Traditional ecological knowledge: our heritage and our survival strategy

Everywhere they settled, humans have shaped their environment throughout history for more than 13,000 years. Currently, global biodiversity is eroding at alarming rates due to human disturbance.  We witness  how unsustainable land use management and the climate crisis push ecosystems to their limits, leading to the extinction of many species. To achieve symbiosis instead of extinction in the future, we must understand the past and present relationships between humans, cultures and their biophysical environment. 

As we emerge from the mountains and approach the Eastern Black Sea region of Turkey, our excitement grows about meeting two people who are doing exactly this. Ceren Kazancı and Soner Oruç are ethnobiologists, studying traditional ecological knowledge in the Western Lesser Caucasus at the Turkish-Georgian border region, one of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots of the world. Ceren and Soner, like other ethnobiologists, recognize that indigenous peoples, traditional societies, and local communities are critical not only to the conservation of cultural and linguistic diversity, but also biological diversity. They are in particular focusing on the field of ethnobotany, interested in the ethnobotanical knowledge heritage of local communities living in the Western Lesser Caucasus. 

What is traditional ethnobotanical knowledge and why is it important?

Traditional ethnobotanical knowledge encompasses all knowledge connected to local plants, as well as to their practical uses based on century-long experiences and observations. This kind of knowledge was common in the past. People living in a close-to-nature way with their livelihoods based on agriculture or animal husbandry knew their environment. They were familiar with many plants and animals living around them, they had practices to collect edible plants, fodder plants for livestock as well as medicinal plants and this knowledge was passed on from generation to generation. However, changes in lifestyle brought about by globalisation and industrialisation pushed traditional ethnobotanical knowledge into the background. What you, the reader, might also be aware of is that not many people possess this kind of knowledge anymore. Traditional livelihoods are abandoned as younger generations move to big cities and choose an urban lifestyle. Therefore, this knowledge is often not carried on from the older to the younger generation. 

But what is the problem? You don’t need this knowledge in a city. 

In general, any kind of knowledge humanity acquired over the course of history should be preserved. Plants have been gathered for human and animal consumption as well as medicinal purposes. Ceren and Soner have a pretty good answer:

“Documenting the ethnobotany of plants and sustaining plant gathering traditions appears to be crucial not only for ensuring food security and for the nutritional potential and health benefits of the plants, but also to maintain cultural identities as well as to conserve biocultural heritage.”

Ceren Kazancı and Soner Oruç

The intrinsic problem is that traditional ecological knowledge was negated, and its beholders not given a seat at the table for a long long time. These ecological practices of local communities were and still are often not considered important knowledge in the first place. However, we are in the depth of the climate and biodiversity crisis now, and understanding how these different approaches can be combined and applied can help us to manage natural resources more sustainably, and better adapt to the crisis we are in. 

Cross-cultural ethnobotanical studies in the Turkish-Georgian border region

Ceren and Soner come a long way. They both studied in the Middle Eastern Technical University of Ankara, where they started becoming interested in the plants around them and their practical uses. They delved into the library´s ethnobotany books together, and when Soner worked as an ornithologist on the Marmara Sea coast, he started talking with local communities about plant usage. Their curiosity led them to pursue making a documentary about local ethnobotany knowledge in their free time, which they named “Traditional Herbal Wisdom of the Kapidag Peninsula”. 

Eventually, Ceren applied for a PhD in Ethnobotany to the Ilia State University, located in Tbilisi, Georgia, and together they pursued a 3-year-long field study in the Turkish-Georgian border region focusing on the diverse ethnobotanical knowledge heritage of local communities. Living in a highly diverse landscape and in close contact with other communities for centuries has enabled these communities to create a very diverse knowledge base. In particular, being an ethnic Laz herself, Ceren´s research was focusing on the ethnobotanical knowledge of the Laz people, an indigenous ethnic group who mainly live in Black Sea coastal regions of Turkey and Georgia. 

The region they targeted is part of the Caucasus biodiversity hotspot, one of the 36 global biodiversity hotspots of the world, which harbours around 7000 vascular plant species, of which about 25% are endemic to the region. This region has also been called “the mountain of tongues” by researchers, as the language diversity and ethnic diversity is similarly very high. Nevertheless, very little ethnobotanical knowledge was systematically documented in these mountains before Ceren and Soner’s work.

