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close this bookTraditional Knowledge and Sustainable Development (WB)
close this folderSummary of the conference proceedings
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentTraditional knowledge and cultural survival
View the documentTraditional knowledge, land, and the environment
View the documentTraditional knowledge and agricultural sustainability
View the documentContributions of traditional medicine to health
View the documentTraditional institutions and participation
View the documentGovernment policies and traditional knowledge
View the documentBuilding a new partnership
View the documentConclusion

Traditional knowledge and agricultural sustainability

Food and agricultural production are perhaps the major areas in which in recent years some scientists and development planners have sought new approaches based on the wisdom and knowledge of traditional peoples. The "Green Revolution" technologies (widespread use of new seeds, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides) introduced after World War II increased food production. However, the costs of this technology transfer, while not immediately evident, are high soil erosion and loss of plant genetic materials that were resistant to pests and other diseases.

Dr. Ntombie Gata, Deputy Director of the Department of Research and Specialist Services of the Zimbabwe Ministry of Lands, Agriculture and Water Development, stressed the importance of traditional knowledge in agricultural development, especially in Africa. She noted that development theory has tended to focus on disparate factors such as land, labor, and capital; technology; socioeconomic conditions; gender; and, more recently, indigenous technology and knowledge systems. However, she said, "We can't afford shunting back and forth in the train of development picking one factor at a time sometimes picking the wrong factor. We must seriously examine what it really takes to socially, economically, and environmentally develop sustainably."

Scientific Validity of Indigenous Agricultural Knowledge

The current crisis in African agricultural production, Dr. Gata said, demands a change in attitudes and approaches on the part of governments and donor agencies. There must be, she said, a deeper respect for indigenous knowledge, and a commitment to incorporate it into development policies and projects.

Indigenous agricultural practices, reflect the store of experience and knowledge accumulated literally over thousands of years based on sound understanding of soils, plants, and the environment. [This] knowledge is revealed through various practices that are used in crop production, for example, forecasting seasonality, conservation of crop/plant diversity, mixed cropping, land fallowing, and others associated with soil and crop management systems....

Farmers deliberately influenced the natural processes of mutation by careful seed selection over centuries. They developed an intricate range of crop variability generated by sophisticated knowledge.

Dr. Gata stressed the scientific validity of traditional agricultural knowledge. In Zimbabwe, for example, farmers are able to predict the onset of rain using such signs as changes in leaf color of some tree species, shifts in wind direction, cloud formation, temperature and relative humidity fluctuations, and bird and beetle songs and their seasonal migration. These signs," she said, "are crucial in decision-making relating to land preparation, planting and choice of plants....

She went on to discuss the role of women in traditional agricultural systems.

Indigenous women are excellent sources of both genetic and cultural information on plant and animal species, because they have to meet multiple needs within their sphere of household activities.... Women play a crucial role in selecting seed with preferred characteristics, such as color, size, genetic stability, disease tolerance, palatability, storage, and processing.

Working classifications of crops by gender show that crops with multiple uses in form and function (for example, pumpkin and cow peas) are considered women's crops. [This illustrates] the central role played by women in maintaining genetic diversity, which ensures options for responding to environmental changes.

Local Knowledge and Sustainability

Dr. Gata emphasized that agricultural science and technology are not neutral but are deeply rooted in a society's history and culture. Failure to respect other people's knowledge and culture has led to the imposition of alien technologies that often undermine local people's self-confidence. Dr. Gata pointed out: "Failure to recognize the farmer's point of view and analysis has meant that the farmers have never really been part of most development initiatives."

As a counter approach, Dr. Gata and several of her colleagues in Southern Africa are looking toward a new partnership with grassroots communities for the common purpose of promoting sustainable resource use in agricultural development. In this partnership the traditional farmers' knowledge will form the basis for development projects and researcher and extension agent training programs.

Emmanuel Asibey, Senior Ecologist in the Southern Africa Agricultural and Environment Division of the World Bank, described one of these training programs that will be launched in Zimbabwe and other Southern African countries. Its purpose is to study indigenous agricultural and land-use knowledge from village elders and to incorporate this knowledge in training workshops for government research and extension agents. If the program proves successful in Southern Africa, it will be extended to other parts of the continent. Similar programs are being introduced in other parts of the world, as witnessed by the growing international network of indigenous knowledge scholars and applied research centers (see Appendix 3).

In designing these training programs, it is also important, Dr. Gata suggested, to include indigenous women, who are often the repositories of traditional knowledge about plants, seeds, medicines, and other natural products. In many countries women are the key to the survival of traditional agricultural and land-use practices. Some advances have been made, especially in countries such as Zimbabwe, in increasing the number of women attending national agronomy schools and in using local women as agricultural extensionists. However, much more attention needs to be focused on the agro-ecological knowledge possessed by rural indigenous women, and how this knowledge can be usefully incorporated in national agricultural curricula and teaching materials and in local extension programs.

For a project to succeed, local people must be involved, not just in supplying labor but in making crucial decisions. Projects must be based on people's own ideas and knowledge of their farming systems. Such an approach will change the ownership of projects from development agencies to the people. - Ntombie Gata