Indigenous knowledge key in attaining sustainable development goals

08May 2017
The Guardian Reporter
The Guardian
Indigenous knowledge key in attaining sustainable development goals

On September 25th 2015, countries worldwide adopted a set of goals to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure prosperity for all as part of a new sustainable development agenda.

Community meetings may provide an opportunity to share and advocate for increased usage of indigenous knowledge in improving livelihood and sustainable development of community resources.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), officially known as ‘Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ is a set of 17 ‘Global Goals’ with 169 targets between them.

With support from various sources such as the World Bank, Tanzania Development Gateway, and UNEP just to mention a few, this article discusses the role of indigenous knowledge in supporting achievement of the sustainable development. This is to ensure that policy makers, planners and implementers take into consideration indigenous knowledge in the process of delivering SDGs.

Louise Grenier in her book ‘Working with Indigenous Knowledge’, points out that ‘Indigenous Knowledge’ refers to the unique, traditional, local knowledge existing within and developed around the specific conditions of women and men indigenous to a particular geographic area.

The development of indigenous knowledge systems, covering all aspects of life, including management of the natural environment, has been a matter of survival to the people who generated these systems. Such knowledge systems are cumulative, representing generations of experiences, careful observations, and trial-and-error experiments.

Indigenous knowledge systems are also dynamic: new knowledge is continuously added. Such systems do innovate from within and also will internalize, use, and adapt external knowledge to suit the local situation.

All members of a community have traditional ecological knowledge: elders, women, men, and children. The quantity and quality of the indigenous knowledge that individuals possess vary. Age, education, gender, social and economic status, daily experiences, outside influences, roles and responsibilities in the home and community, profession, available time, aptitude and intellectual capability, level of curiosity and observation skills, ability to travel and degree of autonomy, and control over natural resources are some of the influencing factors.

Indigenous knowledge is stored in people’s memories and activities and is expressed in stories, songs, folklore, proverbs, dances, myths, cultural values, beliefs, rituals, community laws, local language and taxonomy, agricultural practices, equipment, materials, plant species, and animal breeds.

Indigenous knowledge is shared and communicated orally, by specific example, and through culture. Indigenous forms of communication and organization are vital to local-level decision-making processes and to the preservation, development, and spread of indigenous knowledge.

How is indigenous knowledge in Africa? Indigenous knowledge is still intact among indigenous (local) communities in many parts of Africa. This knowledge has made it possible for the indigenous communities to live in harmony with their environment for generations.

Over the centuries indigenous knowledge has guided indigenous people on how to sustainably utilise their natural resources using a variety of innovations to deal with environmental conservation and natural disaster management. This knowledge, in line with African tradition, has been handed down orally from generation to generation.

Louise Grenier argues that a decade ago, there was very little research that focused on indigenous knowledge, and there were even fewer examples of successful indigenous knowledge-based interventions.

But since the early 1990s, indigenous knowledge has been fertile ground for research. With so much activity, there is now a wealth of information on the topic.

In fact, there are lots of ‘pieces’ of information all over the place. Because indigenous knowledge research is still relatively new, comprehensive source materials are rare.

Therefore, there is a need to specifically address this need, including to gather and integrate information on the topic, making a whole package of information accessible, comprehensible, and hence, useful.

Through extensive use of field examples and a review of current theory and practice, we provide a succinct and comprehensive overview of indigenous knowledge research and assessment.

Why is indigenous knowledge important in sustainable development? 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 people’s 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.

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: agriculture;
animal husbandry and ethnic veterinary medicine; use and management of natural resources; primary health care , preventive medicine and psychosocial care; saving and lending; community development; and poverty alleviation.

Indigenous knowledge is relevant on three levels for the development process, as stipulated in the following points:

First, it is, obviously, most important for the local community in which the bearers of such knowledge live and produce.

Secondly, development agents (CBOs, CSOs, NGOs, governments, donors, local leaders, and private sector initiatives) need to recognize it, value it and appreciate it in their interaction with the local communities. Before incorporating it in their approaches, they need to understand it – and critically validate it against the usefulness for their intended objectives.

Lastly, indigenous knowledge forms part of the global knowledge. In this context, it has a value and relevance in itself. Indigenous knowledge can be preserved, transferred, or adopted and adapted elsewhere.

The development process interacts with indigenous knowledge. During designing or implementing development programs or projects, three scenarios can be observed. The development strategy either relies entirely or substantially on indigenous knowledge; overrides indigenous knowledge; or incorporates indigenous knowledge.

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 combination 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.

How can we ensure indigenous knowledge boosts sustainable development? In order to ensure that indigenous knowledge becomes engine of sustainable development in Africa, there is a need to conduct research and utilize its results interms of:

(a) Learning systems: indigenous methods of imparting knowledge such as indigenous child rearing practices; indigenous approaches to innovation and experimentation; indigenous games; and indigenous specialists;

(b)Local organizations, controls, and enforcement: traditional institutions for environmental management; common-property management practices;

traditional decision-making processes; conflict-resolution practices; traditional laws, rights, taboos, and rituals; and community controls on harvesting;

(c)Local classification and quantification: a community’s definitions and classification of phenomena and local flora and fauna; and indigenous methods of counting and quantifying;

(d)Human health: nutrition; human-disease classification systems; traditional medicine and the use of herbal remedies in treatment of diseases; and the locations of medicinal plants, the proper times for collection, the most useful parts, and the methods for preparing and storing medicines;

(e) Animals and animal diseases: animal breeding and production; traditional fodder and forage species and their specific uses; animal-disease classification; and traditional ethno veterinary medicine;

(f) Water: traditional water-management and water-conservation systems; traditional techniques for irrigation; use of specific species for water conservation; and freshwater and saltwater fisheries and aquatic-resource management;

(g) Soil: soil conservation practices; the use of specific species for soil conservation; and soil-fertility enhancement practices;

(h) Agriculture: indigenous indicators to determine favourable times to prepare, plant, and harvest gardens; land-preparation practices; indigenous ways to propagate plants; seed storage and processing (drying, threshing, cleaning, and grading); seed practices; indigenous methods of sowing (seed spacing and intercropping); seedling preparation and care; farming and cropping systems (for example, complementary groupings); crop harvesting and storage; food processing and marketing; and pest-management systems and plant- protection methods;

(i) Agroforestry and swidden agriculture: indigenous techniques used for recognizing potential swidden farmland and the criteria used for making choices regarding its use; criteria and techniques used for allowing a farm to go fallow; fallow management and uses; indigenous adaptations for intensification; changes adopted during the shift to sedentary agriculture; the management of forest plots and the productivity of forest plots; the knowledge and use of forest plants (and animals); and the interrelationship between tree species, improved crop yields, and soil fertility; and
(j) Other topics: textiles and other local crafts; building materials; energy conversion; indigenous tools; and changes to local systems over time.

As our countries implements SDGs, it is good to review our daily practices and see to what extent are our policy and practices have taken consideration indigenous knowledge in supporting communities to face various challenges at local and national level.

The key question is: to what extent have our local scientists, research institutions, policy makers, development planners, investors, politicians and educators have utilized the information on indigenous knowledge to enhance their policies, programmes and practice?

The writer is a specialist in educational policy, planning, economics and finance. He is reached through +255754304181 or [email protected]

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