Non-Timber Forest Products Exchange Programme

Traditional Knowledge: What is it? (Part 1)

September 16, 2020

In indigenous upland communities in Northern Thailand, traditional songs are used to pass on values and lessons to the younger generations.
Photo by Robin Bustamante, NTFP-EP Asia.

The term ‘traditional knowledge’ has become a part of the all levels of development-speak, receiving attention from the international community, United Nations as well as national policy-makers. It is now understood that traditional knowledge (of indigenous peoples) is a valuable asset, and that it may contribute to a better understanding and conservation of our environment. This makes traditional knowledge something to be promoted; while working with indigenous and rural communities it may be more fruitful if we listen to how these communities observe and understand their environs, rather than impose our modern-science derived views and answers to their problems.

Taking this a little further, in most cases, traditional knowledge is treated as only contextually valid, without much relevance at a wider level. That is to say that the various skills that are necessary to go about the business of life in a forest setting, such as making leaf-cups, constructing a shelter, chopping wood, identifying natural fish-poisons, working on bamboo, fashioning a flute, laws that govern the harvest of a fruit, or making a rat-trap, are not universally sought-after skills. Instead, these skills are by and large perceived to be of marginal utility and, for the most part, treated as such. Such knowledge and skills are at best documented, usually with a camera, by people who work with such communities (or by film-makers). However, such documentation seldom crosses over into the actual learning of such skills by people outside these communities or enhancing the transfer of such knowledge within communities, which is the true act of valuing such skills and knowledge.

The Convention for Biological Diversity (CBD) defines traditional knowledge as:       

Knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities around the world. Developed from experience gained over the centuries and adapted to the local culture and environment, traditional knowledge is transmitted orally from generation to generation. It tends to be collectively owned and takes the form of stories, songs, folklore, proverbs, cultural values, beliefs, rituals, community laws, local language and agricultural practices, including the development of plant species and animal breeds. Traditional knowledge is mainly of a practical nature, particularly in such fields as agriculture, fisheries, health, horticulture, forestry and environmental management in general

I have emphasized ‘practical nature’, a concept I would like to go further into in this note. In the same document of the CBD, embodied in Article 8 (j), we have suggestions for a future direction to establish mechanisms to ensure the effective participation of indigenous and local communities in decision-making and policy planning;

  • to respect, preserve and maintain traditional knowledge relevant to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity;
  • to promote its wider application with the approval and involvement of the indigenous and local communities concerned; and
  • to encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilization of such traditional knowledge (emphasis supplied)

Two issues stand out in the way traditional knowledge is being approached: a) how does one use this knowledge in our present crisis situation (global warming, food and water insecurity, species loss, increasing strains of malevolent virus strains, habitat loss) to find ways out of the problems (drought resilient crops, new medicine, food supplements, carbon sequestration) and b) how can we ensure that this knowledge, held by a small population of indigenous and rural communities, is kept alive and passed on, within these communities and (with their consent) wider on. A crucial gap in the above definition of traditional knowledge is the absence of proscribed behaviour: when one may not harvest certain plants, when one may not hunt or fish, spaces one may not violate at any cost. Proscription is a very important part of all such traditional knowledge and behaviour which, if read carefully, is a recognition of the ecological precipices that human society has been faced with, and has learned to back off from. Unfortunately, the definition we have from the CBD is more a list of skills and techniques that may be capitalized upon and paid for ‘equitably’. It comes from a society where prescriptions rule (what I may do, not may not do), which is the crux of the problem. Also, how will we decide what is meant by ‘equitable’ is in such a historical-contemporary context?   

Without meaning to be sceptical, it is worth asking why indigenous communities should oblige ‘us’; and why should they consider their habitats as ‘world heritage’ sites?

One of the questions that needs to be answered when dealing with traditional knowledge is the context within which it is valid. At present, it is treated as if its value is limited to certain people and their habitats (even though the communities concerned seldom discuss this); there is, for instance, no attempt by anyone to extend a traditional law beyond the boundary of the community. As an example, it would mean that wherever the wild mango is found in Chhattisgarh (or India) it is harvested only after its seeds are mature for regeneration. And that, in a nutshell, we follow the principles of regeneration, which traditional communities point out.

The other questions are more contentious. Is traditional knowledge only confined to indigenous and rural societies in the global south and a few communities in the north? Where does one place the economically powerful societies of northern Europe, North America, Australia, etc., in the way they presently deal with traditional knowledge? Has any Sami, Maori, Native American, or Australian Aborigine knowledge been acknowledged and incorporated in their larger (national) society? Or, has such knowledge been validated but deemed feasible only in select habitats and communities, while the greater population continues as before? As we speak, indigenous and forest-based communities are being edged out of their homelands and territories; many are forced to leave and seek out a future elsewhere, as cheap wage-labour, usually in urban settings far removed from environments familiar to them. And such people carry away the knowledge that could be useful to their people as well as to the rest of humanity.

What is imperative to acknowledge is that traditional knowledge is another way of seeing and understanding the world, that reality can be experienced in different ways, and that no one way is correct at the expense of others. A new way of understanding the same reality might offer solutions to problems we thought did not exist. However, what do we do when traditional knowledge contradicts or goes against modern norms, especially in the realm of the intangible, like sacred groves and certain belief systems? In particular, one needs to save traditional knowledge falling into the trap of ‘fuzzy logic’, where everything ‘traditional’ is correct and admirable, which would put it in the wrong light in the long run. Simultaneously, we need to encourage all challenges to traditional knowledge, especially with scientific views, as that will enhance a healthy respect for indigenous peoples as a whole, and create circumstances for a better world that engages with multiple ways of understanding reality.

Written by Madhu Ramnath, NTFP-EP India.

Madhu Ramnath is the coordinator for NTFP-EP India. He has been immersed in the subject of barefoot ecology, wild forest foods in Asia and traditional cultivated plants. His other areas of interest include nutrition, health, indigenous land tenure, nurseries and reforestation. He has authored several books, including “Wood Smoke and Leaf Cups” and “Wild Tastes in Asia: Coming Home to the Forest for Food”.