The Importance of Indigenous Knowledge

Social issues


#1 Farmers who hear stories about other farmers using traditional knowledge may realize that they too have their own solutions and don’t need to rely on outside help. Consider using the following story on the radio as an example of this. Follow the program with a discussion group in which farmers, extensionists and other local people share similar stories based on local experiences.

In India, certain types of caterpillars (Helicoverpa sp. ) are a big problem for farmers who grow pigeon peas (Cajanus cajun). Until a few years ago, most farmers in the Mahabubnagar district of Andhra Pradesh State used chemical pesticides to control the caterpillars. The chemicals were expensive and not very effective.

Then an elderly farmer named Mister Bitchappa told the pigeon pea growers about an indigenous practice. This is what he said:

“Look in the fields after crop pollination and pod set.
If you see too many caterpillars on the plants, call over your friends and family.
Together, move around the field and gently shake the caterpillars off the plants.
Collect the caterpillars in a sheet or a large piece of cloth.
One person can drag the sheet along the ground in the space between the rows, while the other two shake the plants.
You can dump the larvae off the sheet and destroy them.
Or you can let a few hens follow the sheet, and feast on the plump worms!
Three people can cover half a hectare per day, and you can repeat the practice after a new infestation.”

For a long time, this method that Mr. Bitchappa describes was not approved of by agricultural scientists. They thought that this method was inefficient, and expensive because of the cost of labour. But recently a major scientific institution in India did a study on the shaking method. They found that it was both economical and efficient.

It is cheaper than using chemical sprays, even with the labour costs included. It’s also more effective. As a result, many Indian farmers in India are returning to this old method.

#2 Indigenous knowledge is concerned with many things that are important to local people, but that scientific research doesn’t study. The following segment can introduce one of your programs. It can be followed by field interviews (taped in advance) with local people who are knowledgeable about wild foods in your region.

Agricultural and forestry scientists have long concentrated on ‘major crops’, and have paid little attention to other important subjects. One important area they have ignored is ‘wild foods’. Wild foods are edible plants and animals that are not cultivated.

Instead they are found through hunting and gathering. Many cultures are dependent on wild foods, which include fruits, green leafy vegetables, oil crops, fungi, edible insects and bushmeat. For example, the agriculture of the Bungoma people in Kenya appears to be dominated by maize. But the Bungoma people eat at least 100 wild species of vegetables and fruit.

Another community, the Tswana people of Botswana, use 126 plants and 108 animals as food. The people know the best places to find these foods and how to hunt and gather them. Wild foods are important during the off-season when there isn’t much fresh food available. Wild foods are also important during major stress periods such as droughts. And they are especially significant for women, children and those who struggle to make a living.

#3 Modern science separates different kinds of knowledge. But indigenous knowledge integrates the spiritual, environmental, agricultural and all other kinds of knowledge within a culture. So indigenous knowledge represents a whole culture. The example below illustrates this idea by examining how spiritual beliefs are part of wetland management in a region of Zimbabwe. You can research local examples from your own culture to produce a new program. Listeners will probably find it interesting to compare their own approaches to land and water management with this experience.

In a place called Zimuto, in the country of Zimbabwe, water is scarce and droughts are common. Droughts cause crop failures, declining herds and depleted groundwater. People grow crops that will survive droughts,such as groundnuts, millet and sorghum.

In Zimuto, traditional beliefs and customs help people to care for the wetlands. For example, there is the story of a nearby wetland called Chitafina. People believe that this wetland was created when a traditional ceremony was held. After the ceremony, lots of water began seeping out of the ground. From that time on the wetland grew.

Soon after the wetland was created, some women made ridges on the wetland so they could plant tubers. But then a lion was seen stretching himself on the ridges. The people understood this as a sign to stop growing crops there. Local spirit mediums recommended abandoning the ridges. People were forbidden to enter the area. From that time on the wetland developed well. Many plants grew – including some important medicinal plants. There was plenty of water in the wetland.

