Overstory #82 - Introduction to Indigenous Knowledge
What is Indigenous Knowledge?
Indigenous knowledge (IK) is, broadly speaking, the knowledge used by local people to make a living in a particular environment (Warren, 1991). Terms used in the field of sustainable development to designate this concept include indigenous technical knowledge, traditional environmental knowledge, rural knowledge, local knowledge and farmer's or pastoralist's knowledge. Indigenous knowledge can be defined as "A body of knowledge built up by a group of people through generations of living in close contact with nature" (Johnson, 1992). Generally speaking, such knowledge evolves in the local environment, so that it is specifically adapted to the requirements of local people and conditions. It is also creative and experimental, constantly incorporating outside influences and inside innovations to meet new conditions. It is usually a mistake to think of indigenous knowledge as 'old-fashioned,' 'backwards,' 'static' or 'unchanging.'
Indigenous versus Local Knowledge
Indigenous people are the original inhabitants of a particular geographic location, who have a culture and belief system distinct from the international system of knowledge (e.g., the Tribal, Native, First, or Aboriginal people of an area). Some feel that such a definition is too narrow, in that it excludes peoples who may have lived in an area for a long period of time but are not the original inhabitants. This has led to widespread use of the term local knowledge, a broader concept which refers to the knowledge possessed by any group living off the land in a particular area for a long period of time. Under this approach, it is not necessary to know if the people in question are the original inhabitants of an area, the important thing is to learn how people - aboriginal or non-aboriginal - in a particular area view and interact with their environment, in order that their knowledge can be mobilized for the design of appropriate interventions. To add confusion, the term 'indigenous knowledge' may also be used in this latter sense, to refer to 'local knowledge,' with 'indigenous' referring to the in situ nature of the knowledge, rather than to the 'origins' of the group in question. To simplify things, the two terms are used interchangeably in this article.
Types of Indigenous Knowledge
While IK research originally emphasized indigenous technical knowledge of the environment, it is now accepted that the concept of IK goes beyond this narrow interpretation. IK is now considered to be cultural knowledge in its broadest sense, including all of the social, political, economic and spiritual aspects of a local way of life. Sustainable development researchers, however, have found the following categories of IK to be of particular interest: resource management knowledge and the tools, techniques, practices and rules related to pastoralism, agriculture, agroforestry, water management and the gathering of wild food; classification systems for plants, animals, soils, water and weather; empirical knowledge about flora, fauna and inanimate resources and their practical uses; and the worldview or way the local group perceives its relationship to the natural world (Emery, 1996).
While research may focus on a particular category or type of IK, any IK under investigation must be viewed in terms of the overall cultural context. IK is embedded in a dynamic system in which spirituality, kinship, local politics and other factors are tied together and influence one another. Researchers should be prepared to examine any other aspects of a culture that may play an important role in shaping the IK in question. For example, religion is an integral part of IK and cannot necessarily be separated from technical forms of knowledge. Spiritual beliefs about nature may influence how resources are managed and how willing people are to adopt new resource management strategies (IIRR, 1996a).
Topics Covered by IK Research
- local organization, controls, and enforcement - institutions for resource management; common property management practices; decision-making processes; conflict management practices; traditional laws, rights, taboos and rituals; and community controls on harvesting.
- social networks - kinship ties and their effect on power relations, economic strategies and allocation of resources.
- local classification and quantification - a community's definitions and classification systems for plants, animals, soils, water, air, and weather; and indigenous methods of counting and quantifying.
- learning systems - indigenous methods of imparting knowledge; indigenous approaches to innovation and experimentation; and indigenous specialists.
- pastoral systems - herd movement; range evaluation and monitoring; animal breeding and production; traditional fodder and forage species and their specific uses; animal diseases and traditional ethnoveterinary medicine.
- agriculture - farming and crop systems; indigenous indicators to determine favorable times to prepare, plant, and harvest gardens; land preparation practices; ways to propagate plants; seed storage and processing; crop planting, harvesting and storage practices; food processing and marketing; and pest management systems and plant protection methods.
- agroforestry - the management of forest plots and trees; the knowledge and use of forest plants and animals; and the interrelationships between trees, crops, herds and soil fertility.
- water - traditional water-management and water conservation systems; traditional techniques for irrigation; and use of specific species for water conservation.
- soil - soil conservation practices; the use of specific species for soil conservation; and soil fertility enhancement practices.
- plants - as a source of wild food, building material, household tools, personal uses (dyes, perfumes, soaps), fuel wood and charcoal, medicinal purposes.
- wildlife - animal behavior, habitats, uses.
