Friday, December 30, 2011



The literature on Indigenous Knowledge (IK) does not provide a single definition of the concept. Nevertheless, several traits distinguish IK broadly from other knowledge. IK is unique to a particular culture and society. It is the basis for local decision-making in agriculture, health, natural resource management and other activities. IK is embedded in community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals. It is essentially tacit knowledge that is not easily codifiable.

Human beings gather knowledge basically for two purposes: survival and meaning. We try to understand and come to grips with the environment in order to survive. And we try to find reasons for our survival that go beyond the intuitive reaction to physical threats. This is in short the basis for all kind of activities which aim at building up knowledge systems. Long before the development of modern science, which is quite young, indigenous peoples have developed their ways of knowing how to survive and also of ideas about meanings, purposes and values. It has become customary to refer to this kind of knowledge as “indigenous knowledge” or “traditional knowledge”, “local knowledge”, traditional ecological knowledge” “ethno ecology” etc. and it is often seen as a contrast to, or at least as very different from, western ways of generating, recording and transmitting knowledge. Indigenous knowledge the rest of indigenous cultural elements, this part has also been considered as “primitive”, “prelogical” “illogical”, “irrational” and incoherent

Indigenous Knowledge System (IKS) is human experiences, organized and ordered into accumulated knowledge with the objective to utilize it to achieve quality of life and to create a livable environment for both human and other forms of life (Serote; 2001).

Indigenous knowledge can be defined as a set of perceptions, information, and behaviors that guide local community members’ uses of land and natural resources. Indigenous knowledge is created and sustained by local community members as a means to meet their needs for food, shelter, health, spirituality, and savings. Indigenous knowledge is usually adapted and specific to local ecological conditions and to community members’ social and economic situations and cultural beliefs. This knowledge can be simple or complex. It is not static, but evolves in response to changing ecological, economic, and sociopolitical circumstances, based on the creativity and innovation of community members and as a result of the influence of other cultures and outside technologies.

The basic component of any country’s knowledge system is its indigenous knowledge. It encompasses the skills, experiences and insights of people, applied to maintain or improve their livelihood.

Indigenous knowledge on an academic platform has certainly come to the fore in recent years. Study institutions are developing concrete studies about the diversity and importance of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS). The academic value of local knowledge has benefited its scholars for centuries, helping them to adapt to and exploit various terrains and environments.

IKS is the local knowledge – knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society. IKS contrasts with the international knowledge system generated by universities, research institutions and private firms. It is the basis for local-level decision making in agriculture, health care, food preparation, education, natural resource management and a host of other activities in rural communities.

Indigenous knowledge can be broadly defined as the knowledge that an indigenous (local) community accumulates over generations of living in a particular environment. This definition encompasses all forms of knowledge – technologies, know-how skills, practices and beliefs – that enable the community to achieve stable livelihoods in their environment.

Warren (1991) and Flavier (1995) present typical definitions by suggesting:
Indigenous knowledge (IK) is the local knowledge – knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society. IK contrasts with the international knowledge system generated by universities, research institutions and private firms. It is the basis for local-level decision making in agriculture, health care, food preparation, education, natural-resource management, and a host of other activities in rural communities. (Warren 1991)
Indigenous Knowledge is (…) the information base for a society, which facilitates communication and decision-making. Indigenous information systems are dynamic, and are continually influenced by internal creativity and experimentation as well as by contact with external systems. (Flavier et al. 1995: 479)

Characteristics of Indigenous knowledge

Some characteristics of indigenous knowledge system include:

1.     IKS is local: it is rooted to a particular and set of experiences, and generated by people living in those places. The corollary of this is that transferring that knowledge to other places runs the risk of, quite literally, dislocating it.

2.     IK is orally-transmitted, or transmitted through imitation and demonstration. The corollary is that writing it down changes some of its fundamental properties. Writing, of course, also makes it more portable and ermanent, reinforcing the dislocation referred to in 1.

3.     IK is the consequence of practical engagement in everyday life, and is constantly reinforced by experience and trial and error. This experience is characteristically the product of many generations of intelligent reasoning, and since its failure has immediate consequences for the lives of its practitioners its success is very often a good measure of Darwinian fitness. It is, as Hunn [1993: 13] neatly puts it, `tested in the rigorous laboratory of survival’.

4.     1 and 3 support a further general observation, that it is empirical rather than theoretical knowledge. To some extent, its oral character hinders the kind of organization necessary for the development of true theoretical knowledge.

5.     Repetition is a defining characteristic of tradition [Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983], even when new knowledge is added. Repetition (redundancy) aids retention and reinforces ideas; it is also partly a consequence of 1 and 2.

6.     Tradition is `a fluid and transforming agent with no real end’ when applied to knowledge; negotiation is a central concept [Hunn 1993]. IK is, therefore, constantly changing, being produced as well as reproduced, discovered as well as lost; though it is often represented as being somehow static.

