? Grid intensity view:


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Unknown grid intensity

African Traditional Knowledge and Open Science for Climate Mitigation

Beti mask made with Obom 
Beti mask made with Obom by Eya’a Enama Ambroise (with the courtesy of Brigitte Nga Ondigui)

Long-term shifts in temperatures (global warming and accumulation of heat), changing weather patterns, increasing sea levels, and melting of ice sheets and glaciers is climate crisis. They are mainly caused by greenhouse gas emissions from natural systems (forest fires, earthquakes, oceans, permafrost, wetlands, volcanoes, etc.) and anthropogenic activities (burning fossil fuels, planting N-fixing crops, fertilizer production, wastewater disposal, etc.) (Fawzi et al. 2020; Richard 2020 ).  

While the consequences of climate crisis may not always be noticeable at first glance, it is important to acknowledge that they contribute to vulnerability across multiple sectors in many countries (UNEP 2019). That is why, for several decades, initiatives have been multiplying at the international as well as at the national levels, to mitigate the negative impacts of climate crisis. In the literature, these initiatives are based on three main strategies: (i) conventional mitigation technologies which focus on reducing fossil-based CO2 emissions, (ii) negative emissions technologies aiming to capture and sequester atmospheric carbon to reduce CO2 levels; (iii) radiative forcing geoengineering techniques, which alter the earth’s radiative budget to stabilize or reduce global temperatures.  

However, despite all the interesting strategies and initiatives like the Paris Agreement (United Nations 2015), we are still struggling to turn the corner around. Furthermore, Africa is the most vulnerable region to climate crisis (Sarkodie et al. 2019). Faced with this stagnant situation and without denying the important contribution of current climate crisis mitigation strategies, we cannot more agree with Fawzy et al. (2020): “It is evident that conventional mitigation efforts alone are not sufficient to meet the targets stipulated by the Paris agreement; therefore, the utilization of alternative routes appears inevitable”.

Amongst these alternatives, the open movement, moreover open science with its values, community and action, seems to be a serious option to consider in climate action (Open Climate 2022). This article proposes to explore a complementary strategy based on open science and African traditional environmental knowledge.

Open Science Contribution to Climate Crisis Mitigation

Open science is an inclusive construct that combines various movements and practices aiming to make multilingual scientific knowledge openly available, accessible and reusable for everyone, to increase scientific collaborations and sharing of information for the benefit of science and society, and to open the processes of scientific knowledge creation, evaluation and communication to societal actors beyond the traditional scientific community. UNESCO (2021)

While we are aware of the different open science pillars stated in UNESCO recommendations; the approach of Leslie Chan et al. (2020)  constitutes a better framework to observe open science contributions to climate crisis mitigation.  According to them, open science is built on three key pillars: 1) openness to publications and data, 2) openness to society, and 3) openness to excluded knowledge and epistemologies.

Openness to Publications and Data

Scientific publications are the major way to communicate scientific research. In alignment with open science principles, these publications should be made freely accessible: that is the so-called open access. The Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) defines open access to publications and data as:

free availability on the public internet, permitting any users to read, download, copy, distribute, print, search, or link to the full texts of these articles, crawl them for indexing, pass them as data to software, or use them for any other lawful purpose, without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself. The only constraint on reproduction and distribution, and the only role for copyright in this domain, should be to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited. (BOAI)

Allowing free access to publications and data strongly contributes to supporting scientific discovery and innovation. It also creates better opportunities for collective problem-solving. In this regard, we can only extend Tai and Robinson’s (2018) thoughts on open science and climate crisis. They strongly believe that: “By adopting open science (OS) principles, such as OA publications, OS workflows, and sharing data, scientists can advance climate crisis research and accelerate efforts to mitigate impacts; especially for highly vulnerable developing regions of the world where research capacity is limited”. Moreover, beyond scientific papers, open data produced can include environmental and wildlife monitoring data, modelling data, measurements of variables like temperature, GPS coordinates, etc. (Canada Open science action plan 2021 -2026).

Some concrete examples of platforms contributing to climate crisis mitigation through openness to publication and data are:

Openness to Society

In this form of openness also known as citizen science, non-scientists, citizens, civil society organizations and communities contribute to co-create knowledge through participatory research, to collect or capture massive data via applications. Thus, showing that science is also done outside the academic sphere (ivory tower). With the implementation of fab labs, maker spaces and other do-it-yourself laboratories that integrate non-scientists and citizens in science, the open-source software and hardware movements have strengthened this form of Open Science.  

