Indigenous knowledges may complement, rather than compete with, the dominant cultures , with their interaction benefiting all.
What has changed that made the dominant cultures of the West and within India suddenly pay attention to indigenous knowledge systems and want to integrate it with modern science?
The International Development Research Centre’s guide for researchers, published in 1998, suggested it was the growing critique of changes in politics of development aid, deteriorating ecological systems, depletion of natural resources, unverified and exclusionary development solutions, certain successful community-based initiatives and indigenous pressure groups.1
A decade later, Satish Puri of the University of Oslo suggested the same. In 2007, Puri wrote about the benefits of multiplicities of knowledge i.e, better administration and implementation of government projects such as those of land management. He proposed sharing and integrating knowledge across “communities of knowing (COK)” and “communities of practice (COP)”, which learn and create knowledge through lived experiences of participating in the world.2
In 1996, Dennis Michael Warren, then a director at the Iowa State University, wrote of a “growing global network… involved in documenting historical and contemporary indigenous knowledge of numerous ethnic groups around the world”. Warren suggested development based on and strengthening existing knowledge and local organisations.3 Twenty years have passed and it is suggested that our civilisations go back to basic human behaviour of storytelling to make sense of the world and transfer knowledge.4
This becomes particularly critical as it has been observed that when information and communication technology (ICT) globally became a component of development, information systems then became the object of competition among countries and economies at the turn of the 20th century. Researchers like Puri then emphasised on the human-centric approaches to knowledge creation and dissemination. Thus, there is the need for alliances of knowledge systems, not just between indigenous knowledge and modern science but also among multiple indigenous knowledge systems.
Indigenous knowledge encompasses ecological, traditional technological knowledge and traditional values and ethics—together these form the foundation for a way of life. Indigenous knowledge systems include “accumulated observations and monitoring of local ecosystems, social systems and their interrelation in certain contexts”. 5
International legislations have already been cognisant of the need to integrate indigenous knowledge systems into the development agenda. The Agenda 21 and Rio Declaration (UN Conference on Environment and Development) of 1992 was the first to recognise the role of indigenous peoples and their communities in efforts to implement sustainable development. Other international legal frameworks followed suit: The 1993 Convention on Biological Diversity and UN Conference on Environment and Development; the Code of Conducts for Responsible Fisheries of 1993; the 1994 UN Convention to Combat Desertification; and the 2004 International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture6.
Sustainable development cannot be attained without integrating indigenous knowledge systems, particularly in light of climate change. The 2021 White/ Wiphala Paper on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems, brought out during the United Nations Food Systems Summit (UNFSS) 2021, has strongly stressed that the genetic diversity nurtured by indigenous people (through indigenous knowledge-based food systems) also have tremendous climate change adaptation and resilience capacities.
But, there are many challenges to the idea of integration with the emergence of the polemic between integration and co-production of knowledge systems.
Integration versus Co-production
Information systems researchers now claim that integration and co-management of knowledge systems are full of challenges, some not even entirely understood. One of the challenges to integration of knowledge systems, according to biologist and philosopher Fulvio Mazzocchi, is the hierarchical power relations between indigenous societies and the government, and between indigenous cultures and the dominant western culture.7
The second challenge is that scientists still sort out indigenous science using western empirical research methods, which dismiss spiritual worldview and beliefs. So, instead of integrating indigenous knowledge with science, the West integrates it “into science”, indigenous scientists have warned8. This perpetuates the superiority of western science over ‘other’ knowledge systems. The problem is to “expect that (indigenous) knowledge could be legitimated through a Western system of justifying knowledge”, states Mazzocchi.
If this superiority of science is not questioned, then only the non-indigenous get to decide what biodiversity should look like and what should be preserved. Until the fundamentals of western science and development theories are rewritten based on indigenous worldview, we will continue trying to adopt indigenous knowledge in our inherently problematic worldviews. If these challenges are not overcome, writes Mazzocchi for the Journal of Future Studies, then we are headed toward a “globalised monoculture”, which recognises and validates only one type of science.7
Sonja Brodt suggests an integration of knowledge systems where they “reinforce rather than replace each other” in the real world. Brodt, in fact, questioned the dichotomy between the knowledge systems itself.9 If anything, there are more similarities between the indigenous peoples’ knowledge and dominant science. Indigenous peoples’ knowledge is just as methodological, inductive, deductive and dependent on observations, experiences, processes and practice.
However, these processes and practices date back longer than any western scientific studies; and, indigenous observations are older than the first satellite image. Indigenous knowledge is based on local evidence unlike dominant science, which values generalised over localised.5 Mazzochhi, thus, suggested the “linking together” of scientific and indigenous knowledge systems where both maintained their distinctiveness and yet drew from and enriched each other.