- worldview - views of the universe and humanity's place within it, relationship between humans and nature, myths, beliefs, customs.
(Source: adapted from Grenier, 1998; and Matowanyika, 1994)
Importance of Indigenous Knowledge
There are two basic reasons why it is important for researchers to consider IK when carrying out research projects. First and foremost, incorporating IK into research projects can contribute to local empowerment and development, increasing self-sufficiency and strengthening self-determination (Thrupp, 1989). Utilizing IK in research projects and management plans gives it legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of both local people and outside scientists, increasing cultural pride and thus motivation to solve local problems with local ingenuity and resources (ibid.). Local capacity-building is a crucial aspect of sustainable development, and researchers and development specialists should design approaches which support and strengthen appropriate indigenous knowledge and institutions.
Second, indigenous people can provide valuable input about the local environment and how to effectively manage its natural resources. Outside interest in indigenous knowledge systems has been fueled by the recent worldwide ecological crisis and the realization that its causes lie partly in the overexploitation of natural resources based on inappropriate attitudes and technologies. Scientists now recognize that indigenous people have managed the environments in which they have lived for generations, often without significantly damaging local ecologies (Emery, 1996). Many feel that indigenous knowledge can thus provide a powerful basis from which alternative ways of managing resources can be developed. IK technologies and know-how have an advantage over introduced forms in that they rely on locally available skills and materials and are thus often more cost-effective than introducing exotic technologies from outside sources (IIRR, 1996a). As well, local people are familiar with them and so do not need any specialized training (ibid.).
The following are some of the features of IK which have relevance to conservation and sustainable development:
- locally appropriate: IK represents a way of life that has evolved with the local environment, so it is specifically adapted to the requirements of local conditions.
- restraint in resource exploitation: production is for subsistence needs only; only what is needed for immediate survival is taken from the environment.
- diversified production systems: there is no overexploitation of a single resource; risk is often spread out by utilizing a number of subsistence strategies.
- respect for nature: a 'conservation ethic' often exists. The land is considered sacred, humans are dependent on nature for survival, all species are interconnected.
- flexible: IK is able to adapt to new conditions and incorporate outside knowledge.
- social responsibility: there are strong family and community ties, and with them feelings of obligation and responsibility to preserve the land for future generations.
(Source: Dewalt, 1994)
Limitations of Indigenous Knowledge
As with scientific knowledge, however, IK has its limitations, and these must be recognized. IK is sometimes accepted uncritically because of naive notions that whatever indigenous people do is naturally in harmony with the environment. There is historical and contemporary evidence that indigenous peoples have also committed environmental 'sins' through over-grazing, over-hunting, or over-cultivation of the land. It is misleading to think of IK as always being 'good,' 'right' or 'sustainable'.
For example, a critical assumption of indigenous knowledge approaches is that local people have a good understanding of the natural resource base because they have lived in the same, or similar, environment for many generations, and have accumulated and passed on knowledge of the natural conditions, soils, vegetation, food and medicinal plants etc. However, under conditions where the local people are in fact recent migrants from a quite different ecological zone, they may not have much experience yet with their new environment. In these circumstances, some indigenous knowledge of the people may be helpful, or it may cause problems (e.g., use of agricultural systems adapted to other ecological zones). Therefore it is important, especially when dealing with recent migrants, to evaluate the relevance of different kinds of indigenous knowledge to local conditions.
Indigenous knowledge can also be eroded by wider economic and social forces. Pressure on indigenous peoples to integrate with larger societies is often great, and as they become more integrated, the social structures which generate indigenous knowledge and practices can break down. The growth of national and international markets, the imposition of educational and religious systems and the impact of various development processes are leading more and more to the 'homogenization' of the world's cultures (Grenier, 1998). Consequently, indigenous beliefs, values, customs, know-how and practices may be altered and the resulting knowledge base incomplete.
Sometimes IK that was once well-adapted and effective for securing a livelihood in a particular environment becomes inappropriate under conditions of environmental degradation (Thrupp, 1989). Although IK systems have a certain amount of flexibility in adapting to ecological change, when change is particularly rapid or drastic, the knowledge associated with them may be rendered unsuitable and possibly damaging in the altered conditions (Grenier, 1998).
Finally, an often overlooked feature of IK which needs to be taken into account is that, like scientific knowledge, sometimes the knowledge which local people rely on is wrong or even harmful (Thrupp, 1989). Practices based on, for example, mistaken beliefs, faulty experimentation, or inaccurate information can be dangerous and may even be a barrier to improving the well-being of indigenous people. However, researchers need to be careful when making such judgements.