This form of openness is really useful on one hand, to allow citizens to contribute to the ideation of solutions aiming to tackle environmental issues. Consequently, they will design solutions meeting the realities of their local context, with the potential to have an impact at the global level. Rachel Koumi (2020) flagged this in the case of her country: the Ivory Coast. According to her, success in tackling environmental problems starts with designing solutions through open and participatory processes such as the Aquathon being conducted in November 2019. It is a co-creative and technological marathon that adapts to all issues, threats and problems of society and whose methodology consists of the use of collaborative and participatory tools and methods of collective intelligence and design thinking to i) explore and understand the problem in order to properly define the issues and needs, ii) Define and plan the vision to propose solutions, iii) create and develop the solutions, iv) test the solution, validate it and deliver it (Shearmur, 2010; Pénin et al., 2013; Lefebvre, 2019). Co-creativity here focuses on skills, diversity, intelligence, and the ability to understand, feel, or put oneself in the shoes of other group members (Koumi 2022).

On the other hand, after the design of the solutions, third-places like Fablabs, maker spaces or open innovation spaces allow citizens to build concrete prototypes; open source hardware and software illustrate this very well.  On GitHub for example, the ‘climate change‘ hashtag accounts for more than 750 public repositories, which are all codes related to open source software contributing to a climate crisis fighting efforts (climatiq 2022).  Similarly, we have great examples of open hardware like the Fieldkit, “an open-source software and hardware platform that allows individuals and organizations to collect and share field-based research data, and to tell stories through interactive visualizations” (Shah 2019). From the above, it follows that the first two pillars of open science contribute greatly to mitigating the effects of climate crisis.

However, the third avenue of open science seems unexplored; moreover, it seems inexistent in the climate crisis mitigation strategy. This avenue refers to openness to excluded knowledge and epistemologies. It happens through the dialogue between different knowledge holders, which recognizes the richness of diverse knowledge systems and epistemologies (Unesco 2021). In this paper, we claim the necessity to consider this openness to other knowledge systems in climate crisis mitigation strategy. For this purpose, we will then learn from Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).  

Reimagine Climate Crisis Mitigation with Traditional Ecological Knowledge Perspectives

TEK refers to a set of beliefs, norms, and practices held by different groups representing long-term direct human interaction with the environment (Giacommo, 2022). Since we are aware that anthropogenic activities (burning fossil fuels, planting N-fixing crops, fertilizer production, wastewater disposal, etc.) are an important source of greenhouse gas emissions, we can ask ourselves how TEK can contribute to mitigating climate crisis, and which lessons humanity can learn from. To frame our thoughts, we will focus on the Beti tribe, an African ethnic group belonging to the large group of Pahouins, and primarily found in Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and Congo; and learn from their beliefs, norms and practices applied to agriculture.  The choice of this tribe is not innocent. It is the tribe of one of the authors (Thomas Mboa), and it is within this system that he grew up.

Beliefs and norms: perception of nature

In the Beti tribe, it has been shown that the local management of the environment is based on certain ecological beliefs, ideological values, and perceptions of nature and knowledge systems (Mala, 2009).  Indeed, the perception of nature is based on their views of the world, philosophy of life and beliefs, and traditional religions. Mala (2009) describes these conceptions in two major representations of nature: the spiritual (Yop) and terrestrial worlds ().

Figure 1: Beti perception of nature (From Mala, 2009)

The spiritual world comprises God (zamba), the phantoms (bekon), the knowers (beyem) and the witchcraft (ngwbel). The terrestrial world (si ndon) includes the human and natural worlds. It represents where and how life takes place in terms of provision, habitat, creation and social life. The human world is represented by the human beings (bot); while the natural world is represented by water (mendim), lands (mesi), plants including trees and herbs (bile, bilok), wild and domestic animals (betid) and overall living and non-living things (bikomnga).