Integration need not mean combining the two or assimilating one into the other; it should protect each’s legitimacy on its own while encouraging inter-cultural exchanges. Through these, we could have a whole “ecology of knowledges” based on different understandings of the world. Some argue for what Mazzocchi calls “multicultural science”.
Participation and interaction of multiple communities in practice has to be in such a way that the result enables dialogue and shared understanding, and satisfies information requirements of each community. One example of this is integration of earlier fragmented knowledge of GIS mapping, remote sensing technology, government department manpower and the local community in management of land in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh.2
A more recent example of integration of knowledge and technology is from Nagaland where farmers on high altitudes adopted a pond-based integrated farming system. According to the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), growing multiple crops like rice and vegetables and utilising the existing ponds for fish farming, livestock and irrigation also boosted livelihoods in the south Garo hills of Meghalaya. This system is resilient to climate change and uncertainty, say agricultural scientists.
But one kind of integrated knowledge system is not going to work for all communities, or even communities of the same region. So, scientists recommend the inclusion of local farmers in the designing and planning of the integrated systems, and increased government funding in integrated farming systems.10
While it is established that there are multiple or plural ways to understand the world and the relationships within, it is time we accept it. We must acknowledge “epistemic diversity”—plural knowledge that decides possible plural futures instead of one7. Indigenous experts and scientists today suggest co-production of transdisciplinary knowledge, which could create more resilient knowledge systems that address global environmental crises. It enables recognising and validating other ways of producing and transmitting knowledge, especially oral knowledge.
The Global Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems encourages the creation of more horizontal or non-hierarchical structures of knowledge, which include diverse experts and indigenous and non-indigenous actors 5. Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, an environmental activist from the Mbororo pastoralist community in Chad, suggested in her 2020 TED talk the combination of indigenous philosophy and western science and technology to take on climate change 11. Not just climate change, but other interrelated global challenges like hunger, food security and pandemics can be tackled if we begin to share and use all knowledge of humankind to make communities resilient enough to protect ecosystems.
Efforts at co-production of knowledge are already underway: 2021-2031 has been declared as the United Nations Decade on Ecosystem Restoration by UNESCO. Conservation has generally been known to exclude the marginalised people, who in many cases, are indigenous. Most recent example of this is the eviction of the Maasai community for the demarcation of ancestral land for a trophy hunting and safari game reserve12.
Realising the need for a people-centred conservation model, which respects the right to self-determination of indigenous peoples, including the right to free, prior and informed consent (FPIC), and recognises indigenous peoples' traditional knowledge in sustainable management of their environment, the FAO-Indigenous Peoples’ Unit initiated the Indigenous Peoples Biocentric Restoration Project. Apart from Bolivia, Ecuador and Thailand, the project is also being implemented in Meghalaya and India13. There needs to be more of such initiatives. This is particularly in light of the erosion of the indigenous knowledge systems, which is connected to the larger issue of discrimination and marginalisation of indigenous peoples.
Transmission of knowledge
In India, legislations like the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act, 2001 and Biological Diversity Act, 2002 have admitted that indigenous communities in the country have played an important role in maintenance of the rich biodiversity (natural and agrobiodiversity) present in the country. But regarding the knowledge system itself, the emphasis has been on documentation and preservation due to the former’s link with the cultural identity of the specific indigenous groups rather than their intrinsic worth as an important source of ecological knowledge.
A good example of this is the landmark Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006. This has the effect of consigning indigenous knowledge systems to a lower scientific position compared to the conventional dominant knowledge systems. Documentation, therefore, is not enough. As such, an important question that arises is: Apart from documentation, how else can we ascertain preservation and transmission of evolving indigenous knowledge as science to next generations of indigenous as well as exogenous populations?
Some suggest formalisation of indigenous knowledge by including it in school curriculum. But formal education of science and fixed curriculums of learning invalidate other cultural “processes, purposes, structures of learning”, writes Moyra Keane, a researcher and academic advisor in Johannesburg14. A study in South Africa evidenced that teachers hesitated to engage with students on indigenous knowledge systems because it isn’t as powerful as modern science, and because the classroom has a mix of different indigenous identities.
In India, the situation is not much different. However, there are challenges at the policy level: The new National Education Policy (NEP) proposes to integrate traditional healthcare knowledge of AYUSH into the mainstream academic curriculum. The AYUSH ministry announced it will implement this with special attention to colleges in the northeastern states. While modern medicine practitioners and researchers are asking for science-based evidence for integration of this traditional medicine, some have warned that hybridising the healthcare industry might be “dangerous" for patients. Some have even commended the move.15
However, such an attempt has to be analysed in the context of the history of marginalisation of indigenous communities in the country. Declared as the first education policy of the 21st century, the aim of the NEP-2020 is stated to be “revision and revamping of all aspects of the education structure… while building upon India’s traditions and value systems” (page 3 of NEP-2020). But the “rich heritage of ancient eternal knowledge” being referred to in the NEP document is the Hindu (Vedic) tradition, without the mention of any other knowledge system, especially that of autochthonous tribal communities. Not surprisingly, in terms of languages, Sanskrit – which is part of the Indo-European language family — is given preference. Dravidian languages get mentioned but Austro-Asiatic and Sino-Tibetan languages (spoken by a large portion of the indigenous communities in the Indian subcontinent) are subsumed under ‘local’ languages, consigning them to a lower status16. Two important issues emerge from such a move.
Firstly, the Ministry of AYUSH has validated that it is promoting Hindu (Vedic) culture and knowledge as Indian traditional knowledge. Who does this benefit and who does this exclude in the process of ‘integration’? In actuality, it benefits the nationalist Hindu state and it excludes thousands of indigenous/ tribal communities in the central and northeastern tribal belts who have been practising evidence-based science for millennia. Secondly, how the NEP would combine knowledge systems in pedagogy and practice is unclear. This kind of policy surely requires more debate, planning and inclusive decision-making.
For the inclusive integration of indigenous knowledge systems with western science, decolonisation of knowledge systems and of language is important. Indigenous knowledge and philosophy is inherently multi- and transdisciplinary. Every science is related to natural sciences, and this relation is the essence of indigenous worldview. Keeping indigenous values and ethics in mind, formalisation of indigenous knowledge systems is possible.
Overall, systemic changes to how we define, structure and link knowledge have to be made while acknowledging indigenous knowledge as a science and not as competition to science. However, moving forward, we have to ask ourselves: If we are to combine and benefit from the interactions of knowledge systems, whom would it benefit?
1 Grenier, L. (1998). Working with indigenous knowledge: A guide for researchers. Ottawa: International Development Research Centre.
2 Puri, S.K. (2007). Integrating scientific with indigenous knowledge: Constructing knowledge alliances for land management in India. MIS Quarterly, 31(2): 255-379.
3 Warren, D. M. (1996). Indigenous knowledge, biodiversity conservation and development. In (ed.) V. James, Sustainable development in third world countries: Applied and theoretical perspectives. London: Praeger.
4 Roy, A.N. (September 10, 2020). Revisiting indigenous epistemologies of north east India. Heinrich Boell Stiftung. Retrieved from https://in.boell.org/index.php/en/2020/09/10/revisiting-indigenous-epistemologies-north-east-india
5 Milbank, C., B. Burlingame, D. Hunter, et al. (2021). Rethinking hierarchies of evidence for sustainable food systems. Nature Food, 2(Nov 2021): 843-845.
6 FAO (2010). FAO Policy on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples. FAO.
7 Mazzocchi, F. (2018). Why “integrating” western science and indigenous knowledge is not an easy task: what lessons could be learned for the future of knowledge? Journal of Future Studies, 22(3): 19-34.
8Nakashima, D. And M. Roue. (2002). Indigenous knowledge, peoples and sustainable practices. Social and economic dimensions of global environmental change, 5(2002): 314-324.
9 Brodt, S.B. (2001). A systems perspective on the conservation and erosion of indigenous agricultural knowledge in central India. Human Ecology, 29(1): 99-120.
10 Padma, T.V. (Nov 18, 2021). Integrated farming systems: climate adaptation solution. Nagaland Post. Retrieved from http://www.nagalandpost.com/integrated-farming-systems-climate-adaptation-solution/244884.html
11 TED. (April 25, 2020). Indigenous knowledge meets science to take on climate change: Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim. Youtube. Retrieved from www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3d_UsYgt1c
12Abulu, L., and Sutherland, L. (2022). Maasai protesters shot, beaten as Tanzania moves forward with wildlife game reserve. Retrieved from https://news.mongabay.com/2022/06/ma
13 The Shillong Times (2022). 5 EKH communities come forward for biocentric restoration project. Retrieved from https://theshillongtimes.com/2022/07/30/5-ekh-communities-come-fo
14 Keane, M. (July 15, 2015). Why indigenous knowledge has a place in the school science curriculum. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/why-indigenous-knowledge-has-a-place-in-the-school-science-curriculum-44378
15 Chandna, H. and K. Sharma. (July 31, 2020). NEP plans to integrate AYUSH and modern medicine, allopaths say it’ll produce ‘official quacks’. The Print. Retrieved from https://theprint.in/health/nep-plans-to-integrate-ayush-modern-medicine-allopaths-say-itll-produce-official-quacks/471565/
16 Mawroh, B. and Dkhar, G.E. (2020). National Education Policy-2020 and Indigenous Knowledge System.Retrieved from https://theshillongtimes.com/2020/11/04/national-educatio