Local knowledge is the human capital of both the urban and rural people. It is the main asset they invest in the struggle for survival, to produce food, provide for shelter or achieve control of their own lives. Significant contributions to global knowledge have originated with local people, for instance for human and veterinary medicine. Local knowledge is developed and adapted continuously to a gradually changing environment. It is passed down from generation to generation and closely interwoven with peoples cultural values.
In the emerging global knowledge economy, a countrys ability to build and mobilize knowledge capital is as essential to sustainable development as the availability of physical and financial capital. The basic component of any countrys knowledge system is its local knowledge. This encompasses the skills, experiences and insights of people, applied to maintain or improve their livelihood.
Today, many local knowledge systems are at risk of becoming extinct. This is because globally natural environments are rapidly changing, and there are fast-paced economic, political, and cultural changes. Practices vanish, when they are inappropriate, in the face of new challenges, or because they adapt too slowly. However, many practices disappear because of the intrusion of foreign technologies, or development concepts, that promise shortterm gains or solutions to problems. The tragedy of the impending disappearance of local knowledge is most obvious to those who have developed and make their living from it. A case in point is the wild-food example from southern Ethiopia (see Box 2). These plants are especially vital for the survival of the poor, during food shortages, when there are no other means of satisfying basic needs. Moreover, the implication for others may also be detrimental, when skills, technologies, artifacts, problem-solving strategies and expertise are lost. Local knowledge is a part of peoples lives. Especially, the poor depend, almost entirely, for their livelihoods on specific skills and knowledge essential to their survival. Accordingly, for the development process, local knowledge is of particular relevance to the following sectors and strategies:
Agriculture, knowledge related to crop selection, intercropping, planting times.
Animal husbandry and ethnic veterinary medicine, knowledge of breeding strategies, livestock characteristics and requirements, plant uses to treat common illnesses.
Use and management of natural resources, knowledge of soil fertility management, sustainable management of wild species.
Health care, knowledge of plant properties for medicinal purposes.
Community development, common or shared knowledge provides links between community members and generations; and
Poverty alleviation, knowledge of survival strategies based on local resources.
Conventional approaches imply that development processes always require technology transfers from places that are perceived to be more advanced. This practice has often led to overlooking the potential of local experiences and practices. The following example from Ethiopias food security programme illustrates what may happen if local knowledge is not adequately considered (see Box 3).
[Box 3] INTRODUCTION OF SORGHUM VARIETIES IN ETHIOPIA
Higher yielding sorghum varieties were introduced into Ethiopia to increase food security and income for farmers and rural communities. When weather and other conditions were favourable, the modern varieties proved a success. However, in some areas complete crop failures were observed, whereas local varieties, with a higher variance of traits, were less susceptible to the frequent droughts. The farming community considered the loss of an entire crop to be more than offset by the lower, average yields of the local variety that performed under more extreme conditions. An approach, that included local farming experience, could have resulted in a balanced mix of local and introduced varieties, thus reducing the producers risk.
Local knowledge is relevant at three levels of the development process.
Obviously, it is most important to men and women, old and young, in the local community where the bearers of such knowledge live and produce.
Development agents (CBOs, NGOs, governments, donors, local leaders and private sector initiatives) need to recognize, value and appreciate local knowledge in their interaction with the local communities. They need to understand exactly what it is before it is incorporated in their approaches. They also need to critically validate it against the usefulness of their intended objectives.
Finally, local knowledge forms part of global knowledge. In this context, it has a value and relevance in itself. Local knowledge can be preserved, transferred, or adopted and adapted elsewhere.
However, it is important to stress that local knowledge is not exclusive or necessarily sufficient for tackling the challenges people face today. Much evidence shows that local actors seek information and concepts from wherever they can in their efforts to solve their problems and achieve their goals. For people involved in research and development processes, with local communities, it is important to see local knowledge as one component within a more complex innovation system. Therefore, a thorough analysis of existing sources of information and knowledge is an important step in any research or development project. These sources, by nature, can be formal and informal. For instance, community groups, involved in similar agricultural practices, could be an informal source of local knowledge. Regional, or national, extension or research centres would be a formal source of knowledge. In this context, it is important to consider private service providers, such as local seed retailers, as they are becoming increasingly important as knowledge providers.
Guinand, Y. & Lemessa, D. 2000. Wild-food plants in southern Ethiopia: Reflections on the role of famine-foods at a time of drought. UN-Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia, UNDP Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia.
Oduol, W. 1995. Adaptive responses to modern technology: Kitui farmers in the semi-arid regions of eastern Kenya. In Technology policy and practices in Africa. Ottawa, Canada, International Development Research Centre.
Warburton, H. & Martin, A.M. 1999. Local peoples knowledge. Best practice guideline. Socio-Economic Methodologies Programme. London, DFID.
FAO Web site for Gender, Agrobiodiversity and Local Knowledge: www.fao.org/sd/links
World Bank Web site on indigenous knowledge: www.worldbank.org/afr/ik/what.htm
Additional background papers
Mujaju, C., Zinhanga, F. & Rusike, E. 2003. Community seed banks for semi-arid agriculture in Zimbabwe. In Conservation and sustainable use of agricultural biodiversity. Manila, CIP-UPWARD in partnership with GTZ, IDRC, IPGRI and SEARICE.