By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
For thousands of years humans have exploited living organisms through food, shelter, medicine and clothing. In doing so many peoples have developed a traditional knowledge (TK) revolving around the plant and animal species located in their environment including their direct and indirect uses. There is no internationally recognized definition of TK, but it commonly refers to knowledge, skills and practices confined to a group of people, passed through generations orally and experientially, often forming part of the cultural or spiritual identity. Though TK is responsible for the discovery of morphine, reserpine and aspirin, it is often dismissed as lacking scientific value or for its association with spiritual or religious identities.
Ernest Sirolli, founder of the Sirolli Foundation, further characterizes this rejection of TK. He shares his experiences doing aid work in Zambia, teaching people to grow vegetables. He shares, “Instead of asking them why they were not growing anything, we simply said, ‘Thank God we’re here.’” Upon harvest time, hippos from the neighboring river devoured everything, revealing what the community would have shared if asked why they didn’t grow food. This, he says, is the paternalistic and patronizing nature of aid work. Rather than enter a dialogue with communities to learn and collaborate together, a majority of development and aid action is influenced by outsider information, chosen for the scientific and expert credibility.
Today, roughly 795 million people go hungry while 2 billion suffer from micronutrient deficiencies, a failure the world will see exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Without climate change, and with continued economic progress, most regions are projected to see a decline in the number of people at risk of hunger by 2050. The knowledge and experiences of local communities cannot be ignored when it comes to ensuring food and nutrition security, especially in light of the negative impacts of climate change. There are numerous examples that indicate the credibility and value of local communities’ knowledge.
The Anasazi Indians of the northwest U.S. were at one time hunter-gatherers but the introduction of maize plants from Mesoamerica led them to become an agrarian society. They quickly realized maize alone lacked a full spectrum of nutrition, most likely through the onset of disease caused by nutritional deficiency, and began to farm beans to substitute the missing nutrient lysine, an essential amino acid. Today, biotechnology has allowed plant breeders to design varieties of corn that produce lysine and other amino acids important to human health, along with qualities to enhance productivity and yields.
Though the opportunities are vast, there are risks involved with a reliance on a single solution such as use of a biotech crop. A single genotype corn that was introduced in the southeastern U.S. was wiped out by a fungal disease in the 1950’s. Plant breeders were forced to return to ancestral stocks to obtain a disease-resistant species. Many of these ancestral stocks are cultivated by indigenous peoples, who maintain knowledge on the medicinal and nutritional aspects of each species of plant. Globally, agronomic communities are familiar with regionally specific species well-suited for the local environmental characteristics. If that knowledge is lost, a solution to nutrition and food production in the aftermath of the impacts of climate change may also be lost.
Already, TK has been shown to offer solutions to food security where scientific knowledge has failed. Despite foreign aid donor efforts in the 1960’s and 70’s, land in the Central Plateau region of Burkina Faso was severely degraded. Local farmers were left with barren land or the choice to move on landless. In an attempt to save the land, local farmers started experimenting with traditional planting pits, known as zai. Small holes were dug throughout the field and along with the seed, filled with organic material. The practice of zai supports improved water infiltration and soil health, and farmers began to see yields on soil that had previously produced nothing. This system was developed locally based on indigenous knowledge to increase drought resistance and improve yields in similar regions.
The Sustainable Development Goals pledge to leave no one behind, but beyond ensuring the Goals reach every segment of society, we simply cannot do it without the participation of everyone. It is time to give local communities a level platform for participation in development and resiliency-building efforts. To do so, it is critical that their knowledge, experiences, and skills are acknowledged and called upon for solutions to some of our most formidable challenges.