Wild plants used for ethnoveterinary or ethnomedical purposes

During the summers of 2017 and 2018, Ceren and Soner interviewed over 100 locals in Turkey and Georgia. Their research showed that locals have a very rich traditional plant wisdom and extensive botanical understanding. This is reflected by the number of plant species they know by a variety of folk plant names and the methods of harvesting, preparing, and utilising these plants. They further found that many wild plants are used for medicinal purposes and many more are not used but still remembered in elders’ memories. More than half of the ethnomedicinal usage Ceren and Soner gathered was previously unrecorded. As these communities maintain their traditional agro-pastoral transhumant lifestyle, they use wild plants also for ethnoveterinary purposes or fodder for their animals. 

Wild plants used for human consumption

They also found that many wild plants are recognised by locals as edible plants and are used as vegetables, in soups, pickled, cooked or stewed or as snacks. However, what Soner and Ceren also found, is that this traditional knowledge and rich local cuisine is in risk of disappearance. Unfortunately, only a few species are still used by the majority of people in these communities, and young generations don´t tend to continue these practices. 

“I started to understand my mother language through learning plants from them (Laz people). For the last two years, I can almost understand the Laz language, but speak very slowly. I am very happy about that. I realized that the bond that Our People have with nature is much deeper and more social than they can even realize. In my future life, I would like to detail these ties and relations of Our People with all living and non-living environments. I believe that important steps should be taken to restore our ancient life. So, I want to revitalize the memories and contribute to the life of our culture.”

Ceren Kazancı

How to preserve traditional ecological knowledge?

Ceren and Soner were the first younger generation members in their families, who decided to switch a big city life to living in the countryside. They recently moved permanently to Arhavi on the Black Sea coast, the region where Ceren´s Laz family comes from and here they dedicate their time to revitalising local traditional ecological knowledge. With its mild climate, high precipitation and fertile soil, this region is where all of Turkey´s tea is produced since its introduction to the country in the middle of the 20th century.

In local villages, traditional ways of beekeeping, crop collection and pruning of trees are still present, but the younger generation doesn´t continue them anymore. What are wide-spread instead are tea plantations, adding up to over 200.000 tons of tea produced annually in the country.

Due to the unique geography of this region, they live by the sea, but have a family hut in a summer village located on a 2500m mountain plateau (these villages are called ‘Yayla’s) only 60km away. We make several stops and Ceren and Soner share their dreams: supporting the local products of transhumant communities and working with the young generation to keep them in the region and spread this traditional knowledge amongst them.

Publications and information on wild edible plants available in local languages is the first step to preserve this knowledge in written form. For the young generation, they plan to establish an outdoor bouldering and camping place along the riverside – reconnecting them with the river that once the young Ceren and Ceren´s ancestors spent much time playing and fishing at.

Ceren tells us about her childhood memories of playing around the river with other children from the village.

They want to launch practical workshops for plant gathering and preparation, as well as join forces with other locals in bringing back local festivals to the region, connected to important times of the year such as the livestock being herded up to high-alpine pastures in early summer. To preserve the seeds of the wild and cultivated alpine vegetables, they plan to establish a so-called ‘alpine garden’, a kind of seed bank or botanical garden for plants typical for the Yaylas and gardens around them. 

The road up to the mountains

This region is also an important migration corridor for birds, and as an ethno-ornithologist, Soner plans to create a camp for local youth, focusing on bird identification and protection. He is also exploring other fields of ethnobiology, studying traditional falconry and beekeeping practices in the region.

And last but not least, revitalising traditional agroforestry practices is also an important element of preserving local wisdom. Local communities had sustainable management practices for the forests around them. They regularly pruned the trees and cared to keep the health of each tree. Ceren and Soner plan to mobilise the local communities and revitalise these practices on a small scale.

“About the future of humanity, our question is: who gets to decide how a protected landscape should look and what does protection actually mean? Does it have to mean that we drive out all humans and stop traditional activities or is it about finding a balance that involves local communities?”

Soner Oruç

In the end, we stayed for five days with Ceren and Soner – visiting local villages, making Fındık Sucuk (hazelnuts on a string, dipped in grape molasses) and talking about the importance of ethnobotany and ethnobiology for the future of humanity. What became certain to us in this time is that there should be much more effort put into documenting and protecting traditional knowledge and practices, before they vanish. To honour the knowledge our ancestors have acquired, preserve our heritage, and sustain the wellbeing of humanity.

The making of Fındık Sucuk

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