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II.12 Science and Other Systems of Knowledge


Chair: B.V. Subbarayappa President, IUHPS, India
Rapporteur : D. Nakashima UNESCO

Session co-ordinator:

Programme Specialist, Unit on Coastal Regions and Small Islands, UNESCO
Local secretary: tbd


Science has become a powerful intellectual institution with far-reaching and profound influence on our daily life, our relationship with the environment, our system of values, our worldview. Notwithstanding its prominence in mainstream society, Science remains one knowledge system amongst many. 'Other knowledge systems', embedded in a panoply of cultures and sustaining a broad spectrum of ways-of-life, constitute a rich and diverse intellectual heritage that has begun to attract attention world-wide.

Local knowledge, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), indigenous knowledge (IK), folk knowledge - various names for these 'other systems' have been applied, each with their strengths and weaknesses. 'Traditional' underscores knowledge accumulation and transmission from past generations, but obscures the capacity for transformation and adaptation. 'Indigenous' reinforces links with indigenous peoples, many of whom harbour particularly strong knowledge systems, but excludes the extensive local knowledge accumulated by peoples with whom the term 'indigenous' sits uncomfortably, such as farmers in Africa, herders in Europe or fishers in the North Atlantic.

Whatever name we apply, the fact remains that these knowledge systems have guided and continue to guide human societies around the globe, in their innumerable interactions with the natural world: agriculture, gathering, hunting and husbandry; struggles against disease and injury; innovation of technology and techniques; naming and explanation of natural phenomena; maintenance of equilibria between society and milieu; adaptation to environmental change; and so on and so forth. They represent the dynamic products of an extended history of fine-grained interplay between distinct cultures and specific local environments. This explains their diverse structures and content, their complexity, versatility and pragmatism, and their distinct, internal logic anchored in specific worldviews.

What relationship between scientific and 'other' knowledge systems? For many bio-physical scientists, and also the food and drug industry, the first response is to prospect traditional knowledge sets for information useful to Science. The potential benefits of this enterprise are multiple: indigenous crop varieties with desirable characteristics; new active agents from traditional medicinal plants; local management techniques co-adapted to local ecosystems. But grave concerns have arisen about the misappropriation of traditional intellectual property, often for economic profit, and a disregard for equitable benefits sharing with knowledge holders. Other scientists prone the integration of scientific and indigenous knowledge, for example in the domain of renewable resource co-management, purportedly blending the best of two worldviews. Are such arrangements of mutual benefit? Given inherent imbalances of power in favour of Science, how often does scientific co-operation transform into the co-optation of the indigenous system?

These Science-centred approaches pose other, more fundamental threats to indigenous knowledge. Indigenous systems possess a cultural logic of their own. When screened on the sole basis of value to Science, knowledge judged useful is selected for and the remains are discarded as 'superstition and belief'. Such a process, dismembers, debases and destabilizes knowledge systems jeopardizing their continued existence. By 'mining' these systems for short-term intellectual gain, we undermine their very social and cultural foundations and menace the traditional societies that harbour them.


Systems of knowledge: Dialogue, relationships and process

Kenneth Ruddle
Graduate School of Policy Studies, Kwansei Gakuin University, Japan

During the last 20 years, the existence of rich systems of local knowledge, and their vital support to resource use and management regimes, has been demonstrated in a wide range of biological, physical and geographical domains such as agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry and agroforestry, medicine, marine science and fisheries.

Local knowledge includes empirical and practical components which are fundamental to sustainable resource management. Among coastal-marine fishers, for example, regular catches and often, long-term resource sustainment are ensured through the application of knowledge that encompasses empirical information on fish behavior, marine physical environments, fish habitats and the interactions among ecosystem components, as well as complex fish taxonomies. Local knowledge is therefore an important cultural resource that guides and sustains the operation of customary management systems. The sets of rules that compose a fisheries management system derive directly from local concepts and knowledge of the resources on which the fishery is based.

Beyond the practical and the empirical, it is essential to recognise the fundamental socio-cultural importance of local knowledge to any society. It is through knowledge transmission and socialization that worldviews are constructed, social institutions are perpetuated, customary practices established, and social roles defined. In this manner, local knowledge and its transmission, shape society and culture, and culture and society shape knowledge.

Local knowledge is of great potential practical value. It can provide an important information base for local resources management, especially in the tropics, where conventionally-used data are usually scarce to non-existent, as well as providing a shortcut to pinpoint essential scientific research needs. To be useful for resources management, however, it must be systematically collected and scientifically verified, before being blended with complementary information derived from Western-based sciences.

But local knowledge should not be looked on with only a short-term utilitarian eye. Arguments widely accepted for conserving biodiversity, for example, are also applicable to the intellectual cultural diversity encompassed in local knowledge systems: they should be conserved because their utility may only be revealed at some later date or owing to their intrinsic value as part of the world's global heritage.

At least in cultures with a Western liberal tradition, more than lip-service is now being paid to alternative systems of knowledge. The denigration of alternative knowledge systems as backward, inefficient, inferior, and founded on myth and ignorance has recently begun to change. Many such practices are a logical, sophisticated and often still-evolving adaptation to risk, based on generations of empirical experience and arranged according to principles, philosophies and institutions that are radically different from those prevailing in Western scientific circles, and hence all-but incomprehensible to them. But steadfastly held prejudices remain powerful.

In this presentation I describe the "design principles" of local knowledge systems, some types of knowledge system, and their social and practical usefulness. I then examine the economic, ideological and institutional factors that combine to perpetuate the marginalization and neglect of local knowledge, and discuss some of the requirements for applying local knowledge in modern management.

Integrating indigenous knowledge into conservation policy:
aboriginal fire regimes and the challenge of reproducing ancient fire management in protected areas

Marcia Langton
Centre for Indegenous Natural and Cultural Research, Northern Territory University, Darwin, Australia

The territories of indigenous peoples are often targeted for government conservation initiatives, because of their exceptional biodiversity. Causal links between indigenous occupation and the maintenance of biodiversity, however, are hardly considered, and only on very rare occasion has indigenous knowledge and practice been integrated into official conservation policy. One such exceptional case concerns the Aboriginal peoples and their use of fire for landscape management. Today, this ancient practice is being re-instated by National and State Authorities as the primary management tool for an increasing number of protected areas in Australia.

Fire has played a significant role in the shaping of the Australian landmass and its biota. It is an ancient elemental force, constructed as a powerful cultural and religious symbol by Aboriginal peoples in Australia, and a key tool for the reproduction of landscapes, particularly in northern Australia. Since the arrival of settler Australians and their confrontation with the ‘burning rage’ of the Australian landscape, fear of wildfire has motivated a repression of Aboriginal burning practices in most parts of Australia. Researchers from the Aboriginal domain have nevertheless been able to report during the 1970s and 1980s, on the continuance of traditional Aboriginal burning regimes and their impact on the landscape. Current understandings of these seasonal fire management traditions is that they permit reproduction of fire-dependant floral species, and through the creation of buffer zones, protect fire-intolerant floral communities such as monsoon forests.

For these landscape mosaics in remote Australia, the most significant disruptive factor during the colonial era and during much of this century, has been the removal of Aboriginal societies, whether by violence, forced removals or enticement of small groups to government settlements. The absence of traditional groups to carry out the annual and seasonal mosaic burns has turned some of these areas into "the new wilderness" described by Bowman: areas where wildfires, fuelled by accumulated grasses and undergrowth, cause extensive damage.

During the last decade, Federal National Park authorities and some State authorities have developed policies for reproducing Aboriginal fire management practices in order to maintain the landscapes of the wet-dry tropics and the arid zone. In a few cases, these efforts have been carried out in collaboration with the traditional Aboriginal owners of the relevant areas.

Some of the key social and policy issues arising from these new developments include the dissonance between Aboriginal and park administration responses to fire management in such areas, and the alteration of landscapes by large grazing animals, such as buffaloes. In the future, Aboriginal approaches to re-introducing Aboriginal traditional methods may be more successful. In the words of Yibarbuk (1998): "fire must be managed, and people must be on their country to manage that fire".

Les savoirs agricoles traditionnels dans
la production vivrière en Afrique subsaharienne

Lazare Sehouéto
Institut Kilimandjaro, Bénin

Les paysan(ne)s en Afrique au sud du Sahara ne tirent pas l’essentiel de leurs savoirs du système conventionnel de recherche scientifique et de vulgarisation agricole. Ils ont principalement recours à des savoirs dits traditionnels, locaux ou endogènes ou encore populaires, mais que je propose que l’on considère en général comme des 'savoirs localisés'.

La présente contribution présente quelques résultats de recherche sur les processus de production et de diffusion des savoirs agricoles au niveau des paysans pauvres au Bénin. Ces résultats de recherche permettent d’aller au-delà des interprétations culturalistes, de retrouver les paysan(ne)s au quotidien, effectuant des expériences et des expérimentations, adoptant et diffusant des savoirs qu’ils soumettent – naturellement – à des schèmes cognitifs et culturels spécifiques, à des logiques sociales propres. Il s’en dégage des conséquences majeures:

au plan de l’activité et du discours scientifique -

  • Si depuis peu, les savoirs dits traditionnels/locaux/endogènes font l’objet d’une attention plus soutenue de la part de la communauté scientifique, il faut remarquer que cette communauté reste encore fortement engluée dans les débats sur les dimensions culturelles du développement. Comme le montrent diverses recherches empiriques, l’inévitable médiation culturelle dans l’expression et la diffusion des savoirs cachent bien souvent les dimensions expérimentales et positives des savoirs paysans, qui les ‘normalisent’. Il convient donc de constituer un discours critique sur la production scientifique se donnant comme objet les savoirs dit locaux.

au plan des politiques scientifiques et des préoccupations de ‘développement’ -

  • Il ne s’agit pas tant d’intégrer – de manière généreuse et volontariste - les savoirs dits traditionnels dans les efforts de développement. Il s’agit de partir de ces savoirs (donc de leurs porteurs, les paysan(ne)s), et de créer autour d’eux des espaces publics spécifiques sans lesquels ils resteront emprisonnés dans le folklorique, l’anecdotique et le merveilleux. Il s’agit pour la recherche scientifique de jeter un pont, à travers ses instruments méthodologiques, ses chercheurs et des programmes concrets, entre ces savoirs et la recherche conventionnelle, d'accompagner la minorité de "dévoloppeurs" qui osent se poser des questions nouvelles, à partir des expériences des paysans. Il est essentiel de promouvoir ces autres savoirs, peu utiles pour les industries agro-alimentaires, mais qui font vivre la majorité des humains au sud du Sahara.

Improving health care by coupling indigenous and
modern medical knowledge: the scientific bases of
Highland Maya herbal medicine

Brent Berlin and Elois Ann Berlin
Department of Anthropology University of Georgia (USA) and El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (Mexico)

With the exception of the well-developed traditions of medicine in Asia and India, the medical ethnobiological knowledge of traditional peoples in other parts of the world has not been given the attention that it deserves. All too often, so-called "folk medicine" has been seen as exotic, magical, and based on simple superstitions. In this paper on the medical ethnobiology of the Tzeltal and Tzotzil Indians, two Maya-speaking peoples who reside in the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, we present evidence that strongly supports the scientific bases of traditional medicine. Our data show that the Highland Maya have developed a large number of herbal remedies based on an astute understanding of the signs and symptoms of common disease conditions. Furthermore, the potential therapeutic efficacy of Maya herbal medicine is confirmed by laboratory studies on the pharmacological properties affecting the agents associated with the ethnomedically identified clinical signs and symptoms which correlate closely with biomolecular medical disease categories.

The Tzeltal and Tzotzil recognize more than 250 classes of health conditions that can be grouped into about 20 major classes. Of these afflictions, those most commonly treated by medicinal plants are gastrointestinal diseases, skin infections, respiratory conditions, injuries resulting from accidents and violent acts, 'fevers and headaches', nueralgias and myalagias, eye problems, and infections of the teeth and mouth. Data collected over the last decade show that the Highland Maya are highly selective in the medicinal plant species used to treat the individual illnesses in each of these major ethnomedical categories.

Almost without exception, a small set of medicinal plant species target particular illnesses and these species are mutually exclusive as to their use in the treatment of individual conditions. These important species form the "Cuadro Básico" of the Highland Maya ethnopharmacopoeia in that they represent the most widely used and commonly known medicinal plants employed in the treatment of the Mayas' most significant health problems. Laboratory evaluation of species in this set shows their strong pharmacological efficacy. It is proposed that the cuadro básico of medicinal plants become a fundamental part of efforts to develop innovative and effective health maintenance programs. In addition to providing immediate benefits for local health conditions, such actions would contribute to a wider recognition of the intrinsic value of Highland Maya ethnobiological knowledge. Furthermore, the active promotion and preservation of this knowledge would be highly cost-effective in areas where the delivery of modern medications is economically impossible.

Pulse of the sea: local knowledge as a basis
for community-based development of coastal areas

Elmer Ferrer
College of Social Work and Community Development, University of the Philippines, Philippines

Oftentimes, ‘development professionals’ assume that the only legitimate form of knowledge is modern scientific knowledge. They fail to recognize knowledge held by local peoples and the possible contribution that this knowledge can make to development work. During the last three decades, however, there has been increasing awareness of the important role local knowledge can play in enhancing development.

Local knowledge refers to the body of knowledge constituted by a group of people through generations of living in close contact with nature. It is a "system of concepts, beliefs and ways of learning", generated and transformed by communities through time, via a systematic process of observation, experimentation and adaptation. It includes a system of classification, a set of empirical observations about the local environment, the development and use of appropriate technologies and a network of social arrangements governing resource use. Through local knowledge, people understand and cope with their particular bio-physical and socio-economic environments, and thus improve the quality of their lives.

In the Philippines, since the 1970s, an approach to coastal resource management has emerged that involves local communities in managing their resources - this is commonly known as community-based coastal resources management (CBCRM). CBCRM is people-centered, community-oriented and resource-based. It begins where the people are (i.e. what people already know) and builds on this knowledge to further develop their understanding and reach a new level of consciousness. The CBCRM approach recognizes and respects cultural diversity and strives to harness the use of indigenous knowledge and experiences in developing management strategy, thus enabling a greater degree of flexibility and adaptation in development.

This paper examines local knowledge of the coastal environment held by fishers of the coastal community of Anda, Pangasinan, Philippines, including knowledge of coastal habitats, fishing grounds, lunar cycles, tide, wind and climatic patterns as they relate to fishing practices and coastal resources management. It shows that in coastal communities, bodies of local knowledge are empirically-based, pragmatic and primarily behaviour-oriented and include detailed sets of information required to locate and harvest the flora and fauna. It further explores the social arrangements governing knowledge use, and outlines how this knowledge has been integrated into a CBCRM program, particularly in the area of resources assessment. Through this process, local environmental knowledge serves as an important cultural resource that guides and sustains the community-based resource management systems and empowers communities to manage their environment.

Educating today’s youth in indigenous ecological knowledge:
new paths for traditional ways

Robbie Mathew
Eeyou (Cree Indian) Elder of Chisasibi Nation, Canada

I am an elder from an indigenous nation of subarctic Canada, the Eeyou or Cree Indians of the James Bay region. One of our great concerns is what the future will hold for our children and youth. As for many indigenous peoples around the world, our territories and our ways-of-life are undergoing processes of change and renewal. For the Eeyou, education and the transmission of knowledge is a critical issue but a complex one. On the one hand, we understand that education in non-indigenous ways may allow our children to live well in a world different from the one we grew up in. At the same time, we also profoundly believe that Eeyou youth must sustain their indigenous knowledge and ways, as it is only by knowing from where they come that they will be able to determine to where they wish to go.

For any society, rapid environmental and social change is disorienting, especially when people feel powerless before the forces of change. In my own community of Chisasibi, the human toll has been high, and children and youth have suffered greatly. Family violence, juvenile delinquency, alcohol and drug abuse, depression and suicide ... this is the disturbing legacy born by our youth.

For young people who have dropped out of school and turned their backs to society, Eeyou elders, along with our Hunters and Trappers Association, have set into place a kind of 'bush school'. Young boys and girls, often from families ill-equipped to provide guidance and support, are taken out to traditional hunting and trapping territories by an elder hunter and his wife. There, away from town life, they learn to live according to another rhythm and set of values, and through a process of apprenticeship, begin to appreciate and acquire the knowledge and practices by which Eeyou have lived on the land. As in the school system, a curriculum specially adapted to bush life has been adopted with, for example, seasonal variations in the specific tasks to be learned.

I will be presenting my own experience with youth in these innovative 'bush schools' that are somewhat of a hybrid between traditional learning and formal education. I will try to explain what young people gain from these experiences, that offer an apprenticeship in both hunter knowledge and Eeyou spirituality.


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