Incorporating and promoting indigenous local knowledge (ILK) is important for some areas of conservation. However, research reporting the successful use of indigenous local knowledge and the ways it contributes to the preservation of natural resources remain rare. We believe that one explanation for this shortcoming is that studies of ILK tend to neglect the continual transformations that Indigenous people are undergoing – for example, governmental decisions regarding access to their lands; erosion of their know-how; or growing interests worldwide in their natural resources or their plant knowledge. Research also tends to ignore the issues and challenges that such changes pose to the groups who confront them.
Drawing upon the example of a development project based on the production of guarana (a plant used as an energy supplement) by Indigenous Sateré-Mawé people in the Brazilian Amazon, this paper proposes new ways of examining ILK that help us to understand its relevance in times – like the present – of global socio-environmental crisis. First, we reflect on how the Sateré-Mawé’s traditional guarana production can contribute to biological conservation and also sustain the group’s cultural integrity, even when production contributes to global markets or is discussed using scientific terms. We show that ILK is both dynamic and strategic, and that it can incorporate other forms of knowledge (such as scientific knowledge) without losing its indigenous character. Second, we present a new way of studying ILK without ignoring its adaptive and political dimensions. By “political”, we mean that ILK responds to the many changing interactions that take place at local, regional, and global scales.
The crucial point we make in this article is that it is necessary to start from a study of the practices and discourses of all those involved in the production system to show how they think of the plant and its environment and act with it. We explain that when different groups of people act differently with the same resource (for example, when they select or cultivate guarana differently), what results is the creation of different resources, each adapted to its situation and goals. This approach helps us to grasp the reality that the way Indigenous people live and their abilities to respond to new challenges should be considered at the scale of their territory. At the same time, it allows us to assess and analyse more general concerns about biodiversity conservation.