When I as was a young child back in the 1960s, my parents, indeed the people of my village, had knowledge about protecting the forest and the surrounding environment. I am not sure where they acquired this knowledge. Certainly there was little, if any, talk about “caring for the forest” and I cannot recall any campaigns about mitigating deforestation or protecting our environment. “Climate change” was not even a concept. However, it was simply an accepted, common practice that everybody has responsibility for taking care of the environment in which we lived.
For instance, there was no way a neighbor or a family member would even think about cutting a tree or shrub in our yard without a permission from my daddy. Actually, it was my daddy who determined which tree should be cut on the basis any request made to him. As a result, trees around our home grew big and were plentiful.
It was the same with my mom. She used fire to prepare the farm for cultivation, but she used it responsibly in such a way that for the sixteen years I worked with her, fire never caused any harm to a single tree or to neighbors’ properties. Instinct, common sense and respect were integral parts of the indigenous knowledge system under which we all lived and it was passed orally from generation to generation.
As oral informal education gave a way to formal education, knowledge about trees and conservation began to disappear. Younger generations were no longer bound by traditional mechanisms and observed no internal predisposition to protect the trees or the environment in general. As any generic sense of responsibility withered away, trees themselves began to disappear. As the forests came under attack through ignorance and willful self-enrichment, the many species of animals and birds that sheltered within and depended upon them for sustenance also declined.
As time passed, humans too began to recognize what was being lost and some regretted their actions. Today the destruction of forests is recognized as contributing to climate change, water shortages and food insecurity and threatens the very livelihood – indeed the lives – of millions of Africans – especially the majority who are living in poverty.
In the last decade or so the attention of the world has finally turned to protecting and attempting to enhance the forests. The realization has dawned: “healthy forests equal good life.” As a result communications campaigns are being launched at national and international levels promoting the message that forest resources must be protected and wisely utilized for the betterment of all.
Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of these communication initiatives are being channeled from above – top down – and consequently they barely reach the community people for whom they are intended, or make any impression at all. By and large messages are being externally framed with very little frame of reference for the intended audiences. Often they are packaged in fancy ways – that miss the mark entirely by failing to fit the local context that can engage local people and help them embrace any agenda of protecting their forest or the environment in general.
The essential missing ingredient in most of these message-giving campaigns is indigenous knowledge. Studies have demonstrated that such external campaigns targeting communities reach very few people; in fact, very often, they do not make any sense to people. Certainly they fail to engage – and this is their fatal flaw.
We must recognize and accept that it is the rural people, living in or near the forests who are the natural custodians of the environment in which they live. Traditional campaigns have failed:
- To help them understand the causes of climate change even though they may know its impact.
- To help them understand and internalize the reasons for rules regulating harvesting firewood, production of wood, food, construction of material, plant medicine, charcoal, fodder, etc.
- To enable them to link forest resources with their socioeconomic lives in any meaningful way.
What is the sense of communicating if the communication fails to make any sense to the people with whom we are “communicating” or to bring about desired results? Yet we keep repeating the same tired campaign formulas despite all the evidence that they are for the most part ineffectual. Surely it is time to reconsider and explore new ways of engaging communities directly to communicate forestry messages that will evoke behavioral change.
We must innovate and discover new methodologies utilizing all communication formats – methodologies facilitate listening first and talking after; processes that will allow village people to rediscover local indigenous knowledge and refine it to become a tool that people can utilize to manage their forests and their resources sustainably on a daily basis.