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2. Indigenous knowledge and ethnobotany

C.K. Mwamba (chair)
D. Kiambi (rapporteur)
M. Karman
I. Lorbach
J. de Wolf
F. Nielsen
W. Werner
T. Gathirimu
F. Herzog
P.A. Oduol
E. Omosa
E. Kiptot
A.Y. Banana
A.S. Omushieni
C. den Biggelaar


One of the reasons for considering the domestication of trees and commercialization of their products in agroforestry systems is to improve the livelihood of rural peoples. Such improvements could be in production systems, income-generating opportunities and nutritional well-being. The starting point is the knowledge that indigenous peoples already possess.

Indigenous knowledge and technology

The working group initiated discussion by considering the various meanings of indigenous knowledge and indigenous technology. Indigenous knowledge, for example, is cumulative over generations and composed of information on plants, their uses and their growing environment. Such knowledge is dynamic as it changes over time within a particular ethnic group and varies among groups. Indigenous technology is the implementation of this knowledge to local problems. It is through this technology that progress is achieved. It is recognized that indigenous knowledge is not restricted to particular ethnic groups that have been indigenous to an area but that all types of peoples, and even animals, possess knowledge of their environment.

Domestication of some species has been a result of such indigenous knowledge and technology. It is a process in which humans have manipulated the characteristics of certain wild species to fulfil their own desires and have brought them under management. The main driving force behind domestication is the need to intensify the uses of particular species. Such needs may be the result of market forces.

Relevance to domestication

The initial steps in the domestication process are normally inspired by and make use of indigenous knowledge; however, there are constraints to capturing and utilizing this local-level knowledge. At times, there is a lack of clarity as to where, or from whom, information can be obtained. Also there can be a reluctance by individuals and communities to share information, as the return of benefits to individuals and communities with knowledge (i.e., their intellectual property rights) are often neither defined nor guaranteed. An alarming erosion of indigenous knowledge is occurring because of the degradation of cultural heritage and the local environment. Western cultural values can influence local cultural norms and cause a breakdown in the transmission of information from one generation to the next. Such cultural changes can be compounded by environmental degradation; for example as species disappear, so too does the knowledge related to them.

Standardization of procedure

The working group agreed that to document indigenous knowledge, procedures should be standardized with guidelines for information gathering. Overall, a systems approach for the gathering of information was advocated that takes into account historical, socioeconomic and biophysical factors affecting availability, production and conservation of plant resources. Resources that have documented past indigenous knowledge include old colonial records, archives, museum collections and the writings of early missionaries. Indigenous knowledge can be gathered from the older generation of a community, but not necessarily solely from them, as knowledge is dynamic and all age groups possess some. Gender balance in gathering of information is also important, as men and women can value and use plants differently. In general, a trust should be built between communities and researchers. Appropriate acknowledgement and reimbursement is required for access to and use of the knowledge, as well as a return of benefits derived from such information. Ideally, local people themselves should be trained to document and preserve their knowledge. Furthermore, there is a need to assert the right of resource ownership by the communities, through approporiate policies, especially land tenure and legislation systems.

Indigenous knowledge can be difficult to utilize because it is often not comprehensively documented and its availability is variable. Even when available, its application is site-specific, depending on ethnic groups and ecogeographic zones. The knowledge may not be tested or verified, since, for example, the success of medicinal products may be affected by psychological and cultural factors and not only by testable pharmaceutical ingredients. Furthermore, cures from local healers are often made by mixing products of several plant species together. The processing and isolation of compounds from medicinal plants by pharmaceutical industries may lose the synergy of different ingredients to cure illnesses.

Research priorities

It was noted that smallholder farmers do not necessarily need high-value products, as their main priority is often food security. It is therefore more logical to aim for higher productivity, as opposed to high-value products. The ideal ultimate goal would be to improve and increase productivity by using a diversity of domesticated or semi-domesticated species in agroforestry systems. High-value products are more suited for monocultures, which run counter to the conservation of biological diversity.

To promote indigenous knowledge and disseminate research results obtained from it, the working group suggested that, in addition to publications, audiovisuals, databases, electronic communications and mass media should be utilized and targeted to different user groups. These same methods can also be used to document knowledge. Furthermore, indigenous knowledge should be incorporated in school curricula. Scientists and NGOs should facilitate dissemination to academic institutions through seminars and lectures.

Where possible, working groups such as this one should include those actually possessing knowledge of plants and their environment, such as traditional healers.

The working group proposed that to benefit smallholder farmers and the environment and to improve productivity, the following were necessary in research activities:

Research constraints

To overcome constraints in retrieval and utilization of indigenous knowledge, the working group proposed the following:

A comprehensive inventory based on indigenous knowledge of species and their respective products.

Development and installation of databases containing the inventoried information in a regional bibliographic centre for ease of access and periodic updating. Such databases should encourage the sharing of information of ongoing activities between scientists, to avoid duplication, which not only wastes limited resources, but also burdens the time of local peoples.

Establishment and promotion of species improvement networks (SIN) on selected priority species, such as those of common regional interest.

Establishment of national, regional and international networks on the domestication and commercialization of non-timber forest products in agroforestry systems.

Direct involvement of rural communities and small-scale farmers in the domestication of species in agroforestry systems and the commercialization of their products through training and technical assistance and by focusing on important species in rural areas.

Ensuring local control of resources by the communities in access to and use of their knowledge.

Adding value to indigenous knowledge by complementing it with scientific technology, particularly in the case of developing pharmaceuticals or with coordinating health care programmes with local healers.

Constraints for the development of databases were recognized as a lack of financial resources, insufficient technical experience, and lack of goodwill among institutions to share information.


Ordinarily, inventories provide a large number of species with potential for domestication or commercialization. The working group identified a need to objectively select and test these species, as financial and labour constraints would not allow for all species to be promoted. It is recognized that local people's needs, priorities and preferences should be considered when identifying products. In this regard, methodologies of preference and priority ranking have been developed; however, it is uncertain that the priorities identified today will be useful even in the foreseeable future.

With regard to the pharmaceutical industry, the use of indigenous knowledge is not as straightforward as isolating an active ingredient and processing it into a tablet.

It was recognized that research should involve farmers as well as international centres, local institutions, NGOs and universities. In general, holistic testing of information and products was recommended. Provenance trials and species selection for use in different agroecological zones would be necessary. The working group believed that priority in research activities should be given to arid and semi-arid lands, because in the group's opinion those ecosystems are more fragile, causing people there to be more dependent on indigenous fruits and herbal medicines.

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