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Indigenous Ecological Wisdom Heals Fisheries

March 4, 2015

In honor of World Water Day on March 22, we are focusing on water issues this month. From marine conservation to water privatization, we are exploring how Goldman Prize winners are working to secure a sustainable future for our most precious natural resource.

When it comes to protecting vulnerable environmental sites like fisheries, rivers and wetlands, traditional indigenous knowledge plays a vital role. Today we’ll explore the work of two Goldman Prize winners who have pioneered innovative models for protecting water and other natural resources using a combination of traditional techniques and modern conservation methods.

1995 Goldman Prize winner Noah Idechong is from the island nation of Palau. Palau is an archipelago of 340 islands located in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles east of the Philippines. Approximately 700 species of coral and over 1,400 species of fish are found in Palau’s waters, making it one of the most biologically rich marine areas on earth. As a result, the region is a major global fishery, and over the years increasing demand and overfishing threatened to collapse Palau’s critical resources.

As the former chief of Palau’s Division of Marine Resources, Idechong was awarded the Prize for his work to create and successfully implement an innovative model of marine restoration that drew on ancient conservation techniques. He convinced the chiefs of Palau to reinstate age old conservation traditions known as bul. Chiefs may use bul to mandate a rest for overused fishing spots by strictly limiting the amount of fishing that can take place, giving the environment time to restore itself naturally.

Similarly, in East Timor, the ancient cultural practice of tara bandu, or acting in harmony with nature, plays an important role in resource protection.

“Tara bandu uses local knowledge of conservation and maximizes the social capital of villagers. It strengthens our community bonds, and also helps to protect the environment. For example, if a community has a lagoon – an important habitat for fish and other aquatic species – the community will protect that lagoon with tara bandu rituals for a period of time to let nature have time to restore itself… This will increase the amount of fish they have, and also distribute those resources to the whole community participating in that event,” said 2004 Goldman Prize winner Demetrio do Amaral de Carvalho in the DW article “Ancient traditions protect the environment in East Timor.”


De Carvalho acts as advisor to the state secretary for environment, and is the co-founder of Haburas, one of East Timor’s leading environmental organizations. For almost a decade, he has been at the forefront of combining traditional practices like tara bandu with government-led environmental initiatives.

In fact, he is largely credited for spearheading the progressive inclusion of four key articles in East Timor’s constitution: the right to a healthy environment; respect for traditional customary law; prioritization of sustainable development; and natural resource management.

Both Idechong and de Carvalho understand the importance of including indigenous voices and traditional knowledge in resource management plans and that indeed, most plans will fail without them:

“We must learn from the examples of neighboring countries in the Asia Pacific. Models of development that have gone wrong there should serve as lessons for us. We do not want to repeat the same mistakes.”

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