used to build classrooms, village offices, and healthcare centers.
In 1986, approximately 600 ha in Shinyanga were under the ngitili land management system.  By the late 1990s, ngitili covered approximately 78,000 ha.

  • United Nations
  • United Nations Environment Programme