This perception of nature is the key to the balance between the exploitation of natural resources and Beti day-to-day needs. According to Diaw (1997), three fundamental distinctions form the basis of this harmony :

  • The distinction between the terrestrial space, aerial space and the invisible world of the spirits;
  • The distinction between land space, water bodies and arid, exhausted or ‘reserved’ land;
  • The distinction between different physical and animal components of the biosphere.

These relationships between nature and humans contribute to the formulation of local ecological and environmental knowledge systems of the natural world within the vital space. These empirical and cognitive schemes guide human activities to set the conditions for the coexistence of plants, fauna and the factors of the environment in order to maintain nature in harmony.  

Agricultural practices

The symbiosis of the concept of nature and the associated local knowledge and practices are effective in the interpretation of natural processes and in the management of the local environment. Carrière (2002) states that the Beti traditional agricultural practices represent a pool of methods and techniques for managing the environment. Thanks to these practices, farmers have, for millennia, shaped and transformed forests through various techniques generating low greenhouse gas emissions. These techniques are based on: the choice of soils, selective clearing, burning and Fallow.  

Choice of soils

Amongst factors that determine the choice of forest patch to be cleared, we have plant species. But they are not the only factors; other indicators such as soil color, depth of humus and age of forest/vegetation, and presence of earthworms also play a key role; they are used as discriminant variables in the selection process of lands for clearing. Indicators such as the age of vegetation and the presence of earthworm excrements fall either in the category of plant indicators or are considered a result of good soil quality (Mala, 2009).  The local soil classification is related to the types of forests and to the differential color of soils. The local classification of soils influences the social mechanisms in regulating soil fertility within the cropping-fallow-forest conversion cycle. Knowledge of the soil fertility patterns within the village territory is a basis for linking the type of land cover and soil color with land use management strategies. (Mala, 2009).

Selective clearing

Food crops were planted in areas surrounding the village. The instruments used were cutlass () and the digging bar (ntong) for clearing land; the hoe (ebbak) for cultivation (Alexandre, 1965).  Selective clearing consists to clear forest areas selectively, keeping some trees in each of their subsistence crop fields Carrière (2002). Their reasons for protecting certain trees when clearing land are social and cultural as well as economic and agronomic. Regrowth in fallow land is encouraged beneath these isolated trees, as the quantity and variety of seeds dispersed by animals increases significantly and the physicochemical conditions help woody plants to compete against pioneer herbaceous species. Woody species regenerate more rapidly below isolated field trees. Without these trees, larger quantities of herbaceous vegetation would tend to block succession  

By systematically selecting certain species over centuries of land clearing, Beti farmers have gradually influenced the species composition of forests. Beti, who depend entirely on forests for their livelihoods, have established a sustainable way of managing forests, in which those responsible for preserving biodiversity are the people themselves (Carrière, 2002).

Burning, fallow and natural fertilization

Slash-and-burn agriculture is a system where fields are cleared by fire and cultivated in a discontinuous manner. The principle of slash-and-burn agriculture is based on the mineralization by the fire of organic plant and animal elements present in the felled and previously dried forest. Clearing and felling are necessary for crop development. The fertility of the environment after burning will allow the farmer to harvest for two to three successive crop cycles before starting the fallow phase. The regeneration of diversified woody vegetation during the fallow period is central to the continuing practice of itinerant slash-and-burn cultivation. The quality of regeneration is linked to the length of the fallow period and to the agricultural techniques in use (Carrière, 2002).

The Beti Holistic Approach to Nature Education

Humanity can get inspired by the methodology of knowledge transmission put in place by the Beti, in order to inculcate important notions of climate action within the populations, regardless of their context. Indeed, In the Beti tribe, the aim of education in nature is to train the intelligence to acquire fundamental knowledge from the reflections and ideas that images or fiction awaken in it (Mviena 1970). Therefore, for Mbala (1990), traditional Beti education aimed to train, under the enlightened guidance of parents and the community, accomplished men and women. This education was done through public teachings, daily activities and rituals (Mboa 2014).

The education of the young Beti was essentially done through public education, accessible to everyone. The most important part of these public teachings was the playful activities in which Beti of all ages, without distinction of sex were engaged. For, beyond mere entertainment, these games had an educational scope that would contribute to the training of an accomplished Beti, mastering the values of his community. In a concrete way, these public teachings took the form of proverbs, songs, riddles and stories. Laburthe-Tolra (1981) says in this regard that, all the children knew how to understand the language of the tam-tam, they could dance and sing in the evening around a wood fire. The aim was to develop the mental functions of community members in order to facilitate their social integration. Rites constitute a basic form of a social and religious nature, introducing humans to the distinction between the profane and the sacred. This introduction ranges from aggregation into the clan to the acquisition of social rank and the recognition of social rights and duties.

