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Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge in International Development

Edited by Paul Sillitoe

302 pages, 15 figures, 9 tables

ISBN  978-1-84545-014-4 $99.00/£60.00 Hardback Published (December 2006)

ISBN  978-1-84545-648-1 $34.95/£23.00 Pb Published (March 2009)

eISBN 978-1-78238-210-2 eBook $34.95/£23.00 Published

Hardback Pb eBook $34.95
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“…a fascinating and unusual effort to address audiences in both social-cultural anthropology and general science…The tone and style of writing is precise and economical while it also retains a level of detail that is ethnographically intriguing.”  ·  American Anthropologist

"The reader will find a great number of ideas and issues to think both with and against, making this both an excellent primer and an ideal undergraduate course book, as well as being of interest to anyone already working in the area of knowledge and development."  ·  Social Anthropology

“This collection is much more than a plea for valuing ‘indigenous’ knowledge. It is a reasoned set of arguments to value those things that cannot be measured…a rich mix of approaches developed here... an important reminder…that Western society may not prove to be the best adapted or most advance social formation in a sustainable future.”  ·  JRAI

While science has achieved a remarkable understanding of nature, affording humans an astonishing technological capability, it has led, through Euro-American global domination, to the muting of other cultural views and values, even threatening their continued existence. There is a growing realization that the diversity of knowledge systems demand respect, some refer to them in a conservation idiom as alternative information banks. The scientific perspective is only one. We now have many examples of the soundness of local science and practices, some previously considered “primitive” and in need of change, but this book goes beyond demonstrating the soundness of local science and arguing for the incorporation of others’ knowledge in development, to argue that we need to look quizzically at the foundations of science itself and further challenge its hegemony, not only over local communities in Africa, Asia, the Pacific or wherever, but also the global community. The issues are large and the challenges are exciting, as addressed in this book, in a range of ethnographic and institutional contexts.

Paul Sillitoe is Professor of Anthropology, Durham University. His research interests focus on natural resources management, appropriate technology, and development. He specialises in social and environmental change, sustainable livelihoods, human ecology and ethno-science. He has long-standing interests in the Pacific, and more recently in South Asia. He seeks to further the incorporation of local knowledge in development, having experience with several international development agencies.

Series: Volume 4, Environmental Anthropology and Ethnobiology

LC: GN476 .L63 2007

BL: YC.2008.a.181

BISAC: SCI026000 SCIENCE/Environmental Science; SOC042000 SOCIAL SCIENCE/Developing Countries; SOC002000 SOCIAL SCIENCE/Anthropology/General

BIC: RN The environment; JHM Anthropology

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Local Science vs. Global Science

an Overview

Relativity is a relative idea. There is the physical scientists' notion of relativity, which is of global relevance, and there is the social scientists' notion of relativity, which is of local relevance. Just as physicists argue that classical scientific laws are a special case that apply to planet Earth only — varying with mass, speed, time and such — so too anthropologists maintain that scientific theories are a special case rooted largely in contemporary Euro-American understanding of the world — varying with culture, history, place and so on. We assume that our scientific view is one way of explaining our experience of the world, albeit a technically powerful one, employing an astonishingly effective body of integrated theory. Few of us are arrogant or ignorant enough to think that humans can aspire to a true 'Godlike view' of the universe and our place in it. We can never definitively verify universal propositions, only unsuccessfully attempt to falsify them experimentally (Popper 1959).

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Traditional Medical Knowledge and Twenty-first Century Healthcare

the Interface between Indigenous and Modern Science

In the assessment of the World Health Organization (WHO), the majority of the population of most developing countries regularly use and rely on traditional medicine for their everyday healthcare needs. At the same time, policy and regulation in support of this social and public health reality are still in an early stage of formation in most countries (Bodeker et al. 2005).