7.     IK is characteristically shared to a much greater degree than other forms of knowledge, including global science. This is why it is sometimes called `people’s science’, an appellation which also arises from its generation in contexts of everyday production.  However, its distribution is still segmentary, that is socially clustered [Hobart 1993]. It is usually asymmetrically distributed within a population, by gender and age, for example, and preserved through distribution in the memories of different individuals. Specialists may exist by virtue of experience, but also by virtue of ritual or political authority.

8.     Although IK may be focussed on particular individuals and may achieve a degree of coherence in rituals and other symbolic constructs, its distribution is always fragmentary: it does not exist in its totality in any one place or individual. Indeed, to a considerable extent it is devolved not in individuals at all, but in the practices and interactions in which people themselves engage.

9.     Despite claims for the existence of culture-wide (indeed universal) abstract classifications of knowledge based on non-functional criteria [Berlin 1992, Atran 1990]; where IK is at its densest and directly applicable its organization is essentially functional.

10.                       Ik is characteristically situated within broader cultural traditions; separating the technical from the non-technical, the rational from the non-rational is problematic [Scoones and Thompson 1994].

11.                       Not uniformly distributed. It is more sophisticated in areas or topics which are important to people and which are easily observed.

12.                       Can be held by all in the society or by specialists; different areas of indigenous knowledge can be held by men and women

13.                       Not isolated from other belief systems: for example from religions, from beliefs about the human body, and from general classifications of the universe, e.g. into "hot" and "cold" or "wet" and "dry".

14.                       Not always explicit: farmers may not always be able to articulate what they know; they may simply practice it ("tacit knowledge").

15.                       Not always right: it may be wrong or even dangerous

16.                       Dynamic not static: it evolves, it incorporates indigenous experimentation, and it can adapt to new materials and circumstances

Indigenous peoples view the world we live in as an integrated whole. Our beliefs, knowledge, arts and other forms of cultural expression have been handed down through the generations. Integrated in these elements is the knowledge. Some of the characteristics compared to so-called western scientific knowledge were put up by Wolfe et. al 1991:12 in this way:

Indigenous knowledge
Western scientific
Dominant mode of thinking
Data creation
Short time cycles
Recognizes the onset of longterm
Short-term linear
Poor long-term prediction
Spiritual - includes the
Scientific Hypotheses
Theory and Laws
Biological classification
Genetic and Hierarchical

Importance of Indigenous knowledge System

The features described above suggest that indigenous knowledge is an integral part of the development process of local communities.5 According to the 1998/99 World Development Report, knowledge, not capital, is the key to sustainable social and economic development. Building on local knowledge, the basic component of any country’s knowledge system, is the first step to mobilize such capital. Moreover, there is a growing consensus that knowledge exchange must be a two way street.

IKS plays a profound role in societies. It helps shape and defines their very existence and provides the foundation for their beliefs and traditional practices.

Indigenous knowledge provides the basis for problem-solving strategies for local communities, especially the poor. It represents an important component of global knowledge on development issues. IK is an underutilized resource in the development process. Learning from IK, by investigating first what local communities know and have, can improve understanding of local conditions and provide a productive context for activities designed to help the communities. Understanding IK can increase responsiveness to clients. Adapting international practices to the local setting can help improve the impact and sustainability of development assistance. Sharing IK within and across communities can help enhance cross-cultural understanding and promote the cultural dimension of development.

Indigenous knowledge is of particular relevance for the following sectors and strategies:

Conflict resolution
After fifteen years of civil war, community leaders in Mozambique reportedly managed about 500,000 informal “land transactions” and helped in the settlement of about 5 million refugees and displaced persons in two years. Most significantly, they achieved this without direct external help from donors or central government. Traditional, local authorities relied on indigenous, customary laws to resolve potential conflicts arising from competing claims to land by returning refugees and those who had settled the lands during the civil war. As a result, small holders were able to quickly resettle and resume farming and contribute to the growth of agricultural production.

Food distribution
In a Food for Work Program in Nepal, indigenous knowledge has been a more effective agent of development than modern technology. A donor- assisted food distribution program was incurring major losses of food along the distribution line. The project managers turned to the local community for solutions. It was jointly determined that using local equipment (e.g., bullock carts), distributors, and community-based supervision would be the most appropriate way to distribute the food in the local context. Hiring local bullock carts in place of the covered trucks operated by city-based companies provided additional income for rural communities and improved transparency of the distribution process.

Women empowerment

In Senegal, external partners had for years engaged the country authorities to abolish female genital mutilation (FGM), though with little success. Indigenous knowledge and empowerment of community groups eventually made a national impact. After attending an adult literacy course conducted by, a local NGO, a group of women from a village called Malicounda decided to address the issue in their communities. They convinced the traditional spiritual leaders to join their campaign against the practice. Within two years these empowered women had convinced sixteen neighboring communities to abolish the practice. As a result of the growing impact of the Malicounda initiative, by the end of 1999 the practice was declared illegal in Senegal. The Malicounda initiative has spread to other groups in the neighboring countries where already more than 200 communities have abolished FGM.


