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Local knowledge is the knowledge that people in a given community have developed over time, and continue to develop. It is:

Local knowledge is not confined to tribal groups or to the original inhabitants of an area. It is not even confined to rural people. Rather, all communities possess local knowledge - rural and urban, settled and nomadic, original inhabitants and migrants. There are other terms, such as traditional knowledge or indigenous knowledge, which are closely related, partly overlapping, or even synonymous with local knowledge. The term local knowledge seems least biased in terms of its contents or origin. As it embraces a larger body of knowledge systems, it includes those classified as traditional and indigenous.


Local knowledge is a collection of facts and relates to the entire system of concepts, beliefs and perceptions that people hold about the world around them. This includes the way people observe and measure their surroundings, how they solve problems and validate new information. It includes the processes whereby knowledge is generated, stored, applied and transmitted to others.

The concept of traditional knowledge implies that people living in rural areas are isolated from the rest of the world and that their knowledge systems are static and do not interact with other knowledge systems.

Indigenous knowledge systems are often associated with indigenous people thus rather limiting for policies, projects and programmes seeking to work with rural farmers in general. Furthermore, in some countries, the term indigenous has a negative connotation, as it is associated with backwardness or has an ethnic and political connotation.

Sources: Warburton and Martin (1999) and FAO Web site for Gender, Agrobiodiversity and Local Knowledge

Knowledge systems are dynamic, people adapt to changes in their environment and absorb and assimilate ideas from a variety of sources. However, knowledge and access to knowledge are not spread evenly throughout a community or between communities. People may have different objectives, interests, perceptions, beliefs and access to information and resources. Knowledge is generated and transmitted through interactions within specific social and agro-ecological contexts. It is linked to access and control over power. Differences in social status can affect perceptions, access to knowledge and, crucially, the importance and credibility attached to what someone knows. Often, the knowledge possessed by the rural poor, in particular women, is overlooked and ignored.


The rural people of Ethiopia are endowed with a profound knowledge of the use of wild plants. This is particularly true for medicinal and wild plants, some of which are consumed during drought, war and other hardship. Elders, and other knowledgeable community members, are the key sources or reservoirs of plant knowledge. Wild-food consumption is still very common in the rural areas of Ethiopia, particularly for children. Among these, the most common wild plant fruits consumed by children, are from the plant species Ficus spp., Carissa edulis and Rosa abyssinica.

The consumption of wild plants seems to be more common and widespread in food insecure areas, where a wide range of species are consumed. The linkage has given rise to the notion of famine-foods, plants that are eaten only at times of food stress and that are therefore an indicator of famine conditions. Local people know of the importance and the contribution that wild plants make to their daily diet. Also, they know of the possible health hazards, such as an upset stomach that may occur after eating certain wild plants.

For example, Balanites aegyptiaca (bedena in Amharic), an evergreen tree, about 10 to 20 m tall, is typical of this category. Children eat its fruit at any time when ripe, when there are food shortages they will be eaten by adults. The new shoots, which are always growing during the dry season, are commonly used as animal forage. Although, during food shortages, people cut the newly grown succulent shoots and leaves, which are cooked like cabbage. People in the drought-prone areas of southern Ethiopia also apply these consumption habits to the fruits and young leaves of Solanium nigrum (black nightshade), a small annual herb, and Syzygium guineense (waterberry tree), which is a dense, leafy forest tree around 20 m tall.

In parts of southern Ethiopia, the consumption of wild-food plants seems to be one of the important local survival strategies. This appears to have intensified because of repeated climatic shocks that have hampered agricultural production, leading to food shortages. Increased consumption of wild-foods allows people to better cope with erratic, untimely rains. They are able to face several consecutive years of drought, without facing severe food shortages, famine and general asset depletion, as is the case in other areas of Ethiopia. The key to this survival strategy is the collection and consumption of wild plants. These are found in uncultivated lowland areas such as bush, forest and pastoral land. In the more densely populated, and intensively used mid- and highlands, a great variety of these indigenous plants and trees have been domesticated for home consumption and medicinal use. Southern Ethiopia, particularly Konso, Derashe and Burji special weredas[1] and parts of the southern nations, nationalities and people’s region (SNNPR) may still be considered part of these biodiversity hot-spots in Ethiopia.

Source: Guinand and Lemessa, 2000.

Local knowledge is unique to every culture or society; elders and the young possess various types of knowledge. And, women and men, farmers and merchants, educated and uneducated people all have different kinds of knowledge.

The type of knowledge people have is related to their age, gender, occupation, labour division within the family, enterprise or community, socio-economic status, experience, environment, history, etc. This has significant implications for research and development work. To find out what people know, the right people must be identified. For example, if boys do the herding they may know, better than their fathers, where the best grazing sites are. If we ask the fathers to show us good pastures, we might only get partial information. Development professionals sometimes think villagers know very little, when in fact the wrong people have been interviewed.

It is important to realize that local knowledge - as with other types of knowledge - is dynamic and constantly changing, as it adapts to a changing environment. Because local knowledge changes over time, it is sometimes difficult to decide whether a technology or practice is local, adopted from outside, or a blend of local and introduced components. In most cases the latter situation is most likely. For a development project, however, it does not matter whether a practice is really local or already mixed with introduced knowledge. What is important before looking outside the community for technologies and solutions, is to look first at what is available within the community. Based on this information, a decision can be made on the type of information that would be more relevant to the specific situation. Most likely, it will be a combination of different knowledge sources and information types.

This again has important implications for the research and development process. It is not sufficient to document existing local knowledge. It is equally important to understand how this knowledge adapts, develops and changes over time. How this knowledge is communicated is also significant, and by whom, both within and beyond the community.

[1] The basic administration unit in Ethiopia, equivalent to a district

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