Indigenous knowledge is of significant value for an understanding of the functioning of the natural environment, and for directing the use of natural resources and ecological services towards sustainable relations between human societies and their natural environment.
In most countries of the Third World, rural people have an enormous body of agricultural knowledge. Ironically, however, it has remained an underutilized national resource. Such situations came about largely because the production of knowledge has been historically dominated by a form generally called modern and scientific. This form has also a sense of being western knowledge, notwithstanding the native scholars who are, owing to colonial legacy, schooled in the western tradition. An anthropologist calls it as knowledge production within the profession. As a result, rural development has traditionally been guided by a certain set of values different from the Third World context.
There are approximately 5000 indigenous, [ie] culturally distinct ethnic minority and/or tribal people groups world-wide; there are also what is termed 'local' or 'peasant' knowledge systems. These knowledge systems cover such practical disciplines as: agronomy; natural resource and forestry management; aquaculture; human and veterinary medicine; nutrition; meteorology; social and management systems; familial based childhood education; consensus management; and environmental sciences.
This strategy features in the framework of Agenda 21 as formulated at UNCED (Rio de Janeiro, 1992), now coordinated by the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development and implemented through national and local authorities. Agenda 21 recommends achieving a better understanding of indigenous people's knowledge and management experience related to the environment, and applying this to contemporary development challenges.
In particular, Agenda 21 recommends that:< (a) countries, with the cooperation of international organizations, should establish support mechanisms to provide local communities and resource users with the information and know-how they need to manage their environment and resources sustainably, applying traditional and indigenous knowledge and approaches when appropriate. This is particularly relevant for rural and urban populations and indigenous, women's and youth groups.
(b) contributing to the endeavours of indigenous people and their communities in resource management and conservation strategies (such as those that may be developed under appropriate projects funded through the Global Environment Facility and the Tropical Forestry Action Plan) and other programme areas of Agenda 21, including programmes to collect, analyse and use data and other information in support of sustainable development projects.
Both UNESCO/Canada's Man and the Biosphere (MAB) Program and the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources - World Conservation Union (IUCN) have initiatives on an Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).
Several cultural practices of the Dai people (a national minority) of Southwest China (Yunnan Province) have impacts on plant conservation. Some of these are the introduction and distribution of locally cultivated plants and its link to Hinayana Buddhism; the preservation of certain pristine forests due to a 'Holy Hills' ideology; and the economic and ecological significance of Dai fuelwood cultivation as it relates to conservation.
An economically productive and ecologically sustainable land use has evolved among traditional inhabitants in the floodplain of the Amazon estuary. These river dwellers ('ribeirinhos'), typically mestizo in ethnicity, constitute a living bridge between indigenous Amerindian knowledge of the natural diversity and inherent productivity of the Amazon's floodplain resources and the modern world with its more limited view of the economic potential of natural ecosystems. The river dwellers of the Amazon estuary participate in the market economy, and are often mistakenly included in the economically marginal, rural population of lesser-developed countries that recent multi-lateral development programmes have sought to advance. What prevailing development programmes have failed to consider is how the river dwellers' knowledge of their environment can contribute to a better use of fragile lands in the floodplain. A study measured the effects of different management practices utilized by river dwellers on fruit yields in natural stands of the acai [Euterpe oleracea], the foremost commercial floodplain forest resource for rural inhabitants over extensive areas of the estuary. This study is particularly interesting because rural inhabitants of the Amazon estuary implement an extensive form of land use in a biotope generally considered to have the greatest potential for intensive agriculture in Amazonia: the 'varzea' floodplain of sediment-rich rivers. Forest resources are the most fragile component of the floodplain, which has served as the principal location for agriculture in Amazonia since aboriginal times. The acai palm is an especially fragile resource, as it has been subjected to intensive exploitation in the form of palm heart extraction since the 1960's. In contrast to other floodplain areas however, river dwellers in the estuary have largely maintained the native forest cover and have developed management practices that assure the sustained utilization of forest resources such as acai.
The Mayan culture is one of the very few outstanding cultures that flourished in a tropical rain forest area. Their land use strategies, as a part of the great Middle America civilization, for agriculture, horticulture and forestry remain up to date scattered among the Maya communities that have conserved their Indian heritage. They are based in a diversity of crops and land uses that are adopted to the different climatic regions of the Maya area. They used the space in the past in a magnificent way using horizontal and vertical strategies. They had channels, terraces and drained fields for intensive agriculture. They used shifting agriculture in soils where no other alternative seemed to be better. They used their wild plant resources and developed forest practices to enrich their forest with desirable species composition. The present floristic composition of many rain forests of the Maya area is a result of ancient silviculture practices. All of these practices were part of a single land use strategy. Against this evidence it seems implausible that the fall of the Mayan culture was due to an 'ecological collapse'. The answer is more likely to be found in economic, political and social reasons. Despite its decline, there is a lot to learn from the Mayans to solve some of the present day problems for the management of biotic resources of the tropics.
In the Philippines, members of the Bugkalot ethnic minority in northern Luzon threatened in 1996 to resume head-hunting to oppose a dam project they denounced as environmentally unsound. Other indigenous peoples warned that they would wage tribal war against ecologically risky mining ventures.
1. The knowledge base acquired by indigenous and local peoples over the generations through direct contact with their environment parallels the scientific disciplines of ecology and environmental studies. This knowledge encompasses an intimate and detailed understanding of plants, animals and natural phenomena, the development and use of appropriate technologies for hunting, fishing, agriculture and forestry and a holistic knowledge, or 'world view'. Moreover indigenous knowledge is embedded in a dynamic, multidimensional universe in which cultural, economic, environmental and political factors intersect and influence one another.
2. Capitalist culture, in both its free-market and state socialism expressions, is ecologically illiterate and unsustainable. However, the global ecological crisis is changing all human relationships, including the relationship of people to nature. The theory of sustainable development and, particularly, the theory of geocentric sustainable development, are means by which we try to put nature on an equal footing with treasured human values, thus shifting human culture from the brink of disaster to a defender of a livable world. Yet the knowledge for such a transformation does not exist in industrial societies. It is the Third World that is the source for human survival. Third World people are defending the integrity of ecosystems, biodiversity, the priceless Amazon, wild rivers, geocentric sustainable development. These people know and practice what we must know and practice in order to put the brakes on the global ecocidal and anthropocidal policies of industrial capitalist development.
3. Indigenous knowledge is a type of decision-making system. Every community has the capacity to deal with its problems.
4. A large quantity of information now exists in the published scientific literature to suggest that traditional ecological knowledge and its application to enlightened environmental assessment and management should be taken seriously. No one group of observers has a monopoly on truth, and the history of western science makes it quite clear that the scientific truths of today will, in ever-decreasing intervals of time, constitute the bulk of tomorrow's discarded hypotheses and superceded knowledge. As scientists and philosophers working at the frontiers of knowledge increasingly find, the world view and technologies of many ancient cultures have a great deal to offer, whether in 'new' health, or in ways of conserving ground water or increasing crop and time-tested understandings and approaches existing in regard to sustainable use of wild natural resources, and the future will likely increasingly benefit by the critical assessment, and where appropriate application, of such efficacious means of managing our embattled environment.