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Hommes et natures. People and natures. Seres humanos y naturalezas

Elisabeth Motte-Florac
Yildiz Aumeeruddy-Thomas
Edmond Dounias


Edmond Dounias

Texte intégral

1It now seems obvious that we need to understand how human societies interact with their ecological environment before undertaking any action for sustainable development. However, the methodological approaches developed to effectively explore these links are fairly recent: they did not reach international attention until the first Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. This summit was marked by the adoption of a crucial international treaty — the Convention on Biological Diversity — which now forms the preeminent framework for international negotiations on the major environmental issues facing the planet. This treaty enshrined the pursuit of three objectives that remain burning issues: preservation of biodiversity; sustainable development (by a careful use of biodiverse resources); and the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from the exploitation of these resources. This last point implicitly recognizes that indigenous and local communities — holders of situated knowledge and expertise concerning nature — are essential players in conservation efforts. It was not until the end of the second millennium that the legitimate claim of these peoples and communities to the biodiversity of their territories came to be recognized by most of the world’s governments.

2This hard-won recognition is, nevertheless, insufficient in and of itself: it must move to concrete involvement of indigenous people and communities in the development and implementation of public policies for environmental management. This shift from rhetoric to practice, through effective collaboration between organizations representing indigenous peoples and local communities, researchers and public authorities, is the mission that has been pursued by the International Society of Ethnobiology for nearly a quarter of century. This Society, at once scholarly and activist, strives to maintain a dialogue between the various actors involved in negotiations on the Convention on Biological Diversity by ensuring that representatives of indigenous peoples and local communities have a voice in the matter. The Declaration of Belém, developed in 1988 at the founding congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology, advocated a clear path: researchers in ethnobiology must bear witness to the expectations of local communities, and develop mechanisms to legitimize indigenous knowledge hol­ders so that they are consulted prior to any action that might affect local resources and environments. Among the different ways that the International Society of Ethnobiology carries out this work, two tools of note are:

  1. A code of ethics, internationally recognized and now available in six languages, lays out the great moral and legal principles and establishes a framework for studies designed to better understand the relationships that indigenous peoples and local communities have with their natural environment. This implies a new position for the researcher in ethnobiology: holders of local knowledge about nature are no longer understood as 'objects' of research, but as research partners. The legal implications of this repositioning on intellectual property and use of the research results are not trivial.

  2. A congress, held every two years, opens a privileged space of direct exchange of ideas, concerns, and findings. It provides space for updates on the status of research dealing with nature-society interactions and progress in the laborious transition between idealistic discourses and the rare effective attempts to put them into practice. Organizing these cultural exchanges is not easy. Tolerance must be the norm to allow a constructive comparison of views among participants with very different cultures, backgrounds, languages, training and roles. This diversity of actors and opinions gives special significance to this unconventional convention.

3The publication of the book "People and Natures" in May 2012 coincides with the 13th Congress of the International Society of Ethnobiology, hosted for the first time in France (Montpellier). True to its mandate of addressing international development issues by working with Southern partners, the Institute for Development Research (IRD) is involved in the organization of this event and ensures the publishing of this book. The rapidity and intensity of climate change and other global changes affecting our planet are at the heart of the matters before this congress, because they raise the crucial question of the ability of indigenous peoples and local communities to respond effectively and sustainably to these changes. This question rightly concerns the United Nations, which decided it was necessary to hold a new Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012, twenty years after the first. This conference, called Rio + 20, will be an opportunity to take stock of the real involvement of indigenous peoples and local communities in biodiversity management. By a fortunate coincidence of timing, the ISE Congress in Montpellier and Rio + 20 will be held just weeks apart. At the same time, France, along with several other great nations, is preparing to ratify the protocol from the last Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (Nagoya, October 2010). This protocol, focused on the fight against biopiracy, seeks to increase access to resources and to ensure the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their use. All of these events clearly show that the knowledge and rights of indigenous peoples and local communities are receiving much attention this year.

4Another major change over these past two decades is the growing engagement of civil society in discussions relating to sustainable development. In France, the Grenelle Environment Roundtable has undoubtedly echoed a growing societal concern about the health of the environment, which has summoned governments and researchers to address this concern. Recognizing this growing and legitimate claim, the Montpellier congress organizers wish to ensure that all sectors of society – representatives of indigenous peoples and local communities, researchers, producers, policymakers, associations, media, conservation managers, teachers, schools, artists, and ordinary citizens – participate in this meeting.

5In this context, the development of a broadly accessible book depicting research in ethnobiology is timely and welcome. This book attempts to show the remarkable diversity of issues that must be addressed if we are to understand the processes that link human societies to their natural environment. Its goal is to make accessible to all readers the incredible complexity of these interactions, which explains the great difficulty of the transition from intention to action. This complexity is so great that it requires prudence and sound judgment in decision-making and implementation. The challenge in producing this book was to communicate this complexity in a few pages, and in a way that combines accessibility and aesthetics, making it pleasurable to read. Only photographs, enhanced by concise text, made it possible to reconcile these conflicting constraints a priori. The photographs in this collection are the result of a difficult selection process, during which we sought images that both engage the eye and provoke thought. Most photographs were taken by researchers during their fieldwork. Above all, this book - beyond artistic considerations - hopes to be a manifesto from a community of researchers whose job has changed dramatically over the past two decades. The photographs that comprise it give witness to societies undergoing transformation, requiring new evolution in research, and calling on researchers to question themselves. We can only welcome these developments.

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