Indigenous knowledge is a form of science — don’t ignore it

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  • Indigenous knowledge has been fine-tuned over millennia, but developing countries ignore it
  • It is myopic to rely on just one form of scientific expertise
  • China and India are leading the way by supporting both traditional and Western medicine

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It is time to stop discounting traditional expertise and make use of this vast and valuable resource, argues Indian scientist Suman Sahai.

Science and technology have always been an important part of growth and development plans. But accepted 'scientific expertise' is Western, standardised and homogenous. From this viewpoint, the vast body of scientific expertise developed in diverse societies and cultures is discounted and ignored.

Referred to as indigenous or traditional knowledge, this is a knowledge system distilled from generations of scientific work anchored in rural and tribal communities. It is different to the Western system of empirical, lab-based science — but is equally valid and efficacious.

It is time to recognise that there are different kinds of sciences and scientific expertise, and that all of them should be used for development and problem-solving.

The knowledge that evolved

Indigenous knowledge has developed from understanding and documenting the processes in nature. An iteration of practices over time has led to products and processes that are based on sound scientific principles.

Take plant extracts for example. Observing that animals did not eat certain plants and assuming that this was because they were toxic, communities took extracts and tested them for a range of uses. Many were, and still are, used as pesticides in agriculture, in bait to catch fish or to treat maggot infestations in livestock.

Because plants differ across ecological zones, each region has developed products and uses based on their regional flora. Indigenous science is diverse, and it is efficacious in the particular context in which it is used.

Similarly, in indigenous medicine, the plants used in traditional Chinese medicine will be different to those used in India, Indonesia or Myanmar — but all these healing systems will cure many diseases effectively. Even today, almost 80 per cent of the population of some Asian and African countries rely on indigenous systems for primary healthcare. [1]

Indigenous knowledge is not a panacea, but it offers as valid a route for treatment as any other. Just as Western medicine cannot cure a common cold or many chronic diseases, traditional medicines may not be as effective as antibiotics in rapidly controlling infections.

But it has some advantages. Antibiotics lead to side effects (which could range from allergies and rashes to more serious effects like toxicity) and bacteria can ultimately become resistant to them; traditional healing is more broad-based and holistic, designed as much to prevent disease as to cure it.

Practical approach to problem-solving

Indigenous knowledge includes knowledge accumulated over thousands of years, making it particularly useful for problem-solving. Communities have vetted solutions and knowledge systems over time, retaining only the efficacious ones.

When the December 2004 tsunami struck the Andaman and Nicobar Islands of India, it was feared that local tribal communities would have perished. But this was not the case: they had correctly read the signs of an impending tsunami and retreated to high ground. [2]

In food production, the hallmarks of traditional science include knowledge of genetic diversity, the suitability of crop varieties to different land and soil types, and the use of agronomic practices to minimise risk of crop losses. There are various options available for growing food under almost any agro-ecological condition.

It is a pity that this knowledge is rarelyused. Instead, most research establishments support the dominant system of food production that involves resource-intensive agriculture, which may work for well-off farmers on large farms, but comes at a huge ecological cost.

If rural and tribal communities in India have developed and conserved almost 100,000 varieties of rice based on knowledge of their properties, or the communities of the Andean highlands have developed thousands of varieties of potato, or those in Mexico several thousand varieties of maize, then it is because there is a strong empirical basis to this endeavour.

Policy disconnect

But governments and policymakers, even in developing countries that are home to indigenous scientific expertise, accept only Western-style science as the basis of evidence-based policymaking.

A colonial past has nurtured a 'look West' elite who take their Western inclinations into policy formulation. The education, lifestyle and ignorance of these leaders, even their rejection of indigenous traditions, have a cost for countries that confine their ability to solve problems to Western science.

It is in the global community's interest to examine all available forms of scientific knowledge and expertise. It is myopic to rely on just one approach when several are available.

Developing countries, in particular, do themselves a great disservice by neglecting the problem-solving and enriching potential of their own traditions of science, which are locally valid and accepted.

Despite India having a vast repertoire of indigenous medicine, its healthcare system is based on Western-style medicine, which is expensive and difficult to take into remote villages. The logical approach would be to rely largely on indigenous medicine and include the Western system where needed. After years of neglect for traditional medicine, this is finally beginning to happen, with efforts to include it in healthcare systems.

China has charted a different course, with the government supporting the development of both Western and traditional medicine in its healthcare system through research on what is called 'integrative medicine'. [3]

Why should systems of science be standardised, and why should academics and policymakers demand this? A scientific system's validity lies not in its being credible everywhere, but in its being credible in the culture where it was developed and where it has provided solutions.

Countries that are repositories of indigenous scientific expertise should make this mainstream. Investing adequate resources in indigenous science and expanding the base of education and training in traditional knowledge systems will help to neutralise the bias against them and assist their inclusion in official policy.

People and governments have to move away from the narrow thinking that the Western style of science is the only science there is.

Suman Sahai is founder and chair of Gene Campaign, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of genetic resources and indigenous knowledge, and to working towards ensuring food, nutrition and livelihood security for rural and tribal communities. She can be contacted at mail@genecampaign.org 


[1] WHO Traditional Medicine (WHO, 2008)

[2] Bhaumik, S. Tsunami folklore 'saved islanders' (BBC News, 2005)

[3] Chinese Journal of Integrative Medicine doi: 10.1007/s116550–110–601-x (2011)