Opening minds to indigenous knowledge

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This week sees the launch of a new dossier on SciDev.Net about indigenous knowledge. Our aim is to encourage a more considered debate on a topic that continues to stir controversy in the scientific community.

Many lessons are currently in the process of being learnt about the floods that have been sweeping through central Europe in recent weeks. It is too early to state with any clarity whether there is a direct link — as some have, perhaps over-hastily, been arguing — with global warming resulting from human activity. What is less controversial is the contribution of modern land use strategies in the regions affected.

Previous generations maintained woods and forests on land that has in recent years been stripped, either for construction, or because farmers can obtain generous government subsidies for cutting down and selling trees. Both practices, it seems, have ignored the extent to which wooded hill- and mountain-sides have in the past cushioned the flow of torrential rains off the land into rivers; the fatal results are now all too obvious.

The European flooding is just one example of the way in which the disregard of knowledge that has been built up and stored by communities over centuries can have dangerous consequences. This underlines the need for modern science and technology to find ways of assimilating local — or ‘indigenous’ — knowledge, and refrain from claiming, whether explicitly or implicitly, that it is always superior to it.

This need is being highlighted in the discussions taking place at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, which opened in Johannesburg this week. Modern science and technology have a critical role in achieving the goals of this meeting, which include full participation by all countries in the modern knowledge economy.

But so, too, does indigenous knowledge, particularly in fields such as food production, medicine and environmental management, and in the way in which knowledge (in all its forms) lies embedded in social experience. For it is this experience, and the way that it is handed down through generations, that often holds vital keys to our understanding of both the human and natural environment.

This cultural dimension of indigenous knowledge is a central theme in the dossier that SciDev.Net is launching this week. The purpose of the dossier is not to impose a dogmatic or didactic approach to the subject, but to provide a range of material and perspectives that will — hopefully — help to stimulate a better-informed debate about a topic that continues to generate strong passions in the scientific community.

Our approach — indeed the philosophy behind dossiers in general — is to provide information in a variety of forms that will both enable and provoke informed discourse. Topical coverage comes through news and feature items that have appeared on our website in recent months, which illustrate particular facets of the debate by reporting individual events, issues or controversies.

Other information is contained in the policy briefs that will form the analytical core of each dossier. These are intended to provide readable, authoritative overviews of key aspects of the dossier topic and will, we hope, be particularly useful to policy-makers facing complex decisions. The policy briefs are complemented by personal opinion articles written by individuals engaged in the indigenous knowledge field, as either stakeholders or observers.

Finally the dossier — which has been compiled for us by Netherlands Organisation for International Cooperation in Higher Education (Nuffic) — contains a variety of elements of background information that, we hope, will be useful to anyone wishing to explore the relationship between science, development and indigenous knowledge.

For example, the dossier includes summaries and links to electronic versions of relevant publications; a set of definitions of key terms; and a list of websites where further information can be obtained.

In the months ahead, we will be launching other new dossiers on topics such as genetically-modified crops, the brain drain, the ethics of biomedical research, and research and development policy. Each will adopt the same basic structure, reflecting our view that effective decision-making benefits from a combination of reliable information and authoritative insight.

Each will also be dynamic and cumulative. Reflecting social experience, both this information and insight are likely evolve — whether in the light, for example, of new scientific data or a new political event. We intend to make full use of the potential provided by electronic forms of publishing to regularly update each dossier to reflect this evolution, as well as to add new dimensions to the discussion (for example, through additional policy briefs).

But our approach is also itself experimental. Part of the evolution, both of individual dossiers and in general, will reflect the reactions of SciDev.Net readers. Some types of information may prove to be more useful than others; or we may have missed significant aspects of a topic. In each case, we welcome feedback and comments on our efforts, as these will be essential inputs into the way that they develop in the future.

© SciDev.Net 2002

Link to indigenous knowledge dossier.