What is Indigenous Knowledge?
The increasing attention indigenous knowledge is receiving by academia and the development institutions has not yet led to a unanimous perception of the concept of indigenous knowledge. None of the definitions is essentially contradictory; they overlap in many aspects. Warren (1991) and Flavier (1995) present typical definitions by suggesting:
While using similar definitions, the conclusions drawn by the various authors are, controversial in a number of aspects. The implications of this will be discussed in the section "Public debate on indigenous knowledge". Most authors explain their perception of indigenous knowledge, covering only some aspects of it. In contrast, Ellen and Harris (1996) provide ten characteristics of indigenous knowledge that are comprehensive and conclusive.
In the emerging global knowledge economy a countrys ability to build and mobilize knowledge capital, is equally essential for sustainable development as the availability of physical and financial capital. (World Bank, 1997) The basic component of any countrys knowledge system is its indigenous knowledge. It encompasses the skills, experiences and insights of people, applied to maintain or improve their livelihood.
Significant contributions to global knowledge have originated from indigenous people, for instance in medicine and veterinary medicine with their intimate understanding of their environments. Indigenous knowledge is developed and adapted continuously to gradually changing environments and passed down from generation to generation and closely interwoven with peoples cultural values. Indigenous knowledge is also the social capital of the poor, their main asset to invest in the struggle for survival, to produce food, to provide for shelter or to achieve control of their own lives.
To name but a few:
For more examples see our database of indigenous knowledge practices.
Today, many indigenous knowledge systems are at risk of becoming extinct because of rapidly changing natural environments and fast pacing economic, political, and cultural changes on a global scale. Practices vanish, as they become inappropriate for new challenges or because they adapt too slowly. However, many practices disappear only because of the intrusion of foreign technologies or development concepts that promise short-term gains or solutions to problems without being capable of sustaining them. The tragedy of the impending disappearance of indigenous knowledge is most obvious to those who have developed it and make a living through it. But the implication for others can be detrimental as well, when skills, technologies, artifacts, problem solving strategies and expertise are lost.
Indigenous knowledge is part of the lives of the rural poor; their livelihood depends almost entirely on specific skills and knowledge essential for their survival. Accordingly, for the development process, indigenous knowledge is of particular relevance for the following sectors and strategies:
Indigenous knowledge is not yet fully utilized in the development process. Conventional approaches imply that development processes always require technology transfers from locations that are perceived as more advanced. This has led often to overlooking the potential in local experiences and practices. The following experience from Ethiopia food security program may illustrate the consequences if local knowledge is not considered adequately.
Indigenous knowledge is relevant on three levels for the development process.
The development process interacts with indigenous knowledge. When designing or implementing development programs or projects, three scenarios can be observed:
The development strategy either
Planners and implementers need to decide which path to follow. Rational conclusions are based on determining whether indigenous knowledge would contribute to solve existing problems and achieving the intended objectives. In most cases, a careful amalgamation of indigenous and foreign knowledge would be most promising, leaving the choice, the rate and the degree of adoption and adaptation to the clients. Foreign knowledge does not necessarily mean modern technology, it includes also indigenous practices developed and applied under similar conditions elsewhere. These techniques are then likely to be adopted faster and applied more successfully. To foster such a transfer a sound understanding of indigenous knowledge is needed. This requires means for the capture and validation, as well as for the eventual exchange, transfer and dissemination of indigenous knowledge.
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