In a new study from Doñana, the largest wetland in Spain, the importance of traditional ecological knowledge and religious faith in building resilience to environmental extremes has been assessed. Photo: Dubas/Flickr

Adaptation to crises

Lend an ear to the past

How diminishing traditional knowledge may compromise capacity to deal with crises

Its been proven before that memoires of the past can be a good friend of a troubled present. For instance, previous research has shown how allotment gardens have often been sources of local resilience during periods of crisis.

A Spanish wetland haven
In a new study led by researchers from Spain, the importance of traditional ecological knowledge and religious faith in building resilience to environmental extremes has been assessed.
"In contemporary industrial societies, technology is often applied to improve stability and consistency in response to shocks. In smaller, less technologically focused societies, responses are often based on adaptive strategies that are developed over generations," says co-author Per Olsson.

Olsson and his colleagues conducted their study in Doñana, the largest wetland in Spain. With more than 174,000 inhabitants, the land is not only well preserved but also highly diverse in ecosystems. That makes it a haven for ecologists, but little research has been done on the historical records of how the Doñana inhabitants have coped with heavy storms, drought, earthquakes and other natural challenges.

In Donana, because modern technology was largely absent until the 1960s, traditional knowledge is believed to have played a central role in developing a diversity of responses to environmental crises. Documented examples include stock breeders who coped with flooding and farmers and hunters who secured access to water and food during droughts.

By interviewing staff from local councils, management agencies and historical archives, the researchers managed to reconstruct collective responses to environmental extremes. They also went through historical records of religious ceremonies all the way back to 1577.

Lady on the vain
Central to the local belief system was the icon known as 'Our Lady of the Dew' (Virgen del Rocio). Venerated since 1280 for her believed power to protect from environmental calamities, the locals have since the 16th century organised ceremonies to pray for her assistance. These ceremonies were particularly important in the face of extreme hazards like earthquakes, floods, pests or prolonged drought. 

But traditional knowledge is diminishing and so is the faith in the Lady too. While shrinking pockets of knowledge persist, their influence is limited. The way in which this change might have affected the social-ecological resilience of Donana is uncertain, but the community response from the last environmental catastrophe might be an indicator: in 1998, the mine spill of the Aznacollar dam released 4.5 million cubic metre of water polluted with heavy metals right into the Donana National Park.

A survey conducted after the catastrophe revealed that the mine spill did not motivate a collective action. For instance, farmers focused on obtaining individual monetary compensations rather than organising a response on community level. 

"This shows how important traditional knowledge is in building long-term social-ecological resilience of the Donana system. It also shows how such knowledge is embedded in culture and institutions. Allowing traditional knowledge and strategies to vanish may reduce adaptation options for the future," Olsson says.

An important complement
He believes that new management and governance approaches to meet environmental challenges should always lend an ear to traditional knowledge and to the cultural context.

"This knowledge is an important complement to modern science and technology attuned to local contexts," Olsson concludes.



Gòmez-Baggethun, E., et al., Traditional ecological knowledge and community resilience to
environmental extremes: A case study in Doñana, SW Spain. Global Environ. Change (2012), doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2012.02.005
Per Olsson's primary research interest is in linked social-ecological system dynamics and resilience. He has worked extensively in the field of ecosystems management and also has eight years of field work in Sweden, Belize and Australia.


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