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Expert and Generalist Local Knowledge about Land-cover Change on South Africa’s Wild Coast: Can Local Ecological Knowledge Add Value to Science?

Nigel Chalmers, Rhodes University, South Africa
Christo Fabricius, Rhodes University, South Africa


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Local ecological knowledge (LEK) can shed light on ecosystem change, especially in under-researched areas such as South Africa’s Wild Coast. However, for ecosystem planning purposes, it is necessary to assess the accuracy and validity of LEK, and determine where such knowledge is situated in a community, and how evenly it is spread. Furthermore, it is relevant to ask: does LEK add value to science, and how do science and local knowledge complement one another? We assessed change in woodland and forest cover in the Nqabara Administrative Area on South Africa’s Wild Coast between 1974 and 2001. The inhabitants of Nqabara are “traditional” Xhosa-speaking people who are highly dependent on natural resources for their livelihoods. More recently, however, infrastructural development has influenced traditional lifestyles at Nqabara, although poverty remains high and formal education levels low. We assessed LEK about changes in woodland and forest cover over the past 30 years by interviewing 11 local “experts,” who were recognized as such by the Nqabara community, and 40 senior members of randomly selected households in each village. We also analyzed land-cover change, using orthorectified aerial photos taken in 1974 and 2001. Forest and woodland cover had increased by 49% between 1974 and 2001. The 11 “experts” had a nuanced understanding of these changes and their causes. Their understanding was not only remarkably consistent with that of scientists, but it added considerable value to scientific understanding of the ultimate causes of land-cover change in the area. The experts listed combinations of several causal factors, operating at different spatial and temporal scales. The 40 randomly selected respondents also knew that forest and woodland cover had increased, but their understanding of the causes, and the role of fire in particular, was somewhat simplistic. They could identify only three causal factors and generally listed single factors rather than the combinations of factors listed by the experts. In some instances, their understanding even appeared to be seriously flawed. In contemporary Xhosa society, ecological knowledge is unevenly spread and held by individuals rather than by groups. Therefore, it is important to work with experts rather than randomly selected individuals in ecological studies that incorporate local knowledge. Expert local knowledge adds value to science by providing detailed insights into the ultimate causes of change, and by contributing a rare historical perspective. Scientists add value to local knowledge through their ability to study and predict obscure processes such as the impact of atmospheric change on vegetation. Scientists must, however, acknowledge that positivist studies that compare local knowledge to science are fraught with ethical and methodological challenges. Certain aspects of local knowledge, particularly in terms of fire, are sacred and do not have the same origins as Western science. Local knowledge and science can complement one another, but we advise against integrating them in a way that co-opts local knowledge for scientific purposes.

Key words

cultivation; fire; GIS; land-cover change; landscape ecology; local ecological knowledge; politics; scientific knowledge; vegetation

Copyright © 2007 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article  is under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.  You may share and adapt the work for noncommercial purposes provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087