Local knowledge is embedded in social structures. Different groups of people, e.g. ethnic, clans, gender, age or wealth groups may hold various types of knowledge. This type of knowledge is related to existing differences concerning:
Access to or control over production resources
Access to education, training and information in general
Labour divisions between women and men, farmers and herders, etc.
Control over the benefits of production
Gender and local knowledge are, therefore, linked in many ways. Women and men often possess very different skills and types of knowledge concerning local conditions and everyday life. For example, women are important users and processors of natural resources for human subsistence. As such, they are often the repositories of local knowledge for sustainable resource management. On the other hand, men may have more knowledge of production issues. In many societies women are mainly responsible for growing and collecting food, securing water, fuel and medicines. They also provide a cash income for education, health care and other family needs. Furthermore, women contribute much of the labour and day-to-day decision-making that goes into crop and animal production.
While both men and women are involved in crop selection, and have highly specific knowledge, they use substantially different selection criteria. Often, women's criteria and knowledge are overlooked by researchers of plant variety selection and conservation. Where women are the main crop producers, they consciously select varieties that meet a broad range of criteria related to production, processing, storage and preservation as well as culinary qualities. When men are the main producers, they depend on female family members to advise them on characteristics that are unrelated to field crop production; particularly those aspects associated with post-harvest processing and culinary use (Howard, 2003).
Age is another important factor that influences local knowledge; younger people tend to be less aware of its relevance. Research, on traditional medicines in Ghana and Zambia, showed that younger generations often undervalue this knowledge. This is partly because traditional medicine seldom brings high economic returns to the practitioner (IK Notes No. 30, 2001). Depending on the livelihood strategies adopted by different people, or across generations, the relevance of local knowledge to agricultural production will vary.
Local knowledge, and related gender differences, can be seen as key factors in shaping and influencing plant and animal diversity. Farmers' selection and management practices, and their use of genetic resources, have played an important role in agrobiodiversity conservation. Continued management of these resources will play a significant role in the success of future strategies. Local knowledge can help increase the relevance and efficiency of agrobiodiversity conservation efforts in various situations:
Collection of samples: If local knowledge is included in collection and identification it will help identify crops/varieties that are in particular danger of being lost and are important to particular farmers or groups of farmers.
Documentation and information systems: Local knowledge is relevant to a better understanding of the potential of specific varieties/breeds. This includes specific adaptations, resistance to stress factors and quality traits.
Use of ex situ collections: Re-introduction of lost varieties/breeds, introduction of adapted varieties/breeds, participatory breeding programmes.
Designing strategies for in situ conservation and management: Local knowledge can contribute to the selection of relevant sites and participants. Only if local knowledge is taken into account, meaningful interventions can be developed that respond to local needs.
However, there are limitations to building on local knowledge. These are manifold and include the following:
Local knowledge is not equally distributed across a community. Not everybody within a community holds the same level and type of local knowledge. This can be a disadvantage to people participating in certain activities and can be an obstacle when trying to analyse local knowledge.
Local knowledge is not necessarily freely communicated. This is one of the reasons why it is not equally distributed at the community level. Local knowledge is part of power-relation structures, and may be managed so that certain members in the society are excluded from acquiring it.
Local knowledge is not easily accessible and understandable to outsiders. It should not be extracted from individuals/communities; it should be explored and shared in a participatory fashion, yielding benefits to all parties involved. Because it is dynamic, it changes and develops constantly. Furthermore, it is often location specific, and not necessarily useful in other agro-ecological or socio-economic situations.
Local knowledge is often regarded as inferior to 'Western' knowledge (Briggs and Sharp, 2003). This attitude is reflected in many extension and research approaches, which do not take into account existing local knowledge. There is also a vacuum at the policy level, where it does not usually contribute to decision-making processes.
Local knowledge does not necessarily offer a solution to changing external conditions. Therefore, it is important to establish mechanisms that allow integration of local and external knowledge sources.
The following example shows how these weaknesses, or limitations, can be overcome to achieve positive outcomes for people's livelihoods.
[Box 2] ENHANCING PASTORALIST SELF-RELIANCE THROUGH SUSTAINABLE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT IN KENYA
In Kenya, an integrated development programme for pastoralists brings together traditional (indigenous) and modern technical knowledge for training and handbooks on the treatment of cattle diseases. The programme aims to gather indigenous knowledge from different ethnic groups, share knowledge and practices, and promote pastoralism as a valid mode of production and way of life. The Kenya Economic Pastoralist Development Association (KEPDA) brings together traditional and modern technical knowledge in all project activities.
Understanding and awareness of key issues is then promoted through publications and networking. This approach has considerable potential for the sustainable improvement of dry land productivity. In the past traditional knowledge was largely considered a research topic, and technical knowledge was believed to be a replacement for 'primitive' or outdated practices. This project aims to integrate these two sets of knowledge.
Source: World Bank.
From a livelihoods perspective, local knowledge continues to be an important asset for resource poor people. Moreover, recent studies emphasize the relevance of local knowledge on indigenous food plants for increased food security and health. This is especially true for HIV-AIDS affected households in Africa, where increasing food insecurity further aggravates the negative impact of the disease. Grassroots responses, which build on agrobiodiversity and local knowledge, can contribute to combating food insecurity and the impacts of HIV-AIDS (Garí, 2003).