But once again when the people began to disturb the wetland, it began to dry up. Vegetation disappeared. People again interpreted this as a sign from the spiritual world. So they revived the traditional way of using the wetland. Medicinal plants started to grow again. The wetland is again flourishing. It is an important source of water in the area.

#4 For many cultures, preservation of indigenous knowledge is vital for cultural survival. The following story describes some traditional practices that are being threatened in a part of the United States. It can be used to help introduce a feature or discussion about the erosion of traditional knowledge in your community.

In many parts of the world, people are being forced to abandon their traditional ways of life for economic and political reasons. Unfortunately, this often means that they lose their indigenous knowledge. In the United States, aboriginal peoples in the northern state of Alaska have long survived by fishing and hunting. Since ancient times, native Alaskans have gone to fish camp in the summer. At fish camp children learn many important things. A mother teaches her children to cut fish and gather foods. She also tells them stories of the ancestors. A father teaches his sons how to mend fishing nets and set them in the water. Sons also learn the location of ancestral sites and how to hunt and gather wood. To this day, many families are very dependent on these activities for food.

But these days it is becoming difficult for Alaskan people to use traditional practices. If Alaskans are no longer able to follow their traditional way of life, much of this knowledge may be lost. This will be a great loss to their culture.


These stories demonstrate a few of the many important roles of indigenous knowledge in communities. They show that indigenous knowledge provides solutions to local farming and food security issues, often has an environmental protection component, and can be vital for the survival of a culture. However, we must keep in mind that indigenous methods are not always useful or appropriate. Some traditional practices are harmful and inappropriate, and should be approached with the same healthy skepticism applied to science.

With the world changing so quickly, indigenous knowledge can be easily lost, so it is wise to make efforts to preserve it. At the same time, we should not expect traditional practices to remain exactly the same. Rural people are constantly experimenting, adapting and modifying traditional methods and ideas.


Contributed by Vijay Cuddeford, Toronto, Canada.

Reviewed by Stephen Langill, Research Associate, International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, Canada.

Information sources

“Shake off those caterpillars”, Spore, No. 90, December 2000, page 6. Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation, Postbus 380, 6700 AJ Wageningen, The Netherlands. Tel: (31 317) 467100, Fax: (31 317) 460067, E-mail:

Recovering indigenous knowledge: The pigeonpea shake-down“. International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) Patancheru 502 324, Andhra Pradesh, India. Tel: (91 40) 3296161 to 3296179, Fax: (91 40) 3241239 E-mail:

“You cannot fix indigenous knowledge: Thomas Odhiambo speaking with Johan van der Kamp”, ILEIA Newsletter, Volume 6, No. 1, March 1990, pages 3-5. Centre for Research and Information on Low-External-Input and Sustainable Agriculture. PO Box 64, 3830 AB Leusden, The Netherlands. Tel: (31 33) 494 30 86. Fax: (31 33) 495 32 79. E-mail:

“Bio-cultural diversity in Zimbabwe”, by Cosmas Gonese, COMPAS Newsletter No. 2, October 1999, pages 7-9. Compas, P.O. Box 64, 3830 Leusden, the Netherlands. Tel: (3133) 4943086. Fax: (31 33)4940791, E-mail:

“Women and biodiversity conservation”, by Vanaja Ramprasad, COMPAS Newsletter, No. 2, October 1999, pages 24-25. Compas, P.O. Box 64, 3830 Leusden, the Netherlands. Tel: (3133) 4943086, Fax: (31 33) 4940791, E-mail:

“A student’s view on subsistence and leadership: On subsistence”, by Atchak Desiree Ulroan, Sharing our Pathways, Volume 6, No. 1, page 13, January/February 2001. The Alaska Native Knowledge Network, University of Alaska Fairbanks, P.O. Box 756730 Fairbanks, Alaska, USA 99775-6730. Tel:  (907) 474-5086, Fax: (907) 474-5615, E-mail: