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Indigenous Knowledge Around the World

©Kat Morgenstern 2003, all rights reserved.

'Indigenous knowledge' is a very broad term that comprises all aspects of life - food, farming, and hunting, medicine preparation and treatment, arts, crafts and technologies used by indigenous cultures around the world. What distinguishes this knowledge from western knowledge systems is its integration in the culture and cosmology as a whole. Each aspect of indigenous knowledge is but one strand of knowledge, intricately interwoven and inextricably linked to the whole web of existence. In contrast, western technology prides itself of its detached and analytical mode of thinking, an abstract model that separates the observer from the observed and thus creates an artificial model of reality in which each part can be examined in isolation as if it had no bearing on the whole. Scientists belief that this is a more advanced and superior method of investigating natural phenomenon. However, ever since this mode of analyzing and interpreting nature first appeared on the horizon of human consciousness it has deluded us, making us belief that because we understand (or at any rate, are abel to label) a particular component of a living system we therefore can control the entire system, and, not only that, but also derive at conclusions about other systems that might demonstrate the same particular characteristic or component. Hence the common theory that what works or doesn't work on rats must have the same or similar effect on humans etc. Indigenous knowledge on the other hand seeks to comprehend the interwoven aspects of its ecosystem by means of identification rather than by abstraction. Thus the hunter for example seeks to understand his prey by identifying with it, knowling intimately its habits and behaviour. Similarly, the healer knows that he or she will will learn precious little about a plant or tree by burning its leaves and analysing the ashes. Instead, he or she identifies with it and its spirit, seeking to know its essential nature and thus learns about its healing potential. The same goes for all aspects that make up the ecosystem of which we humans are but a part. Thus, indigenous knowledge is based on a cosmology of relationships between the observer and the observed and both are are aspects of an integrated wholeness. The difference between western (modern) and indigenous (traditional) knowledge is thus ultimately one of cosmology, for the world changes through the way we look at it.

In recent years scientists have increasingly been turning to the keepers of indigeneous knowledge, realizing that their age-old systems have managed to preserve an ecological balance or that their medicines might have tremendous potential for the development of modern drugs. But this renewed interest is not always welcomed by the indigenous people themselves. Having been exploited for centuries and their rights abused too many times by those who claim to come as friends, they are now often rather reserved and suspicious and unwilling to share what they consider a sacred aspect of their culture. And rightfully so. Pharmaceutical companies in particular have already demonstrated that they have no respect for the cultural or intellectual property of others, but cheerfully engage in acts of biopiracy, stealing biological materials as well as the knowledge that goes with it to take out patents that will benefit only themselves.

The debate surrounding biopiracy, intellectual and cultural property rights and benefit sharing has been raging for well over a decade now, and still no satisfactory solution has been found, though at least the international community has acknowledged the problems and is engaged in a process of finding a solution that involves representatives of the indigenous communities concerned. It is a difficult task, but for the sake of our future as a human family it is vital that we resolve these issues faierly and responsibly.

The articles presented here naturally only represent a very small number of examples of indigenous knowledge, biopiracy, intellectual property rights and benefit sharing. More over, most of them have been written by western scientists from a western perspective and thus do not necessarily comprehend or reflect the essential difference between the two worldviews, but merely record and report the observable facts. However, they serve as an access point from which one can gain an insight into this other way of looking at things and the problems we are facing in bridging these worlds.

©Kat Morgenstern 2003, all rights reserved.

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(Editors note: The views represented in the articles do not necessarily reflect those of Sacred Earth, but are listed here as an information resource so readers can form their own opinions and gain an insight into the issues involved.)


Putting Plants in their Places ROY ELLEN

Over the last decade or so ethnobotany has assumed a scientific prominence previously denied it. It is endorsed by institutions with a high international profile (Kew, the Royal Geographical Society, WWF, UNDP, UNESCO), has a market value placed upon it by foresters, agronomists, development advisors and pharmacologists, and has become pivotal in preserving the cultural identity and knowledge of indigenous peoples whose traditional way of life is under threat (Posey 1990). Ethnobotanical knowledge has, therefore, become both economic commodity and political slogan. This is particularly true with respect to the plant knowledge of rainforest peoples, as these peoples are often those with the highest media profile. However, in our eagerness to exploit a product and to demonstrate its usefulness there has been a tendency to oversimplify what ethnobotany entails and just how it can be useful. I argue in this paper that we must not be narrow-minded or simplistic in our conception of ethnobotanical knowledge, and that to take anything less than a broad culturally-contextualised approach may miss the point of the relevance of indigenous knowledge altogether.

Role and significance of 'tradition' in indigenous knowledge Focus on: Traditional ecological knowledge

by Fikret Berkes (IKM)

I work in the area that I prefer to call 'traditional ecological knowledge, ' and would like to challenge the view that sees 'tradition' in a negative light. This contribution is prompted by the contribution by Jan Brouwer about definitions in the December 1998 issue of the Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor. I thank Dr Brouwer for bringing up the point. I depart from his argument in order to elaborate the point that for many groups, such as indigenous peoples of North America, 'tradition' is something important, dear and essential for indigenous knowledge.

Traditional Knowledge and the Convention on Biological Diversity

Traditional knowledge can make a significant contribution to sustainable development. Most indigenous and local communities are situated in areas where the vast majority of the world's plant genetic resources are found. Many of them have cultivated and used biological diversity in a sustainable way for thousands of years. However, the contribution of indigenous and local communities to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity goes far beyond their role as natural resource managers. Their skills and techniques provide valuable information to the global community and a useful model for biodiversity policies. Furthermore, as on-site communities with extensive knowledge of local environments, indigenous and local communities are most directly involved with conservation and sustainable use.

Indigenous Knowledge Dossier

Awareness of the value of indigenous knowledge (IK) - particularly its potential contribution to sustainable development and poverty alleviation - is growing at a time when such knowledge is being threatened as never before. And while links are being established between IK and science, important questions remain. Who owns IK and who may use it? Who decides how to use IK and for what purpose? And how should its owners be compensated?

Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Property

Quaker United Nations Office; November 2001

This paper discusses a number of policy issues surrounding the protection of traditional knowledge (TK) that may be relevant to future negotiations or a deeper treatment of this issue in various international fora.

National Laws and International Agreements affecting Indigenous and Local Knowledge: Conflict or Conciliation? Dr.Darrell Addison Posey

Shaman Pharmaceuticals: Integrating Indigenous Knowledge, Tropical Medicinal Plants, Medicine, Modern Science and Reciprocity into a Novel Drug Discovery Approach

Tropical forest plant species have served as a source of medicines for people of the tropics for millennia. Many medical practitioners with training in pharmacology and/or pharmacognosy are well aware of the number of modern therapeutic agents that have been derived from tropical forest species. In fact, over 120 pharmaceutical products currently in use are plant-derived, and some 75% of these were discovered by examining the use of these plants in traditional medicine(1). Of these, as shown in Table I, a large portion have come from tropical forest species. Yet while many modern medicines are plant-derived, the origins of these pharmaceutical agents and their relationship to the knowledge of the indigenous people in the tropical forests is usually omitted.


Indigenous knowledge in the Arctic: a review of research and applications

by Henry P. Huntington and María E. Fernández-Giménez

Indigenous knowledge is the object of increasing attention in the field of Arctic research and policy making. In this article the authors first present an overview of how IK (indigenous knowledge) is being approached in the Arctic, and then indicate ways in which such knowledge might be used in the future, not only for research purposes, but also within the community.

Traditional Knowledge Is Science,
by George Hobson

Dene Traditional Knowledge,
by Martha Johnson

Inuit Indigenous Knowledge and Science in the Arctic
by Ellen Bielawski

The Nature and Utility of Traditional Ecological Knowledge,
by Milton M. R. Freeman

More Articles on Traditional Knowledge and Ecology,
from the Alaska Native Knowledge Network

North America

On-line Books:

By the Prophet of the Earth Ethnobotany of the Pima
By L.S.M. Curtin,

An on-line book about Pima Ethnobotany and Culture.

Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii

Canoe Plants of Ancient Hawaii tracks the path of various important plants carried in voyaging canoes crisscrossing Oceania, and finally to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii. The history, the botanical nomenclature, the cultural significance, cultivation and uses of the plants are an adventure into the past, and a challenge to the future. Enjoy Lynton Dove White's work of Aloha for that which is Hawaii.

Nitsitapiisinni - Stories and Spaces: Exploring Kainai Plants and Culture

A free web resource with information in Blackfoot, English and French which features indigenous healing plants, aboriginal stories, historical photographs, student art and music, and video interviews with elders. You will find over 40 complete digitized books and teacher inquiry planning resources and links.

The Kainai (Blood) peoples were at risk of loosing precious knowledge of indigenous plants and their healing properties. This knowledge was traditionally passed down orally from elder to child but there have been generations lost where assimilation was more desirable than cultural retention. A class of Grade 4 Blackfoot Immersion students re-member (return) those stories by using current technology in hopes of making this knowledge available again to their own people and the people of the world. In the hands of 9 and 10 year olds, video and digital cameras captured interviews with Kainai elders. Working with professionals, their interviews informed a dynamic and groundbreaking web site that has employed the latest technology in culturally appropriate and sensitive ways.

Central America

Plant Life and the Maya: Relationships and Conceptualizations,
by Jordan Erdos

In the area in which anthropology and cultural geography intersect, much has been written regarding the relationship between indigenous populations and natural resource use. An interest in indigenous knowledge systems has grown not only among anthropologists, but ecologists as well. Connections have been drawn between sustainable consumption of resources and native populations.

Working from evidence which maps the location of indigenous populations and areas of high biological diversity in the world, University of California at Berkeley geographer Bernard Nietschmann has postulated the "Rule of Indigenous Environments", which states that in those lands in which indigenous peoples are the owners, there remains an environment containing a rich biological diversity.

Ethnobotany, Property and Biodiversity: Ethical Dimensionsof Multi-Institutional Interests

by Jordan E. Erdos

How should scientists contracted by pharmaceutical industries and government health agencies, operating within the framework of multiple ethical systems stemming from various institutions, approach partnerships with indigenous peoples whose ethos stems from entirely different histories and circumstances? To answer this question, it is imperative to assess the distinct ethical systems in operation.

South America

Ethnobotany, IPR and benefit-sharing: the Forest People's Fund in Suriname

by Edward C. Green, Kenneth J. Goodman, and Martha Hare (IKM)

The Forest People's Fund provides a concrete example of how local people who share their own knowledge can also share the benefits that accrue from that knowledge. The Fund is a mechanism by which the Maroons and Amerindians of Suriname receive 'up-front' compensation and will share in a pharmaceutical company's future earnings from new drugs found with their help. It could serve as a model for the compensation of intellectual property rights, and help to secure a legal status for indigenous knowledge.

The rapid appraisal of a knowledge system: the health system of Guarani Indians in Bolivia

Laurent Umans (IKM)

In the traditional health system of the Guarani Indians of the Izozog region of southeastern Bolivia, a pivotal role is reserved for the "payes", shamans who possess ancestral knowledge and supernatural healing powers. But there also is a Western system, with a doctor and village health workers. When the indigenous health system came under threat, as reflected in a rapid decline in the number of payes and the loss of indigenous knowledge, the council of local leaders became concerned. To correct this situation, they resolved to strengthen indigenous health care in the Izozog region. The council commissioned an appraisal designed to provide a better understanding of underlying knowledge processes, and to come up with a sound plan of action. The article describes the methodology used and a number of the outcomes.

Using and sustaining natural resources: the Guajá Indians and the babassu palm (Attalea speciosa),

by Louis C. Forline

This article discusses the history and present-day distribution of the babassu palm, highlighting the Guajá's relationship with the tree, and the various ways in which it contributes to their livelihood. These practices may serve as a model of sustainable use and management.

Unique indigenous Amazonian uses of some plants growing in India

Dr S.K. Jain Dr Sneh Lata (IKM)

Ethnobotanical studies that draw comparisons between various communities within a country, or between communities located in different regions, have great potential for establishing the credibility of certain groups' unique knowledge, as well as for expanding its application. This article presents medicinal uses of plants which are found in both India and Amazonia. Some of these uses are unique to indigenous communities of Amazonia. The present study opens up the prospect of their increased utilization in the Indian region.


The preparation of gundruk in Nepal: a sustainable rural industry?

by Narayan P. Manandhar (IKM)

To overcome the scarcity of green vegetables in the hilly and mountainous regions of Nepal, the local people have traditionally had recourse to "gundruk", a non-salted and fermented leafy vegetable. This article describes the various ways of preparing it and the place of gundruk in the community. It also explores the possibilities for establishing a sustainable rural industry, which may serve as a blueprint for communities elsewhere.


Indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants and wild edibles among three tribal subcommunities of the Central Himalayas,

India by R.K. Maikhuri, Sunil Nautiyal, K.S. Rao and R.L. Semwal

The Bhotiyas of the Central Himalayas, who practice migratory cattle-raising and traditional agriculture, are highly dependent on the resources which they find in nature. The present article, which is based on years of research among three subcommunities of the Bhotiyas, documents their knowledge of medicinal plants and wild edibles, and the specific manner in which they are used. This information is presented in three tables. The article ends with a discussion of the need to conserve this knowledge in the light of the rapid acculturation now taking place within the Tolchha, Marchha and Jadh subcommunities.

Indigenous methods of seed selection and preservation on the Andaman Islands in India,

A.K. Bandyopadhyay and G.S. Saha (IKM)

This article focuses on farmers' ingenuity in devising ways to obtain sufficient seeds under extremely difficult conditions. As there is no organized system of seed supply in the extremely remote, humid and tropical Andaman and Nicobar Islands Territory in India, individual farmers have developed techniques for selecting and preserving the seeds of the most important food crops. The article also discusses a number of policy implications.

Sri Lanka

Traditional tree-crop practices in Sri Lanka

Hemanthi Ranasinghe (IKM)

The wide range of traditional tree-crop practices in Sri Lanka offers exciting prospects for the further development of agroforestry throughout the country. The deteriorating land-to- people ratio and the ever-declining per capita availability of agricultural land has made agroforestry a promising solution to present day problems. This article describes several types of traditional tree-crop practices in Sri Lanka.

Southeast Asia

Biodiversity, traditional medicine and the sustainable use of indigenous medicinal plants in Indonesia

by Walter R. Erdelen, Kusnaka Adimihardja, H. Moesdarsono, Sidik (IKM)

Traditional medicine may be seen as a product of the twofold wealth of Indonesia: its biodiversity and its cultural diversity. With a view to maintaining this diversity and ensuring the long-term future of the country's health care system, Indonesia needs to devise a programme for the sustainable use of medicinal plants. The authors have identified seven urgent needs.

Women in northeastern Thailand: preservers of botanical diversity

Geraldine Moreno-Black Prapimporn Somnasang Sompong Thamthawan (IKM)

The tradition of using and maintaining non-domesticated plants in house gardens is an expression of culture, and represents an intense interaction between humans and plants. The preservation of botanical diversity is directly related to local knowledge and practices, and closely bound up with microeconomic and social processes. Human beings play a role in maintaining select species, providing botanical refuges and serving as an active force in shaping the landscape. In northeastern Thailand, women's gardening practices have been instrumental in the preservation, selection, consumption and exchange of non-domesticated plants.


Indigenous knowledge of miombo trees in Morogoro, Tanzania

by E. Munyanziza and K. F. Wiersum (IKM)

In forestry policy and theory there is increasing interest in altering the orientation of forest management from state-controlled and professional to community forestry management, making use of indigenous knowledge and skills. This article stresses the need to re-examine the knowledge of forestry and agriculture among the people. This will highlight the dynamics and limitations of what local people know, and help as to decide when and how to make use of indigenous knowledge in forest management.

Indigenous postpartem maternal and child health care practices among the Igbo of Nigeria

Dan S. Obikeze (IKM)

Noting the apparent neglect of postnatal maternal care in the modern health care system, the author describes the indigenous postpartum maternal and child health care rites and observances among the Igbo of Southeastern Nigeria. Next, he examines these practices against the background of the Igbo conception of health, and recommends that Igbo health practices be adapted and incorporated into the primary health care programme.

Indigenous (medical) knowledge of the Maasai,

I. Sindiga

Traditional pastoral systems preserve natural ecosystems through extensive ranching and rotational grazing and by using a variety of livestock. The pastoral Maasai of East Africa, for example, keep cattle, goats and sheep. These animals utilize different parts of the range's plant life. This diversity is crucial in pastoral patterns of subsistence. The aim of this article is to review the uses of indigenous plants among the pastoral Maasai, focussing particularly on traditional medicine. It is argued that Maasai ethnobotany should be studied comprehensively and should serve as a guide for rural development in areas with very delicate ecologies.

Plants used for medicinal purposes by the Koma people of Adamawa State, Nigeria,

Dr Idu MacDonald

In the Alantika Mountains, which stretch between 8.50° and 9.00°N latitude and 12.3 and 12.50°E longitude, in the border area between Nigeria and the Republic of Cameroon, live the Koma people. In Nigeria, the Alantika Mountains stretch 50 km eastward from Lendo village to the Benue valley at Gbaji village. The highest peak is 4000 ft. The Koma people live scattered over the mountain top. They are predominantly farmers and hunters. The fertile soils of the area support drought-resistant crops like sorghum and millet. Other crops are cultivated on the plain: namely groundnut, rice and plantain. The Koma rear goats and chickens and they keep dogs to protect their homes. Not much is known about the origin of the Koma; they themselves are of the opinion that war and soil infertility drove them to leave Cameroon and settle in the safer area now called Koma (meaning 'we shall return').

Farmers' knowledge of indigenous tree cultivation around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park, Uganda

by J. Obua and G. Muhanguzi. (IKM)

This article presents the results of a study carried out around Bwindi Impenetrable Forest National Park (Uganda), where a project had been started to cultivate indigenous trees. It assesses the local knowledge pertaining to the cultivation of these trees, as well as constraints on indigenous tree cultivation. The article ends with recommendations for techniques that could help farmers to improve the quality and yield.