The Loss of Indigenous Knowledge
With the rapid environmental, social, economic and political changes occurring in many areas inhabited by indigenous people comes the danger that the IK they possess will be overwhelmed and lost forever. Younger generations are acquiring different values and lifestyles as a result of exposure to global and national influences, and traditional communication networks are breaking down, meaning that Elders are dying without passing their knowledge on to children. In some cases, the actual existence of indigenous people themselves is threatened.
Researchers can assist in preserving IK through the following:
- record and use IK: document IK so that both the scientific and local community have access to it and can utilize it in the formulation of sustainable development plans.
- raise awareness in the community about the value of IK: record and share IK success stories in songs, plays, story-telling, videos and other traditional or modern means of communication. Encourage people to take pride in their knowledge.
- help communities record and document their local practices: Get local people involved in recording their IK by training them as researchers and providing means of documentation (computers, video equipment, etc.).
- make IK available: disseminate IK back to the community through newsletters, videos, books and other media.
- observe intellectual property rights: have agreements so that IK is not misused and benefits return to the community from which it originates. (Source: IIRR, 1996a)
Indigenous knowledge (IK) is the knowledge used by local people to make a living in a particular environment. It evolves in situ and is dynamic and creative, constantly growing and adapting to meet new conditions. The term 'indigenous knowledge' sometimes refers to the knowledge possessed by the original inhabitants of an area, while the term 'local knowledge' is a broader term which refers to the knowledge of any people who have lived in an area for a long period of time. IK is considered to be cultural knowledge in its broadest sense. It is embedded in a dynamic system in which spirituality, kinship, local politics and other factors are tied together and influence one another, and researchers must take this into account when examining a particular part of the IK system. IK has many positive aspects, and incorporating IK into projects can contribute to local empowerment and can provide valuable input for alternative natural resource management strategies. However, IK also has its limitations, and researchers should not make the mistake of romanticizing it and believing that whatever indigenous people do is right or sustainable. IK researchers should also play a part in stemming the loss of IK, by helping local people record and use their knowledge.
Dewalt, B.R. 1994. "Using indigenous knowledge to improve agriculture and natural resource management." Human Organization 53 (2). pp.123-131.
Emery, A.R. 1996. The Participation of Indigenous Peoples and Their Knowledge in Environmental Assessment and Development Planning (draft). Centre for Traditional Knowledge: Ottawa, Canada.
Grenier, L. 1998. Working With Indigenous Knowledge: A Guide For Researchers. IDRC: Ottawa, Canada.
IIRR (International Institute of Rural Reconstruction). 1996a. Recording and Using Indigenous Knowledge: A Manual. IIRR: Silang, Cavite, Philippines.
Johnson, M. 1992. Lore: Capturing Traditional Environmental Knowledge. IDRC: Ottawa, Canada.
Matowanyika, J. 1994. "What are the issues on indigenous knowledge systems in southern Africa?" In Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Natural Resource Management in Southern Africa. Report of the Southern Africa Regional Workshop, Harare, Zimbabwe, 20-22 April 1994. IUCN-ROSA: Zimbabwe.
Thrupp, L.A. 1989. "Legitimizing Local Knowledge: From Displacement to Empowerment for Third World People". Agriculture and Human Values. Summer Issue. Pp.13-24.
Warren, D.M. 1991. Using Indigenous Knowledge for Agricultural Development. World Bank Discussion Paper 127. Washington, D.C.
This edition of The Overstory is excerpted with the kind permission of the publisher from:
Langill, S. 1999. Indigenous Knowledge: A Resource Kit for Sustainable Development Researchers in Dryland Africa. People, Land and Water Program Initiative, IDRC, Ottawa, Canada.
For further information about this publication, contact: Research Officer, People, Land and Water, International Development Research Centre (IDRC), PO Box 8500, Ottawa, Ontario K1G 3H9, Canada; Tel: (1-613) 236-6163; Fax: (1-613) 567-7748.
About the Author
Steve Langill has been a Research Associate with the International Development Research Centre in Ottawa, Canada for the past four years. He holds a Master's degree in Anthropology from Carleton University in Ottawa and has just completed a teaching degree at the University of Ottawa. His publications include Indigenous Knowledge: A Resource Kit for Sustainable Development Researchers in Dryland Africa (1999), the Community-Based Natural Resource Management Social Science Resource Kits on Participatory Research, Indigenous Knowledge, Institutional Analysis and Common Property (1998), and Indigenous Knowledge of Desertification: A Progress Report from the Desert Margins Program in Kenya, co-authored by A.J.N. Ndathi (1998).
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