CIESIN Reproduced, with permission, from: Warren, D. M., G. W. von Liebenstein, and L. J. Slikkerveer. 1993. Networking for indigenous knowledge. Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor 1 (1): 2-4.

Networking for indigenous knowledge

D. Michael Warren

Guus W. von Liebenstein

L. Jan Slikkerveer

There is growing interest at national and international levels in the role that indigenous knowledge plays in participatory approaches to development. Research is generating more and more data showing the relevance of indigenous knowledge for sustainable development. These data, however, must be systematically shared with fellow researchers and with practitioners, and research efforts can be stepped up further. Active networking is needed if we are to make the most of this still largely untapped resource.

Growing interest

Interest in the role that indigenous knowledge (IK) can play in truly participatory approaches to development has increased dramatically during the past year. This interest is reflected in the myriad of activities generated within communities that are recording their own knowledge for use in their educational systems and for planning purposes, within national institutions where indigenous knowledge systems are now being regarded as an invaluable national resource, and within the development community, where indigenous knowledge provides opportunities for designing development projects that emerge from problems identified and assigned priority by the beneficiaries themselves, and that build upon and strengthen community-level knowledge systems and organizations.

Widening the scope

Interest in indigenous knowledge has been expressed in a growing number of academic disciplines. Ten years ago most of the academics working in the area of indigenous knowledge represented anthropology, development sociology and geography. Today one finds important contributions to our understanding of indigenous knowledge and decision-making also being made in the fields of ecology, soil science, veterinary medicine, forestry, human health, aquatic resource management, botany, zoology, agronomy, agricultural economics, rural sociology, mathematics, management science, agricultural education and extension, fisheries, range management, information science, wildlife management, and water resource management.

International policy forums

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992 (UNCED) highlighted the urgent need to develop mechanisms to protect the earth's biodiversity. Many of the documents signed at UNCED reflect the equally urgent need to conserve the knowledge of the environment that is also being lost in many communities. The complementarity of cultural diversity and biodiversity is being featured at a growing number of forums, many of which provide opportunities for representatives of societies--including societies of indigenous peoples--to interact with people from academia as well as from national and international development agencies. Within the past two months international symposia, workshops, and seminars on the role of indigenous knowledge in sustainable development have been held in Kenya, The Philippines, Canada, Zimbabwe and the USA.

Since the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC) has broadened its mandate as an Agenda 21 Organization in order to accommodate even greater emphasis on issues of sustainable development. The Centre, now in a process of readjusting policy to its new identity, has shown explicit interest in indigenous, or local, knowledge and development, particularly in relation to biodiversity and the management of natural resources. IDRC has funded conferences on IK and development in Third World countries (e.g., the international conference 'Indigenous Knowledge and Development' in Silang, The Philippines, 20-26 September 1992) and in Canada (the seminar on IK and development in Ottawa, October 1992). Another international agency that recently acknowledged the relevance of indigenous knowledge for development is UNDP. This member of the UN family is supporting the establishment of a Sustainable Development Network (SDN) for the purpose of using communications and information exchange to increase the international capacity for research in this field. The Sustainable Development Network is also an important tool for helping countries to develop national plans, as part of Agenda 21, for promoting sustainable development. Indigenous knowledge is considered extremely relevant, as stated in the draft report of the workshop on the Sustainable Development Network (SDN) conducted by the UNDP in New York in September, 1992: '...indigenous, traditional and local knowledge needs to be better integrated in decision making. SDNS need to facilitate increased use of locally available knowledge and expertise or experience for sustainable development...'

National resource centres

If we are to achieve the full potential of participatory approaches to sustainable development, it is important that there be greater recognition for the immense value of indigenous knowledge for development activities. A growing number of formally established indigenous knowledge resource centres are active. At present there are 11 such centres: in The Netherlands, the United States, Sri Lanka, Mexico, Nigeria, The Philippines, Ghana, Indonesia, and Kenya.

Centres are in the active stages of being established in Benin, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, South Africa, Tanzania, Nepal and Australia. These centres offer opportunities for researchers in these countries to record indigenous knowledge for the purpose of facilitating development activities. They also provide the means for acknowledging valuable contributions to the world's body of knowledge, and for conserving indigenous knowledge in the best interests of a country and its people.

National indigenous knowledge resource centres are preparing to perform a variety of important functions. These include national and international networking and information exchange; documentation of the indigenous knowledge systems existing within the country in question; and research on the impact of new circumstances constraining these systems, and on the role that extension could play in helping small-scale farmers move through difficult transition periods. The centres' functions also include designing educational materials for use in universities and in the national institutions that train extension workers, so that more people learn how to record indigenous knowledge systems; and establishing documentation units where recorded systems are stored and made accessible for use by development workers.

Creating a global network

The most cost-effective way that indigenous knowledge systems can be recorded for use in development activities is through a global network of national centres. Most countries now have at least a small number of individuals scattered across the institutional landscape who are involved in research and teaching on indigenous knowledge as it relates to development. National centres play a networking function that both unites and expands this set of individuals, who tend to be isolated by artificial institutional and sectoral barriers. Networking allows for a more effective pooling of resources and sharing of experiences and information on indigenous knowledge, both among practitioners within one country and between centres.

A centre also provides a national depot where published and unpublished information on indigenous knowledge is systematically processed, stored and made accessible to development practitioners. A country that establishes a national centre indicates that although its indigenous knowledge may have been ignored or overlooked in the past, it is now regarded as a national resource. By recording and evaluating its country's indigenous knowledge, a national centre can protect the intellectual property rights to knowledge that could be exploited economically for the benefit of the country. A national centre can also provide a mechanism for acknowledging its own people's contributions to knowledge generation.

As the existing global network of indigenous knowledge resource centres becomes linked through a common system of electronic communications, indigenous knowledge and technologies found to be effective in a particular agro-ecozone in one part of the globe can be transferred for consideration to a centre in another part of the world where a similar agro-ecozone exists. Such transfers of technology have already taken place. The use of vetiver grass for soil and water management, and the use of neem tree seeds as a biopesticide. are both technologies invented by farmers in South Asia many generations ago. These technologies have now been adopted by small-scale farmers in many other parts of the world, through networking mechanisms provided by the World Bank and other development agencies.

Organizing the global network

In May 1992 the three of us signed a memorandum of understanding confirming the role of our three centres: CIKARD, LEAD and CIRAN. We pledged to facilitate the activities of the regional and national centres through global networking, information exchange, and help with the establishment of standard approaches to documentation and databanks.

A properly functioning global network requires active national and regional networks. Various instruments are available to help networks function. One of the most common ones for disseminating information is the newsletter. This is often the first activity a network undertakes. But a newsletter can only facilitate a network's functioning; it is not networking in itself. The amount of networking a newsletter can generate depends on the extent to which the readers of the newsletter interact. Especially when network members are spread over the globe, a newsletter can be a powerful instrument for communication. It can provide a platform for debate, an instrument for assessing needs, and a forum for information on recent developments and publications. A newsletter can also provide a network with information about activities beyond the narrow range of its members.

The Indigenous Knowledge & Development Monitor. into which CIKARD News has been absorbed, provides this forum. It enables established centres to interact with the many other individuals and institutions who are interested in the role that indigenous knowledge can play in participatory approaches to sustainable development. It also allows centres to maintain closer working relationships with institutions and associations working in the field of indigenous knowledge but with more specialized focuses. These include the Information Centre for Low External Input and Sustainable Agriculture (ILEIA), the International Programme for Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), the Honey Bee network, the network of the Association of Farming Systems Research-Extension (AFSRE), the Sustainable Development Nework (SDN) of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED).