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Exploring the role of indigenous knowledge in developing sustainable food systems.
What is the Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Creating Sustainable Food Systems?

Over the past three decades, Indigenous Knowledge (IK) has become increasingly recognised as playing a significant role in sustainable environmental management (SEM). This paper focuses on a specific aspect of sustainable environmental management, related to the role of Indigenous Knowledge in creating sustainable food systems towards meeting global food security requirements.

A recognition of the increased importance of understanding the role of indigenous knowledge in sustainable environmental management is shared by Berkes (1999: 14) in his statement that a 'growing interest in traditional knowledge since the 1980s is indicative of the need to gain further insights into indigenous and/or local practices of resource use from an ecological perspective'.

Further to Berkes comments, The World Bank (1997: unknown) are of the opinion that 'in the emerging global knowledge economy a country’s ability to build and mobilize knowledge capital, is equally essential for sustainable development as the availability of physical and financial capital'. In many areas of the world, the basic component of any established knowledge system is somewhat formed from its indigenous knowledge. This is the intrinsic knowledge that encompasses the skills, experiences and insights of people, applied to maintain or improve their livelihood.

Although the importance of Indigenous Knowledge has had a major increase in recognition especially towards establishing sustainable food systems (SFS), prior to the past thirty year time period a number of factors have impacted on the successful integration of Indigenous Knowledge (referred to by Colding (1999) as Traditional Knowledge) into the scientific realm. This is discussed in more detail at a later stage of this paper.

Other major aspects in creating sustainable food systems discussed in this paper include - the causes of food insecurity and its effect on Indigenous Communities; the influence of Agenda 21 in developing strategies for integrating indigenous knowledge into SEM practices and the detailing of examples (including case studies) of Indigenous sustainable land use practices.

The importance of IK in developing SFS is especially reflected in the immensity of research material available on the topic and its' sub-fields including - traditional farming; indigenous agro-forestry; forest co-management practices; indigenous aquaculture; Permaculture; local seed management systems; polycultural ecologies; local market gardening; indigenous food production and traditional medicine practices.

Due to this fact, it would require extensive documentation to do complete justice to this important field of sustainable environmental management. This paper therefore will aim to give a detailed presentation of a number of focussed aspects of sustainable food systems without losing sight of the larger framework of environmental management research within which this discourse fits. To begin this journey of exploration, a definition of the paper's central concepts will be undertaken.

Indigenous Knowledge & Its Role in Sustainable Environmental Management?

Numerous definitions exist for the term Indigenous Knowledge. A simplified definition of Indigenous knowledge is 'local knowledge that is unique to a given culture or society' (Warren, 1987: pg 5). A more developed definition of IK is the systematic body of knowledge acquired by local people through the accumulation of experiences, informal experiments, and intimate understanding of the environment in a given culture (Rajasekaran, 1993).

Rajasekaran (1993) also provides an extended list of definitions for Indigenous Knowledge Systems based on the words of other actors in this field of research, this includes:

• adaptive skills of local people usually derived from many years of experience, that have often been communicated through "oral traditions" and learned through family members over generations.

• time-tested agricultural and natural resource management practices, which pave the way for sustainable agriculture.

• strategies and techniques developed by local people to cope with the changes in the socio-cultural and environmental conditions.

• practices that are accumulated by farmers due to constant experimentation and innovation.

• trial-and-error problem-solving approaches by groups of people with an objective to meet the challenges they face in their local environments.

• decision-making skills of local people that draw upon the resources they have at hand.

In incorporating some of the common themes of these concepts, a definition of Indigenous Knowledge could be simplified as an 'accumulated, adaptive oral data-set developed by a group of people over multiple generations exploring their surrounding environment for survival purposes'. Although this definition could easily be presumed as suggesting a scientific process, a number of factors have precluded IK from being incorporated into the scientific realm. Much of this reasoning is due to Indigenous Knowledge being 'oral' and therefore considered by many as scientifically unsubstantial.

Indigenous Knowledge (as compared to scientific knowledge) suggests a methodology of reasoning that is based on premises that are holistic (as opposed to reductionist); moral (as opposed to supposedly value-free); spiritual (as opposed to mechanistic) and based on empirical observations and accumulation of facts by trial-and-error (as opposed to experimentation and systematic, deliberate accumulation of fact (Berkes 1989). The differences between the two observational methodologies suggested above provides an unfounded reasoning for the exclusion of IK from the scientific realm.

A supportive view of IK as a deliberate science is shown by Kaloko (1997: pp 6-8) who writes 'In most societies local people have developed enormous volumes of knowledge about their local environments over the centuries by directly interacting with the environment, includes knowledge about the soil, climate, water, forest, wildlife, minerals etc. in the immediate and surrounding localities'. From Kaloko's viewpoint, the utilisation of indigenous knowledges world wide has allowed for the survival of traditional ways of life despite their existence within the face of a world based in scientific frameworks of thinking.

By incorporating the evidence provided by Kaloko with that of Emery and Associates (1997), a productive reasoning for Indigenous Knowledge to be incorporated into the realm of 'Traditional Science' (redefined as Traditional Environmental Knowledge or TEK) can be established. Emery and Associates (1997) detail three areas of TEK that parallel elements of scientific knowledge -
Classification: The understanding of specific elements of factors in the environment, such as the plants, animals, soil, water, air, weather and environmental phenomena;

Technology and Resource Management: The development and use of traditional technology for farming, hunting, forestry, fishing, trapping, and managing the resources for the use both of the current and importantly for the future generations.
Ecology, Evolution and Systematics: The understanding and awareness of the 'web of life'. This includes the concept of origins of interrelatedness of types of animals, plants, and rocks. It understands the dynamic interrelationships of current ecological members of the same areas.

The incorporation of these three elements of 'traditional science' within the extended realm of scientific discourse effectively establishes a way forward for utilising Indigenous Knowledge in developing broader sustainable environmental management practices. This concept will now be further developed through exploring various practices of Indigenous Knowledge (traditional science) in establishing sustainable food systems.

The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Creating Sustainable Food Systems

Many organisational programs worldwide have begun to focus on the necessity of recognising the role of traditional scientific knowledge in meeting requirements for global food security. One of these programs - The IUCN Programme on Traditional Knowledge for Conservation (IUCN 1986) - recognises various important aspects of traditional knowledge focussing also on the broader incorporation of traditional scientific concepts into such areas as natural resource assessment and management and into the broader realm of environmental planning. This integrated approach to sustainable food (and broader environmental) systems includes a recognition of the importance of -

• Traditional knowledge for new biological and ecological insights. New scientific knowledge can be derived from perceptive investigations of traditional environmental knowledge systems, as in the case of life cycles of tropical reef fish.

• Traditional knowledge for resource management. Much traditional knowledge is relevant for
contemporary natural resource management, in such areas as wetlands. "Rules of thumb" developed by ancient resource managers and enforced by social and cultural means, are in many ways as good as Western scientific prescriptions.

• Traditional knowledge for development planning. The use of traditional knowledge may benefit development agencies in providing more realistic evaluations of environment, natural resources and production systems. Involvement of the local people in the planning process improves the chance of success of development.

The above list of concepts related to the role of traditional knowledge in establishing sustainable food and environmental systems would have likely influenced the formation of broader universal policies and guidelines towards developing global sustainable practices. An event of major importance spurning this transition from unsustainable to sustainable ways of living was the Rio Earth Summit of 1992 where Agenda 21 (otherwise known as the Rio Declaration) was developed.

Agenda 21 (UNCED 1992) documented a framework for creating universal guidelines for sustainable development, including specific sections related to sustainable food systems. The sections of Agenda 21 that are of major importance to the current discussion are 14 & 32, as they are related to 'Promoting Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Development' and 'Strengthening the Role of Farmers'.

The main areas of focus within Section 14 are -

• B. Ensuring people's participation and promoting human resource development for sustainable agriculture

14.22. Governments at the appropriate level, with the support of the relevant international and regional organizations, should:

(a) Encourage people's participation on farm technology development and transfer, incorporating indigenous ecological knowledge and practices;

14.28. Governments at the appropriate level, with the support of the relevant international and regional organizations, should:

(b) Initiate and maintain on-farm and off-farm programmes [sic] to collect and record indigenous knowledge.
• E. Land conservation and rehabilitation

14.47. Governments, at the appropriate level, with the support of the relevant international and regional organizations, should:

(c) Collect and record information on indigenous conservation and rehabilitation practices and farming systems as a basis for research and extension programmes.

The main relevant focal point within Chapter 32 is -

• 32.8. Governments and farmers' organizations should:

(a) Initiate mechanisms to document, synthesize and disseminate local knowledge, practices and project experiences so that they will make use of the lessons of the past when formulating and implementing policies affecting farming, forest and fishing populations;
The subsections of Agenda 21 detailed here present a strong focus of the importance of indigenous knowledge in creating sustainable food systems, with a specific emphasis on learning about long-term proven 'best sustainable agricultural practices'.

This process of learning essentially requires the establishment of processes for researching and documenting practical examples of multi-generationally established knowledge systems, at the risk of losing the core values of this integral knowledge base if it is not documented. Essentially, the risk associated with disregarding an exploration of the role of indigenous knowledge in sustainable food systems it too great to allow it to occur according to the Rio Declaration (1992). The Rio Declaration instead, has embedded within it a principle for exploring the 'unknown risk factors' related to sustainable/unsustainable development practices. This principle is referred to as the 'precautionary principle'.

According to Ammann (2005: 3), 'the purpose of the precautionary principle is to avoid damage of a serious and/or irreversible and/or potentially cumulative nature and/or presenting a long-term risk. The precautionary principle is applied if there are indications that the possible effects on the environment or on the health of humans, animals and plants may be potentially dangerous and inconsistent with the desired level of protection'.

Through examining the Rio Declaration's focus on protecting Indigenous Knowledge and Ammann's definition of the role of the 'precautionary principle', the themes of avoiding the risk of damaging 'the health of humans, plants and animals' and maintaining integral indigenous methods for establishing sustainable food systems become apparent.

These central themes create a firm basis for transitioning away from the risk-embedded activities associated with current unsustainable agricultural practices and instead moving as a society towards implementing sustainable agricultural methodologies with reduced environmental risks.

Castellanet & Mann (2000: unknown) define some of the risks (referred to here as costs) associated with current unsustainable agricultural practices. They comment that 'our general conventional food system is widely seen as being modern, efficient, and able to produce cheap and abundant food. Yet, the unsustainable costs of this system, are becoming increasingly apparent. This includes the environmental costs of eroded soils, polluted water, loss of habitat, threats to wildlife, essentially, the destruction of what is known as natural capital'.

The explanation of unsustainable agriculture (as portrayed by Castellanet & Mann) although simple in its concepts, presents some of the basic risks associated with 'conventional' food producing systems. From a more detailed point of view - the loss of soil creates situations for the integration of external fertilisers and the need for artificial soil improvement; the pollution of water leaves resource rich ecosystems in a contaminated and unusable state and reduces the availability of water for crop irrigation; a loss of habitat and reduction in wildlife create agricultural systems with increased biological threat and a general reduction in genetic biodiversity, leading to an increase in pest infestations.

Unsustainable agricultural systems rely upon high artificial inputs with high risk of pest infestations and low survival rates due to damage from variable weather patterns, they lack protection from pests and diseases and rely on chemical controls for these issues. This conventional type of agricultural system has high risk levels (environmentally and productively), is low in ecological resilience and is short term in relation to productivity.

On the other hand, a sustainable food system can integrate precautionary principles to reduce risks of environmental harm and increase productivity through foresight and planning. Some examples of this includes -
• the Australian Aboriginal practice of replanting portions of root vegetables in the ground to “impregnate the earth and ensure future fertility (Stuart-Fox E, 2001).
• the New Caledonian practice of planting sugar cane and other crops between Taro slopes in order to retain the soil; create windbreaks and provide mulch for the soil (Dahl, 1989).
• Many indigenous cultural practices of prohibiting the harvest of certain species because of the relative difficulty of procuring them, the risk of injury during hunting, or the fact that they may carry parasites that can affect humans. (Gadgil, 1989).
• the Australian Aboriginal practice of fire-stick farming to fertilise the land with ash, achieve maximum production from food plants and consequently attract animals back to the area (Isaacs, 1987).

The above examples of sustainable agricultural practices share some common elements that bring together many of the concepts raised so far throughout this paper so far. They are all traditional systems that have been developed over many generations of trial and error and therefore detail tradition science in practice. They are textually documented Indigenous agricultural practices and have therefore been recognised for their adaptable benefits. They are all practices that mitigate environmental risk and are therefore precautionary in principle and lastly, they can all be utilised (in the correct global situation) to influence the transition from unsustainable to sustainable food systems.

Case Studies of Indigenous Knowledge Practices in Creating Sustainable Food Systems

The following case studies present traditional scientific practices of creating sustainable food systems. These examples of indigenous practices illustrate how farmers in various tropical regions of the world learned to manipulate and derive advantage from local resources and natural processes through a process of informal research and development. The case studies (shown in text boxes below) are verbatim accounts of works written in Farming for the future: An introduction to low-external input and sustainable agriculture by Haverkort, Reijntjes & Waters-Bayer (1992, unknown). The relevance of these case studies to creating sustainable food systems based on indigenous knowledge will also be discussed in this section.

Case Study 1 - Integrated Agriculture: Aquaculture

Particularly in Asia, the productive use of land and water resources has been integrated in traditional farming systems. Farmers have transformed wetlands into ponds separated by cultivable ridges. An outstanding example is the dike-pond system which has existed for centuries in South China. To produce or maintain the ponds, soil is dug out and used to build or repair the dikes around it. Before being filled with river water and rainwater, the pond is prepared for fish rearing by clearing, sanitising and fertilising with local inputs of quicklime, tea-seed cake and organic manure. The fish stocked in the pond include various types of carp, which are harvested for home consumption and sale. Mulberry is planted on the dikes, fertilised with pond mud and irrigated by hand with nutrient-rich pond water. Mulberry leaves are fed to silkworms; the branches are used as stakes to support climbing vegetables and as fuel-wood. In sheds, silkworms are reared for yarn production.

Their excrements, mixed with the remains of mulberry leaves, are used as fish feed. Sugarcane plants on the dikes provide sugar, young leaves are used to feed to fish and pigs, and old leaves to shade crops, for roofing thatch and for fuel; the roots are also used as fuel. Grass and vegetables are also grown on the dikes to provide food for the fish and the family. Pigs are raised mainly to provide manure but also for meat. They are fed sugarcane tops, byproducts from sugar refining, aquatic plants and other vegetable wastes. Their faeces and urine, as well as human excrement and household wastes, form the principle organic inputs into the fish pond.

Case study 1 presents a well documented perspective of a scientific practice showing an integrated approach to sustainable food systems. This polycultural aquaculture system provides numerous food sources both animal and plant which has been developed through many years of practical testing and close understanding of the surrounding ecosystems. The integration of local resources and local knowledge systems shown in this case study is a positive example of sustainable food provision. Such a sustainable food system would in practice reduce the impacts of erosion on the waters edge, increase the local biodiversity of plant and animal species, reduce waste outputs to local landfill and promotes low human inputs in creating high agricultural outputs. In all, it shows highly sdeveloped ustainable environmental management processes.

Case Study 2 - Pest Management Practices

Traditional practices of biological pest control have recently been the subject of increasing scientific interest, and some interesting examples have been documented. For example, a century-old practice among citrus growers in China is to place nests of the predacious ant (Oecophylla smaragdini F.) in orange trees to reduce insect damage. The citrus growers even install interconnecting bamboo rods as bridges for the ants to move from tree to tree. Ducks, fish, frogs and snakes are traditionally used to control insects in paddy rice cultivation. Traditional crop selection, planting times and cultivation practices often reflect efforts to minimise insect damage.

In innumerable traditional systems, living and hiding places for natural enemies of crop pests are maintained by conserving part of the natural environment.

In Sri Lanka, large trees and wooded upland were traditionally left standing around the paddy tract and threshing floors to provide nesting and resting places for birds, which the farmers regard as the main agents of insect control. When pests appeared, certain rituals were performed. For example, when caterpillars invaded the paddy, an offering of food and light was placed at sunset on an unstable plantain disk fitted to a stake. The light attracted birds. When the birds attempted to perch, the food fell. When the birds went after the fallen food, they saw the caterpillars and ate them.

Case Study 2 shows how traditional knowledge of integrated pest management can be utilised to reduce the reliance on chemical inputs in agricultural systems. The detail of thought that has gone in to what could easily be referred to as an environmental management plan shows (as does the example in case study 1) a definite use of knowledge developed over generations to address potential issues of food security.

This case study refers to the use of environmental design principles (informed selection of specific crops and crop planting times) based on an evolved understanding of the local area; an understanding of animal behaviour and entomology (in the encouragement of predatory insect and bird species into the agricultural system) and traditional cultural practices related to environmental management (offering food and light to attract birds to the agricultural system) . The environmental management practices detailed in this case study are prime examples of methods for maintaining sustainable food systems based on indigenous knowledge practices.


The two presented case studies present details of traditional scientific methods for minimising the impacts of agriculture on the local environment. Whether this occurs through creating integrated agricultural systems for higher sustainable yield; or through utilising animals and plants to develop chemical free pest management systems each of the presented methodologies show a process that highlights the importance of the role of Indigenous knowledge in creating sustainable food systems.

Throughout this paper, a process of understanding has been developed that can provide a way forward in adapting conventional, unsustainable agricultural practices through incorporating a variety of elements of sustainable agricultural systems. It would be misleading to say that all sustainable agricultural practices can provide a solution to the outcomes of conventional agricultural practices, but the broad knowledge of millennia is there for use as a scientific basis for change.

Indigenous Knowledge definitely has a role to play in creating sustainable food systems, and has a need to be recognised more thoroughly for its benefits. The success of this integration will depend on how comprehensively research is carried out to determine which practice is best for which situation. Essentially, this should be done with the aim of minimising the risk of environmental harm whilst ensuring that present and future generations have their needs provided for.


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