CIESIN Thematic Guides

Indigenous Agricultural and Environmental Knowledge Systems

Indigenous knowledge is local knowledge unique to a given culture or society. Indigenous agricultural and environmental knowledge gained global recognition through the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, and documents such as the World Conservation Strategy (International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) 1980) and Brundtland Commission's Our Common Future (World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) 1987). Indigenous knowledge is an immensely valuable resource that provides humankind with insights on how communities have interacted with their changing environment.

Indigenous knowledge systems have never been systematically recorded in written form and therefore are not readily accessible to agricultural researchers, development practitioners, and policy makers. Warren (1991) provides a detailed overview of indigenous knowledge systems in "Using Indigenous Knowledge in Agricultural Development." Warren and Rajasekaran (1993) offer a more succinct discussion in "Putting Local Knowledge to Good Use." Rajasekaran, Warren, and Babu (1991) provide a general explanation of indigenous knowledge, with a particular emphasis on genetic resources, pastoral management, and agroforestry, in "Indigenous Natural-Resource Management Systems for Sustainable Agricultural Development."

The Role of Indigenous Knowledge in Preserving Biodiversity is essential to human development. Indigenous knowledge about plant genetic resources is an invaluable tool in the search for new ways to conserve and use these resources to benefit local communities. Warren (1992) expands on this important link in the keynote address "Indigenous Knowledge, Biodiversity Conservation and Development" delivered at the International Conference on Conservation of Biodiversity in Africa.

Farmers and pastoralists maintain a wide variety of trees in Indigenous Agroforestry Systems. These systems are highly adaptable to specific agroecological conditions and, at the same time, meet needs for food, fodder, firewood, and lumber. Mathias-Mundy et al. (1992) survey indigenous agroforestry systems in "Indigenous Technical Knowledge of Private Tree Management."

Farmers adopt a wide range of Indigenous Agricultural and Land Use Practices based on generations of experience, informal experiments, and intimate understanding of their biophysical and sociocultural environments. Reijntjes, Haverkort, and Waters-Bayer (1992) provide examples of indigenous farming systems, practices, and knowledge in Farming for the Future.

Indigenous Food Production Systems are fairly sophisticated and contribute significantly to food security. These systems involve complex processes for producing food from diversified agroecological and sociocultural environments to meet the subsistence needs of the people.

Agenda 21, one of three non-binding environmental agreements signed at UNCED, emphasizes that local governments and intergovernmental organizations should respect, record, and work toward Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge Systems into research and development programs for the conservation of biodiversity and sustainability of agricultural and natural resource management systems. Rajasekaran (1993b) discusses how this can be accomplished in "A Framework for Incorporating Indigenous Knowledge Systems into Agricultural Research, Extension, and NGOs for Sustainable Agricultural Development."

The CIESIN Thematic Guide essay The Rights of Indigenous People provides further resources on indigenous populations.