In response to a call from member countries to give greater emphasis to traditional medicine policy development, the World Health Organization's Traditional Medicines Strategy 2002-2005 was formed to focus on four areas identified as requiring action if the potential of traditional, complimentary and alternative medicine (TCAM) to play a role in public health is to be maximised. These are: policy; safety, efficacy and quality; access; and rational use. Underpinning the WHO move to integrate traditional medicine into national healthcare in its member states is a call for an evidence-based approach to traditional and complementary medicine. This, in its strictest sense, means the application of randomised controlled clinical trial methodology to the evaluation of herbal and other therapeutic modalities used in these systems. In a more general sense it means the development of a body of knowledge based on Western methods of empirical investigation, including laboratory and animal studies on the safety and efficacy of traditional herbal and other therapeutic modalities. Indigenous groups and traditional medicine spokespeople have pointed out that the requirement for evidence to be gathered according to Western understandings of traditional knowledge (TK) can have the effect of reducing long-held theoretical constructs of the body, disease pathogenesis and therapeutic modalities to testable elements that bear little or no relation to the original constructs on which theory and practice have been based throughout their long histories. This debate is one that is central to the interface between Western biomedicine and traditional medical systems and this chapter will attempt to address some of the central issues in terms of both the preservation of TK standards and the development of tradition-based healthcare in a contemporary setting.

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Local and Scientific Understanding of Forest Diversity on Seram, Eastern Indonesia

Foresters, biogeographers and tropical forest ecologists have devised increasingly sophisticated classifications of forest types (e.g. Eyre 1980). Forest 'types' and their more localised and discrete components, which might variously be described as 'habitats', 'niches', 'biotopes' and 'ecotones', constitute what ecologists understand by 'secondary biodiversity': that is diversity in terms of associations of species rather than the ('primary') diversity measured in terms of the numbers of species (or other taxanomic categories). Although the classifications of foresters in particular have been largely determined by the practical considerations of the industry, during the latter part of the twentieth century they have been much influenced by the developing science of forest ecology, and the technologies of remote sensing (Howard 1991) and Global Information Systems (GIS) (C.A. Johnston 1998). The typologies of forest ecologists, while originally rooted in those of foresters, have become increasingly distanced from them in an attempt to model more accurately the dynamic character of forest diversity

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'Indigenous' and 'Scientific' Knowledge in Central Cape York Peninsula

During my doctoral fieldwork in central Cape York Peninsula I spent a considerable amount of time moving between the township of Coen and a number of 'outstations' in its hinterland. ('Outstations' are small camps established by family groups on land with which they have 'traditional' ties). The men and women with whom I was working also used their frequent journeys between Coen and outstations to visit other important places en route. One such place — visited only by men — was referred to as a 'chemist['s] shop' in local Murri (Aboriginal) English.1 Traditional plant 'medicines' were gathered at this place and brought back into town. These 'medicines' were understood to effect 'luck' in a series of town-based activities, including gambling at card games and the pursuit of sexual liaisons.2

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On Knowing and Not Knowing

The Many Valuations of Piaroa Local Knowledge

In 1999, Slikkerveer wrote that local knowledge (LK) had developed 'almost parallel to Western "scientific", ... or "global" disciplinarity' (1999: 169), thereby imbuing local knowledge with the prestige often attributed to science. This claim that LK is rational and empirical is at the root of the participatory development approach championed by the likes of Chambers et al. (1989) and Warren et al. (1995). However, Agrawal (1995, 1999) points out that this claim is intensely value-laden and contributes to the assumption that a local system of knowledge can be accurately 'translated' into terms that are acceptable to scientists. In fact, Agrawal argues that this translation, which he calls 'scientization' (1999: 179), changes LK beyond recognition and makes it a tool of those who seek to exert control over marginalised peoples. He thereby suggests that the claim that local knowledge is somehow like science is, in itself, a dangerous misrepresentation. It can lead to an expectation on the part of scientists that 'knowledge' takes a form dictated by their particular disciplinary and theoretical paradigms.1

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The Ashkui Project:

Linking Western Science and Innu Environmental Knowledge in Creating a Sustainable Environment

Intuitively, it seems impossible to talk of development without the inclusion and consultation of the people whose lives will be affected, aboriginal or not. Furthermore, aboriginal populations have a wealth of knowledge accumulated over centuries of living in their regions that can enhance government efforts to protect the environment. The obligation to protect and include aboriginal communities as part of environmental conservation and sustainable development initiatives is enshrined in several international declarations, including the Rio Declaration and the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), as well as Canadian legislation and declarations (Canadian Environmental Protection Act 1999). However, the relationship between scientific research and community involvement and capacity building is still a much debated issue. This debate is not just among scientists in regard to the validity of aboriginal peoples' environmental knowledge, but among aboriginal peoples themselves who are asking how scientific research can serve their needs given its long association with colonisation and industrial development projects (Marzano, this volume). The legacy of colonisation, and the subsequent institutions and development projects that have accompanied it, has often served to dislocate aboriginal peoples from their lands and discount their environmental knowledge as inferior (Bieder 1986). As a result, an atmosphere of distrust exists among aboriginal peoples toward social and natural scientists. This paper will examine a collaborative project called the Ashkui Project (a.k.a. the Labrador Project). The Ashkui Project is an example of how scientists and aboriginal communities can work collaboratively to redress this legacy, and build trust, with the ultimate goal of building capacity among all stakeholders around a common vision.