However, we should not fall into the trap of thinking that the inclusion of TEK would be without difficulty. It must be recognized that their consideration depends on several factors, which include standards of modern science, prejudices against them, and the relationships of power and domination. Traditional knowledge is therefore subject to a dualism of disregard and recognition that needs to be considered in the strategy of their inclusion in climate crisis mitigation.

Conclusion:  Combining Digital Technologies and Beti Traditional Ecological Knowledge to Drive Cognitive Justice

It would be naive to believe that in this paper, we are advocating a return to the ancestral practices of the Beti tribe while ignoring the impact of digital technology. No! Our idea is to draw attention to the vast potential of open science in the climate crisis mitigation.

In fact, one key point of open science and specifical openness to other knowledge and epistemologies is the concept of cognitive justice. This concept has been proposed by the Indian anthropologist Shiv Visvanathan as the ethical principle that recognizes the diversity of knowledge, their equality as well as that of the holders of this knowledge (Piron 2016). According to Van der Velden (2004), the foundations of cognitive justice are as follows:

All forms of knowledge are valid and should co-exist in a dialogic relationship with each other. Cognitive justice implies the strengthening of the ‘voice’ of the defeated and marginalised. Traditional knowledge and technologies should not be ‘museumized’. Every citizen is a scientist. Each layperson is an expert. Science should help the common man/woman. All competing sciences should be brought together into a positive heuristic for dialogue.

Thus, committing to the recognition of the plurality of knowledge means democratizing knowledge and giving birth to a new form of justice on the international knowledge scene. This justice recognizes the right of several forms of knowledge to coexist. Anything that runs against these principles is known as cognitive injustice, and Beti TEK is not exempted from this phenomenon.

Indeed, in many scientific discourses, local knowledge does not fall within the normative framework of conventional science (objectivity, universality, truth), which considers them to be a matter of mere belief, mysticism, folklore or common sense. This interpretation is reinforced by the secret nature of several of this Beti knowledge that is held by a certain category of people who only share them during initiation rites or other ceremonies. This marginalization/hoarding of local knowledge is amplified by the loss of Ewondo, the Beti native language, for colonial languages (French, English). The association of these two factors lead to the risk of the disappearance of Beti knowledge useful for climate mitigation. To face this risk, we are convinced that open digital technologies can become a very effective means of preserving traditional knowledge on one hand, and bringing them into the global conversation around climate mitigation on another hand. Meet this balance is possible if we put the following recommendations in practice :  

  • Consider all types of citizens, and ensure that every citizen has basic digital skills. Regardless of language or education level. Indeed, it is clear that today, everyone can take part in the preservation of cultural knowledge. All that is needed is access to a smartphone, the ability to manipulate it, to make audio or video recordings and share them;
  • Promote the use of free software and Creative Commons licenses. Creative commons licenses applied to digitally recorded local knowledge allow for the reuse of this knowledge by anyone who wishes to reuse it, especially in education or non-formal training. These licenses and open source software also serve as a bridge between academia and local communities. By bringing local knowledge to the forefront in this way, populations and specifically Beti tribe provide scientists with essential primary data to better discuss their TEK, which are often despised or ignored, rightly or wrongly.

With TEK primarily recorded by Beti, then made available through free software and under Creative Commons licenses, researchers across the world would have enough material to generate locally relevant, well-informed and appropriate scientific publications based on the Beti cosmogony.

About the Authors

Thomas Mboa is the Co-founder of the Mboalab, a Community Open Space located in Cameroon. His work interests are around open science, the maker movement, cognitive justice and visitibily of African Knowledge.

Ahou Rachel Koumi is a Researcher in the Aquaculture Department of the Center for Oceanological Research, Abidjan Côte d’Ivoire. She is in charge of promoting the research results and innovation of the center. His work interests focus on open innovation, collective intelligence, and maker movement, to propose co-developed solutions to problems.


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