guest column Peter Makwanya

The indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) that have been the information banks of communities, local knowledge of knowing, unique to a given culture or society, facilitated communication and decision-making in given societies, as sustainable communication tools.

It is believed that, the basic component of any country’s knowledge system is its indigenous knowledge base. Despite concerted and spirited efforts to resuscitate indigenous knowledge systems (IKS), they are increasingly facing challenges and they are in danger of being eroded and forgotten.

Ranging from the recommendations of the Earth Summit held in Rio-de Janeiro in 1992, through the Convention on Biodiversity, whose article 8 (j) incites State Parties to respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of the indigenous and local communities, the domain has great prominence and momentum (Nakashima and Nielsson, 2006). At this widely acclaimed forum, indigenous knowledge systems were reborn, revived and relaunched by the United Nations Economic, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, through the Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems Project of 2002, as one of the new generation of cross-cutting projects, heightening interdisciplinary and intersectional action.

Despite all these efforts, IKS continue to face challenges, maybe these challenges emanate from both sides, the traditional side against the technological base. In this regard, is it the traditional and local communities of practice which are mean with information, by being reluctant to share what they believes to be exclusively theirs, or is it the technological discourse communities which continue to frown upon indigenous knowledge, undermine it and disregard it as primitive, pagan and backward, thereby refusing to be inclusive and integrative.

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In my view, both communities of practice are at fault by not sufficiently recognising each other’s breakthroughs, but whatever the case, it is the environment and people which are bound to suffer.

There are some widely acknowledged components of IKS that are within public domain and can be practised by societies, while some which are secretive and individual specific, remain family treasures or concerns. It is also an open secret that indigenous knowledge systems which have been passed on, not to every member of the society, but to specific individuals, are not in the public domain and they remain a family secret, but they can be used to help communities after consultations and charging money or livestock. But what is significant is that, all these forms of IKS are important and it is both in the interest of the community and the environment that they can be shared in order for the country to move forward.

For these reasons, and many others, whichever way one would want to situate themselves, IKS are facing challenges, not leading to their total collapse, but to their subsequent erosion and weakening. One of the reasons is that indigenous knowledge systems do not have a special place in the authorities policy frameworks, hence they continue to be paid lip-service to, talked about when it matters most or say something about them in passing and then they are forgotten about. Yet the investment in this fundamental community knowledge base can as well improve the fortunes of any given country, ecologically and development wise.

Some challenges facing IKS include, the fading and disappearing story-telling or folklore, which used to have a special place in the lives of indigenous people, as the stories taught young people and adults environmental conservation techniques, behavioural modifications and ethical considerations. Contemporary societies had much to learn from traditional
approaches to the environment.

Even nowadays, because of drug resistance in crops and livestock, it’s the traditional approaches being encouraged. Through storytelling, the wisdom of ages has greatly assisted in conserving the environment as well as achieving the ecological balance of nature and good climate change adaptation strategies.

Stories were told by seasoned, old and mature grandmothers and fathers to inspire the young people. Even if they are to be used today, quite often, stories assist in providing solutions to the current and unfolding environmental problems. Digital story-telling techniques are alright, but only available to those who can afford them, yet the centuries old story-telling is cheaper, user friendly and human-centred, where complex messages can be conveyed through simple narratives. Storytelling does not promote the use of languages which encourage habits that destroy the environment or discourses which only apply to a few, while leaving out the rest disempowered and not knowing anything.

The other IKS community of practice, which appears to be eroded and controversial is the use of herbs, not permaculture, but traditional herbs. The knowledge of herbs is still thriving in indigenous communities, but the new media technologies discourse communities and industries appear not interested in them. Even the print media, radios and televisions do not foreground them quite often. We have also not witnessed any pharmaceutical companies that are interested in processing traditional herbs into finished products, but people can go as far as India and China to be treated by herbal medicines.

Traditional food preservation is another dying community of practice. Although not very much documented, the concepts of drying, salting, roasting, preserving foodstuffs underground or adding herbs to some foodstuffs can assure the communities of sustainable food security.

All these can be integrated with technological back-up and communities would benefit from selling dried foodstuffs to the companies that process them into finished products like soups, powders, jam or traditional beverages. Some herbs can also be used to treat wounds of livestock and people.

Rainmaking ceremonies are no longer heard of, even in the background of erratic rainfall patterns, shifting seasons and recurring droughts. People have tempered with shrines and sacred places in such a manner that luck always by-pass or elude them. The role of shrines and rainmaking ceremonies have been replaced by cloud seeding, which can damage the ozone layer, but still there are no rains. Weather predictions and early warning systems would go a long way in predicting rains or droughts they should be integrated into multimedia technologies so that destructive floods, violent winds and cyclones can be closely monitored.

On the farming end, people continue to worry about inorganic fertilisers, herbicides and chemicals that are dangerous to the environment as well as human health yet there are large deposits of organic fertilisers in the country.

By not integrating IKS with new technologies, it’s not only the IKS community of practice which will suffer, but technologically driven industries and companies will be affected too.

By collaborating with IKS stakeholders, the idea is to gain more information and knowledge that we cannot afford to lose. It is not necessary to continue widening the knowledge and information gaps; ironically in the Information Age of this 21st century. Loss of IKS leads to loss of biodiversity and food security, which is the mainstay of our livelihoods and recovery programmes. It is important to uplift and strengthen our cultural diversities to regain our self-esteem and redefine our heritage and realise self-consciousness, in order to produce the most needed goods and services.