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Globalisation and the Construction of Western and Non-Western Knowledge

Anthropological interest in non-Western knowledge dates from the very beginning of the discipline. Early anthropologists interested in the so-called 'savage' or 'primitive' mind asked, in effect: do non-Western peoples think differently from Western peoples and, if so, how? In the years since, this question has periodically surfaced, been critiqued, submerged and reappeared. A recent incarnation — and one of particular importance to the reigning paradigms of global conservation and development — involves non-Western, indigenous environmental knowledge.

Anthropological interest in indigenous systems of resource management also dates back to the early years of the discipline, and especially flourished with the rise of ethnoecology in the 1950s. In the 1960s and 1970s, anthropologists began to invoke indigenous systems of knowledge and practice to critique the dominant development paradigm and its privileging of extra-local knowledge. As the sustainability of many resource-use systems built on the Western scientific paradigm became increasingly suspect, the pervasive deprecation of non-Western resource management was replaced, even among some practitioners in conservation and development, by valorisation.1 Whereas this about-face represented a useful correction to earlier views, the underlying division between Western and non-Western systems has come increasingly to be seen as problematic theoretically (Agrawal 1995; Dove 2000).

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Science and Local Knowledge in Sri Lanka

Extension, Rubber and Farming

Efforts to incorporate local knowledge into natural resource management are growing in Sri Lanka, following a shift in emphasis from 'top-down' technology transfer to more collaborative approaches. Although attractive in principle, these efforts are often fraught with difficulties. Here, I consider the relationship between Western-based 'global' science and local or traditional knowledge in Sri Lanka as mediated through farmer extension services. The ideology and practices of 'outsiders' have largely governed development in Sri Lanka, from British colonial welfare policies to a succession of 'poverty alleviation' programmes instigated by international donor agencies. Sri Lanka has a long relationship with global science in many arenas (e.g. medicine, education) and has an impressive record of agricultural research and support (Pain 1986; Somaratne 2003). Indeed, Research and Development (R&D) in farming feeds into the Sri Lankan government's primary objectives — poverty alleviation, economic growth and the sustainable use of natural resources — through efforts to improve technology and agricultural productivity (Somaratne 2003). While living and working with Sinhalese farmers1 I contributed to a natural resources R&D project on intercropping with rubber2 (hereafter called 'the rubber project'). During this work it became clear that a greater understanding of the factors influencing farmer decision making was necessary to increase their uptake of technology and ensure the suitability and sustainability of R&D.

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Creating Natural Knowledge

Agriculture, Science and Experiments

Contemporary anthropology has contributed to a process of reflection on the possibilities and limitations of science, helping to identify the significance of non-scientific knowledge — e.g., indigenous, traditional, and local — in people's understandings of the world (e.g., Warren et al. 1995; Richards 1985; Sillitoe 1998; Ellen and Harris 2000). This has served to underline that processes of knowledge creation and negotiation do not simply belong to a scientific domain. To critically reflect on the boundaries of knowledge and to go 'beyond science' suggests that anthropology can play a role in the development of conceptual approaches that capture and expose the contradictory character of scientific knowledge in the construction of modern contemporary lives and global processes.

In this context, the concept of 'natural knowledge' acquires significance. In the seventeenth century, the term natural knowledge was used variously to describe 'a state of knowing', 'the mastery of learning' or 'a skill or craft' (Wright 1981: 83). Later its dominant meaning became 'knowledge about the workings of nature', having been adopted in the full title of the Royal Society.1 In recent years, anthropologists and historians seeking to deconstruct science have used the term to refer either to scientific data before the late nineteenth century, treating it as synonymous with natural philosophy (Wright 1981: 97; Dear 1990), or to suggest a process of questioning assumptions about the nature of science and its relationship to human culture and to non-human elements2 in contemporary life.

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Is Intellectual Property Protection a Good Idea?

The issue raised in this chapter does not relate to the debate about the scientific status of traditional knowledge in the eyes of the 'modern' scientific tradition,2 or vice versa.3 It is assumed, as also seems widely accepted, that traditional knowledge has an important role to play in contributing to the progress of science, and to its application to improve human health and welfare. Traditional knowledge is complementary rather than competitive with modern science. Each has something to learn from the other, as argued by several other contributors to this volume. The holistic and systemic worldview of traditional knowledge, which emphasises the interconnectedness of both natural and human phenomena, often provides fresh insights to modern science. The latter, which tends to proceed by isolationist and reductionist methodologies, may miss the bigger picture which traditional knowledge offers.

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Farmer Knowledge and Scientist Knowledge in Sustainable Agricultural Development

Ontology, Epistemology and Praxis

What comprises local scientific knowledge of traditional or indigenous farmers (FK) and formal global scientific knowledge (SK)? How similar are they? What is 'sustainable' agriculture and what roles should FK and SK play in sustainable agricultural development? Who determines these roles and what effect does the assignment of roles have on the success of development projects? These are some of the questions that we have been asking ourselves and others during our years spent working with farmers and scientists in applied research and development in many locations around the world.

Conventional agriculture is widely acknowledged to be unsustainable, and more sustainable ways of producing food are advocated both for industrial and traditionally based agriculture (Matson et al. 1997; Tilman et al. 2002; Boody et al. 2005). However, sustainable agricultural development is a goal, based on values (see Sillitoe, this volume). It increasingly involves participation of both farmers and scientists, and thus requires an understanding of FK and SK. To respond more effectively to the needs of small-scale farmers in the Third World, we need to discuss openly the values underlying different definitions of sustainability to reach consensus on goals of agricultural development, and the empirical basis of definitions of FK and SK to understand their potential roles in meeting these goals.

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Forgotten Futures

Scientific Models vs. Local Visions of Land Use Change

The future is a central theme in the global agendas of sustainability science and sustainable development. After decades of short-term research and planning based on three- to five-year project budgeting plans or annual cropping cycles, scientists under Agenda 21: Programme of Action for Sustainable Development were mandated to shed light on sustainability's central question of 'preserving for future generations the same opportunities available to our generation' (World Commission on Environment and Development 1987: 8). One limitation of conventional development, and the underlying science, has been the discounting of long-term negative impacts on the environment of short-run human goals, behaviour, and policies. In contrast, sustainable development's future horizon for planning was projected to be minimally twenty to thirty years in the future, with an emphasis on 'action and social learning' involving the full participation of local communities. Under the sustainability vision, science and development could no longer proceed in their comfortable spatiotemporal frameworks but now had to deal head-on with future spaces inhabited by future generations.

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Counting on Local Knowledge

In New Guinea, people do not count far. Some languages only have two words for numerals — one and two — and some have no words for numbers at all. It will probably strike persons reading a collection of papers originating at a British Association for the Advancement of Science annual festival to celebrate and advertise the achievements of science, with its associated sophisticated mathematical logic and computational power, as ridiculous to suggest that such numerical schemes can teach us anything. But that is exactly the sort of thing that those of us advocating attention to local knowledge are arguing, particularly in development contexts. The contributions to this book intend to convince you that such advocacy is not as daft as it may at first appear. In arguing this position, this chapter takes a cursory look at the approach science adopts to measurement, particularly the numerical scheme it uses to record and manipulate findings.

Science relies heavily on quantification and mathematics comprises an important part of its language. 'Nature speaks in equations. The rules of mathematics ... govern the way the universe works' (Seife 2000: 117). Lord Kelvin, immortalised in the absolute temperature scale, put it clearly in his observation that, 'When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind: it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you are scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science' (quoted in Seife 2000: 158). I do not think that such understanding is meagre at all. It has something to tell us. The numerical system science uses has unresolved mysteries at its heart, highlighted by the polar notions of zero and infinity, which possibly compromise the idea of sustainable science and development. When science is harnessed to the demands of the market economy, as has increasingly happened, the idea of sustainability becomes even more remote given economics' apparent aim of endless growth. It is possible that those who count less have some important conceptual lessons to teach us about sustainability.

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