Traditional knowledge solves modern-day problems

From water management to conserving genetic resources, traditional wisdom has much to teach today's planners

ROME, 13 June 2002 -- International organizations may have the best of intentions when they propose the latest thinking to resolve development problems. But proposals may not be suited to local traditions, and in many cases, effective solutions are already in place.

This was the message delivered by many participants at the NGO/CSO Forum, a five-day meeting organized by non-governmental and civil society organizations as a parallel event to the World Food Summit: five years later. Hundreds of grass-roots organizations as well as the farmers, fishers and pastoralists with whom they work in their native countries shared perspectives on ending hunger. In workshops and presentations, these groups revealed the wisdom of their homespun solutions.

When Taghi Farvar of the Iran-based Centre for Sustainable Development, or CENESTA, talks about ensuring water access, he cites the kariz system of underground canals to irrigate crops. This ancient practice utilizes the fact that the depth of the water table follows the line of the terrain. As land rises to higher elevations, so does the water table. Using the kariz method, farmers tap into this water at a level above their crops. Then they dig a series of underground canals to channel water down to their fields -- without a pump.

"Energy to pump water requires costly oil or electricity," says Mr Farvar, "but the kariz system uses the earth's water without pumping."

The distribution of this water is managed by an individual paid by the community, the mirab. The mirab follows decisions made by village elders, who meet to decide how to distribute water. They choose which field receives water first, and then devise a system to alternate access. If this system sounds familiar to modern-day planners, that is because it is the traditional version of a water users' association.

In the arid areas of the Sudan, nomadic tribes are having increasing difficulty in finding water for their animals. In the past, pastoralists depended on the hafir system of digging artificial ponds a few hundred metres long and a few metres deep to collect rainwater. By building them at set points along their intended route, the tribe made sure they could access water even in the dry season. These groups would like to see more energy put into encouraging the hafir system and less spent on pumps and canals.

In one tribe in India, a simple but effective way of conserving animal genetic diversity has its roots in traditional custom. "As a rule, these camel breeders never sell a female camel to another tribe," explains Maryam Rahmanian, also of CENESTA. In this way, the genetic makeup of that camel remains in the tribe. And the rule is easy to enforce since camels are viewed as communal property, not private.

Another lesson is the need to respect old customs even when introducing new concepts. For instance farmers' cooperatives in a Western model make each individual a member. But in many traditional cultures, the single entity is considered the household, not the individual. Development agencies setting up cooperatives should therefore consider whether they should be organized around one vote per household or one per person.

Sometimes funds arrive from development agencies, but problems arise in how to distribute them. In Iran, a particularly effective solution is the sandouq, a community fund based on traditional culture. Using the sandouq system, the community considers the problems at hand and what would best serve their needs. One village in southern Iran found it had land and labour but lacked water. So the sandouq decided to use their funds to buy a water pump. Profits earned from the crops grown as a result of the pump were returned to the fund, making money available for new projects.

Mr Farvar has a simple suggestion for international organizations: "First see if there are any traditional ways of solving the problem. Then try to understand them by working with the local population." Very often, solutions are right there -- and tested by time.
Indigenous tribes, grass-roots groups and activists share views at the NGO/CSO Forum in Rome.

Indigenous tribes, grass-roots groups and activists share views at the NGO/CSO Forum in Rome.

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FAO, 2002