Indigenous knowledge can help promote biodiversity conservation by characterizing resource uses that are appropriate for the particular local landscape. In fact, incorporating indigenous knowledge into conservation and development activities is believed to be an important mechanism for ensuring the most efficient and productive use of natural resources in the short term without jeopardizing the long-term capacity of nature to continue producing these resources.

Learning Attitudes and Values for a Sustainable Future
Indigenous knowledge can help to develop sensitive and caring values and attitudes and, thereby, promote a vision of a sustainable future. Indigenous communities have lived in harmony with the environment and have utilized resources without impairing nature's capacity to regenerate them. Their ways of living were sustainable. Indigenous knowledge shaped their values and attitudes towards environment, and it is these attitudes and values, which have guided their actions and made then sustainable.

Learning through Culture
Indigenous knowledge is stored in culture in various forms, such as traditions, customs, folk stories, folk songs, folk dramas, legends, proverbs, myths, etc. Use of these cultural items as resources in schools can be very effective in bringing indigenous knowledge alive for the students. It would allow them to conceptualize places and issues not only in the local area but also beyond their immediate experience. Students will already be familiar with some aspects of indigenous culture and, therefore, may find it interesting to learn more about it through these cultural forms. It would also enable active participation as teachers could involve students in collecting folk stories, folk songs, legends, proverbs, etc., that are retold in their community.

Starting Locally: From the 'Known' to the 'Unknown'
Indigenous knowledge can play a significant role in education about the local area. In most societies, indigenous people have developed enormous volumes of knowledge over the centuries by directly interacting with the environment: knowledge about the soil, climate, water, forest, wildlife, minerals etc. in the locality. This ready-made knowledge system could easily be used in education.

Indigenous knowledge is relevant on three levels for the development process.
·        It is, obviously, most important for the local community in which the bearers of such knowledge live and produce.
·        Development agents (CBOs, 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.

Indigenous knowledge is an important part of the lives of the poor. It is an integral part of the local ecosystem. IK is a key element of 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.

Indigenous knowledge also provides problem-solving strategies for local communities and helps shape local visions and perceptions of environment and society. Typical examples include:

·        Midwives and herbal medicine.
·        Treatment of cattle ticks by the Fulani using Tephrosia plants.
·        Soil and land classifications in Nigeria.
·        Water catching stone bunds in Burkina Faso.
·        Construction of buildings with natural “air conditioning” in the Sudan.
·        Kpelle artisans' steel making technology in Liberia.
·        Agroforestry systems emulating the natural climax vegetation on the Kilimanjaro.
·        Settlement for land disputes between farmers and nomads in Togo.
·        Communal use and individual allocation of land by the Washambaa in Tanzania.
·        Local healers’ role in post-conflict resolution in Mozambique.
·        Transfer of knowledge through elders, rituals, initiation, and story tellers in West Africa.
·        Systems to control power and distribute wealth among the Maasai in East Africa.

IK is of particular relevance to the poor in the following sectors or strategies:

·        Agriculture
·        Animal husbandry and ethnic veterinary medicine
·        Use and management of natural resources
·        Primary health care (PHC), preventive medicine and psycho-social care
·        Saving and lending
·        Community development
·        Poverty alleviation
Indigenous knowledge is important, and respecting it:
·        is an essential first step for development projects,
·        allows better innovation and adaptation of technologies
·        adds to scientific knowledge
·        increases understanding between researchers and local people
·        increases the local capacity to experiment and innovate
·        empowers local people (Warburton and Martin 1999))


In summary, IK is important for both the local communities and the global community. The development partners need to recognize the role of IK, understand its workings in the context of the local communities, and integrate systematically the most effective and promising of such practices into the development programs they support. The  impact and sustainability of international practices could be enhanced if they are adapted to the local conditions and the indigenous practices. Yet, IK is still an underutilized resource in the development process. Special efforts are, therefore, needed to understand, document and disseminate IK for preservation, transfer or adoption and adaptation elsewhere.

By helping to share IK within and across communities the development community can learn a lot about the local conditions that affect those communities. IK should complement, rather than compete with global knowledge systems in the implementation of projects. By investigating first what local communities know and have in terms of indigenous practice, development partners could better help improve upon those practices by bringing to the dialogue international practices from development experiences in other parts of the world. Moreover, this process can contribute to better cross-cultural understanding and to the promotion of culture in development. But, above all, investing in the exchange of indigenous knowledge and its integration into the development process can help to reduce poverty.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you very much for this useful information, its one of the best I have ever read. it is clear and easy for one to read and understand. I wish to write one of these one day and if my wish comes true your style of writing will be my motivation. Thank you!