Local environmental knowledge refers to the knowledge of natural resources and ecosystems and the associated management practices, beliefs, and institutions, developed by societies with long histories of interactions with particular environments. This ERC-funded research aimed to assess whether, across societies and domains of knowledge, people with more local environmental knowledge enjoy better livelihoods than people with less local environmental knowledge. Specifically, we aimed to explore the benefits that knowledge related to hunting and plants medicinal properties conferred to individuals in three indigenous societies, the Baka (Congo Basin), the Punan (Borneo), and the Tsimane’ (Amazonia).
Overall, we found that people with more hunting knowledge obtained higher hunting yields than peoples with less hunting knowledge, and that people with more medicinal plant knowledge were sick less often than respondents with less medicinal plant knowledge. Our data, however, did not support the hypotheses that people with more hunting and/or medicinal plant knowledge have better nutritional status than other respondents in the same society. The paradoxical finding that local environmental knowledge provides some individual benefits related to their ability to obtain food and prevent sickness but –overall- does not contribute to better nutrition could potentially be explained through the prevalence of sharing and cooperation. Sharing and cooperation allow resources (i.e., bushmeat) and information (i.e., where to find a medicinal plant) to flow from the more knowledgeable or skilful to the rest of the group, thus potentially contributing to group-level improvements in nutritional status. Our study points to the idea that local knowledge systems might enhance adaptation by first boosting individual ability to obtain food and protect health and then establishing the mechanisms so that these benefits are shared across the various members of the group.