By Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss and Rachel Wynberg

Members of the Seed and Knowledge Initiative (SKI) team had the privilege of attending the 14th Congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) in Bhutan from 1 to 7 June 2014, and participating in an exchange hosted by Bhutan’s National Biodiversity Centre.

Four representatives from the different SKI partners undertook the visit to Bhutan: Rachel Wynberg from the University of Cape Town; Lawrence Mkhaliphi from Biowatch; Mashudu Takalani from the Mupo Foundation; and the SKI coordinator, Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss. The trip was financially supported by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation office in Pretoria together with South Africa’s National Research Foundation. Overall, the aim was to promote global cooperation on issues of biodiversity, knowledge systems and climate change, through presenting our work and linking in with others doing similar work.

ISE is one of the few forums where it is possible for scientists, activists and indigenous people to engage in a meaningful way and to shift the paradigms and assumptions necessary to bring about change. “Chi Nor Zom Bu Ling”, meaning One Earth for All: Regenerating Biocultural Ecosystem Resilience was the theme of the Congress, which was hosted by the Bhutanese Ministry of Agriculture and the Ugyen Wangchuck Institute for Conservation and Environment (UWICE). UWICE is based at the King’s former palace, which was also the rather splendid venue for the conference, located just outside the town of Jakar in Bumthang district.


The venue for the 14th Congress of the International Society for Ethnobiology, at UWICE-Bumthang

The Congress statistics were impressive, especially so given the remoteness of the venue: 485 participants attended, from 57 countries, including 90 Bhutanese. In total there were 241 presentations, ranging from sessions on indigenous knowledge and climate change through to those on food sovereignty, sacred sites, access and benefit sharing, and revitalising cultures in the post-Soviet space of Central Asia. Inspiring inputs were given by several indigenous peoples, including ISE Field Fellow Benki Piyãko Ashaninka, a widely-known and respected Ashaninka leader from the Brazilian Amazon who has been at the forefront of his people’s struggle for their ethnic and territorial rights and the preservation of their forest. It is clear that there are many similar struggles all over the world and the conference highlighted the importance of finding and linking in with these struggles towards changing the narrative on a local and global level.
Our own session on Reviving agricultural traditional knowledge systems to support diversity and resilience had excellent participation with lively debates that were positive and engaging. Four presentations were given:

  • Seed and knowledge systems in Southern Africa: A story of undermining, loss and revival. Elfrieda Pschorn-Strauss, SKI coordination
  • Reviving and adapting traditional agricultural knowledge in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Lawrence Mkhaliphi, Biowatch
  • Mupo Foundation: Eco-mapping as a tool to revive knowledge, sacred sites and seeds. Takalani Mashudu, the Mupo Foundation
  • Beyond the Ivory Tower: Policy and community engagement to revive and strengthen traditional knowledge and agrobiodiversity. Assoc Prof Rachel Wynberg, University of Cape Town

Bhutan lunch

Rachel Wynberg and Mashudu Takalani having lunch with the Bhutanese Minister of Agriculture, His Excellency Lyonpo Yeshey Dorji and Ken Wilson of the Christensen Fund

After the Congress we continued our journey through the magnificent landscapes of Bhutan, arranged through SEARICE, an NGO based in the Philippines, and the National Biodiversity Centre (NBC). Ugyen Phintsho and Rinchen Dorji of the NBC took us to meet farmers of the Yungsebi community in the Dagana District, in the south of Bhutan, where we discussed changes in agricultural practices, the loss of traditional cultures and the impacts of government legislation to restrict the use of forests. Although 90% of farmers in Bhutan save their own seed, farmers have suffered significant loss of agrodiversity and the NBC is introducing open-pollinated varieties in an effort to increase on-farm diversity.
Bhutan as a country captivated us in many ways. As we wound our way along treacherous mountain passes, we were astounded by the diversity and range of habitats, from the snow-capped Alpine peaks of the Himalayas to low conifer and broadleaf tropical forests. Ancient and beautiful architecture in the most remote of settings defies all logic. The environment is very challenging, but people have a remarkable ability to make the best of their resources without destroying them. Nature is considered sacred, and this respect is clearly felt in practice and law, with a Constitutional provision protecting 60% of the country’s remarkable forests. Progress is measured not by material wealth but by an alternative metric of “Gross National Happiness”.
At the same time, this tiny mountainous country is clearly in transition, squeezed as it is between two super-powers, India and China, both eyeing its natural resources and, in the case of India, drawing significantly on the hydro-energy generated by Bhutan. Visiting Bhutan was a privilege. It was wonderful to experience the warmth and generosity of its people and to participate in their social life. Their deep spirituality, their sense of humanity and of valuing people, environment and the sacred, impressed and inspired us.