Indigenous Knowledge Boon for Sustainable Development: Special Focus on North-East

Indigenous Knowledge Boon for Sustainable Development: Special Focus on North-East

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Vikash Kumar


Sushil Choudhary, President, AASNA, an NGO for Sustainable Development in the district of Barpeta (Assam)

Sophisticated knowledge of the natural world is not confined to science. Human societies all across the globe have developed rich sets of experiences and explanations relating to the environments they live in. These ‘other knowledge systems’ today are often referred to as traditional ecological knowledge or indigenous or local knowledge. They encompass the sophisticated arrays of information, understanding and interpretations that guide human societies around the globe in their innumerable interactions with the natural milieu-in agriculture and animal husbandry; hunting, fishing and gathering; struggles against disease and injury; naming and explanation of natural phenomena; and strategies to cope with fluctuating environments.

What is Indigenous Traditional Knowledge?

Indigenous knowledge is the local knowledge that is unique to a culture or society. Other names for it include ‘local knowledge, folk knowledge, people’s knowledge, traditional wisdom or traditional science. This knowledge is passed from generation to generation, usually by word of mouth and cultural rituals, and has been the basis for agriculture, food preparation, health care, education, conservation and the wide range of other activities that sustain societies in many parts of the world.

Etymologically speaking, Indigenous Traditional Knowledge is the acquired knowledge of indigenous peoples through time and space. It seems useful here to distinguish two types of indigenous tradition knowledge namely, indigenous traditional knowledge as Technology and indigenous traditional knowledge as cognitive facilitator of development. The term “indigenous traditional knowledge” delineates a cognitive structure in which theories and perceptions of Nature and Culture are conceptualized. It thus includes definitions, classifications and concepts of the physical, natural, social, economic, and ideational environments. Indigenous practices can either be an expression or a result of indigenous traditional knowledge, or osmosis of Indigenous Knowledge with the global Scientific Knowledge. Quite often indigenous traditional knowledge is local, but it need not always be traditional as knowledge is always in the making.

In this context we have to be aware of the distinction between true tradition and invented tradition. True tradition comprises proven ancient, original and distinctive customs, conventions and routines. Invented tradition means a set of practices, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past. Most, if not all, publications on indigenous traditional knowledge based research refers to technology mainly in the fields of agriculture, ecology, environment and forestry. The focus of these studies is on indigenous practices, experiments and innovation, in short, on the expressions of aspects of indigenous traditional knowledge systems. Therefore, it is impertinent to locate the concept of indigenous traditional knowledge to the concept of culture. To paraphrase Posner, “Culture comprises of three components, namely, society (people and their institutions); civilization (all that the people have produced such as texts and artefacts; and mentality, that is, the codes that inform the other two components. Indigenous Technical Knowledge (ITK) that is the expressions of indigenous traditional knowledge refers to the civilization component of culture. Indigenous traditional knowledge, then, refers to the codes of the third component of culture. It is here that the participant’s perceptions are informed by interpretation of their cultural ideology under abstraction of their actual situation.

What is Development?

The concept of development has been defined variously by economists, planners, administrators, development professionals and anthropologists. During the colonial period, development was closely related to the policy of the western countries regarding their various actions such as the raising of the standard of the colonies or the covert exploitation of the colonies in the form of aid, renovations, missionary works, etc. Therefore, during the colonial period development was, for the colonies, synonymous to regency, guardian, patrons etc. After World War II and the resultant decolonization process, development was viewed as a straight-forward economic issue, identifying and quantifying the composition of economic growth packages reducing development to mere economic growth.

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Development is thus associated with economic growth where its approaches are characterized with primarily logistic issues rather than with ultimate ends and such questions as what may foster “the good of man‟ or “how one should live”. The ends are taken as fairly straightforwardly given, and the object of the exercise is to find the appropriate means to serve them.

The coming of the 1970s saw a gradual shift from this predominantly economic conscious development to a more humanized form of development. The new shift in development paradigm also paved the way for the involvement of social scientists, especially anthropologists. Social anthropologists started critiquing government’s preoccupation with quantitative indicators. They argued that development should not be judged solely on the basis of these indicators but should also take into account qualitative parameters such as quality of life, standard of living, levels of aspiration, happiness, etc

Indigenous Knowledge and Sustainable Development:

Indigenous knowledge of the people of India, per se the world in general, has been for a long time ignored, perhaps due to the assumption that traditional knowledge and practices have become obsolete when faced with the wide range of scientific knowledge and its fast paced development. Government planning agencies, development professionals and others also have the tendency of believing more in quantity rather in quality of development input largely as a result of the influence of economists. True sustainable development takes into account the cultural dimensions of the people into development thinking and formation. Yet this view is still in a nascent stage. Modernity and tradition are said to be radically contradictory, but the growth and development of modernity rests on the backbone of traditional knowledge.

Role of Indigenous People in Northeast India for Sustainable Development:

Among the indigenous communities of North-east India, forests are often sacred. Every indigenous community often leaves a particular tract of land near to the village as community forest. Such forests are maintained collectively by the villagers and are done mainly for the purpose of supplying the forestry needs of the villagers. Any villager is prohibited from clearing the villages or cutting down woods (even in limited quantity) without the prior or special permission of the village durbar/ village council who in turn consult the rest of the villagers. Only after proper consultation among the villagers the community forest is allowed for utilization. The operational plans are set/ designed by the people themselves. This practice of guarding and economical use of such community forests is participatory in nature and therefore all the villagers are responsible for maintenance, thereby, imbibing among the people a sense of responsibility and ownership about their greatest asset- natural resources.

Community forestry also empowers people with greater influence over decision making through participation in planning and management. The Forest Dwellers [Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, Section 2 (c)/ 2 (o), Section 4 (1)] accelerated the transfer of forests to forest user groups; provide the legal basis for the implementation of community forestry and recognize community forest user groups as “self-governing autonomous corporate bodies for managing and using community forests”.

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Due to effective community forest management by many indigenous communities, there is evidence of significant improvement in the conservation of forests (both increased area and improved density) and enhanced soil and water management in North East India. Apart from various environmental and societal benefits accrued from community managed forests, the remarkable turnaround in forest management among indigenous people is also directly attributable to the benefits generated for community groups, in the form of goods, services and welfare enhancements. Some community forest activities have even initiated a scholarship programme for low income people, as well as savings and credit operations among members, including loans to finance income generation activities.

The fact that so much effort now is being invested in understanding the basis for sustainable resource management indicates that the negative attitude commonly held about the indigenous traditional knowledge during the colonial era has begun to change. It would be surprising indeed if local subsistence cultures with trans-generational relationships to particular environment did not have more particular and detailed information about local species, environmental patterns, and resource availability and conservation techniques than many academic or professional biologists, naturalists or environmentalists. The indigenous people of Northeast India per se, and the world in general with their diachronic data, rather than western sciences with its reliance on synchronic data, may therefore provide and have more valuable knowledge relevant to environmental conservation and sustainable resource management. But as indigenous traditional knowledge is intricately linked to practices and beliefs that settle more at the cognitive level, it is difficult at times to interpret this knowledge into the more empirical based framework of western sciences. On the other hand, it is much easier to abstract the knowledge directly related to utilization and management of resources, for example, medicinal properties of herbs. Indeed, current efforts are mostly focused on using indigenous traditional knowledge for this purpose. Indigenous traditional knowledge of judiciously conserving and managing available resources may be best put to use as an integrated system of knowledge, practice and beliefs. If this be the case, indigenous cultures must be conserved through the recovery of the rights to self-determination in choosing their destiny and patterns of resource use they wish to pursue. This, in turn, calls for empowering indigenous communities to manage their own resource base while at the same time building up the capacities and level of coordination among civil society organization to facilitate their works among indigenous peoples. Many ecologists like Hardin (1968) tends to assume that it is entirely human nature to over-exploit resources to the point of collapse, and that the only thing that prevents indigenous communities from doing so is the lack of access to appropriate technology.

This is not to say that everyone during the colonial era were oblivious of the role and importance of indigenous traditional knowledge in sustainable resource management. A review of the published literature during the colonial era does reveal some enlightened individuals who understood the value of the indigenous knowledge. Proponents exhibit a lack of familiarity with the possibility of sustainability. However, as even the very concept of sustainability is largely theoretical in many respects, there is an urgent need for everyone to work towards sustainability. To do this, all available tools like the modern technology-driven concept of development or the indigenous traditional concept of development needs to be equally taken into account so that there can be an equilibrium between the two. In this sense, it will be wise to welcome indigenous knowledge and its practices into the conceptual universe of sustainable resource management planning, notwithstanding whatever defects and shortcomings it may or appear to have.

About the author

CSR VISION is India's (probably World's) first monthly magazine in print devoted to CSR and Sustainable Development for bringing together all stakeholders of SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT at a global and local levels and act as a platform for promoting strategic CSR and sustainable development practices through dissemination of information and knowledge.