Indigenous knowledge

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Indigenous knowledge (often called traditional knowledge, folk wisdom or folk knowledge) is local knowledge of any field of human inquiry that does not originate in academic or corporate research institutions but rather is based on local-level accumulated knowledge that is inherited through tradition and culture. Indigenous knowledge is increasingly used by agencies such as the World Bank, the World Health Organization, UNESCO and the United Nations Environment Programme in the formulation of their objectives and methods for local-level projects. The Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Ghana provides an insightful definition:

Indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) refer to the complex set of knowledge, skills and technologies existing and developed around specific conditions of populations and communities indigenous to a particular geographic area. IKS constitute the knowledge that people in a given community have developed over time, and continue to develop. It is the basis for agriculture, food preparation, health care, education and training, environmental conservation, and a host of other activities. Indigenous knowledge is embedded in community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals.[1]

Origins of indigenous knowledge

Local and culturally specific knowledge and ways of knowing arise out of the simple fact that physical and cultural environments vary a great deal across the globe. People who live in different physical environments naturally learn ecology, botany, geology, hydrology and other aspects of the environment in different ways. Similarly, divergent cultural contexts foster diverging perspectives and ways of thinking about the various fields of knowledge. As a result, the accumulated knowledge of a people living in one part of the globe frequently includes specific knowledge or perspectives that are not present in the bodies of knowledge held by groups in other places.

Indigenous knowledge incorporates an extremely broad range of topics. A report from the World Intellectual Property Organization provides a brief inventory: "Traditional knowledge systems in the fields of medicine and healing, biodiversity conservation, the environment and food and agriculture are well known. Other key components of traditional knowledge are the music, dance, and “artisanat” (i.e. designs, textiles, plastic arts, crafts, etc.) of a people."[2]

In practical usage, indigenous knowledge is usually understood to designate the culturally or locally specific knowledge of traditional peoples. It is contrasted with the "international" knowledge system that is associated with the research institutions of the West. Thus, entities such as UNESCO, WHO and the World Bank that employ indigenous knowledge as part of their organizational approach place special emphasis on local knowledge and participation in preference to top-down strategies.

Participatory development

At the turn of the twenty-first century, development strategies shifted away from generalizing holistic theories toward local-level programs focused on participation and empowerment.[3] Recent projects have therefore placed significant emphasis on incorporating local and indigenous knowledge into the planning and evaluation processes. The Department of Science and Technology in South Africa, for example, views its Indigenous Knowledge Systems Policy as "an enabling framework to stimulate and strengthen the contribution of indigenous knowledge to social and economic development."[4]




Spiritual and cultural characteristics may make mainstream concepts of health and wellness ineffective or inappropriate in indigenous and traditional communities. Thus, researchers and public health officials have made an effort to be sensitive to local cultural environments and to solicit community input. In New Zealand, Maori perspectives were used to develop a method that rated the effect of a health intervention (e.g., inpatient treatment) on wairua (spirituality), hinengaro (mental/behavioural domain), tinana (physical health), and whanau (family/social health). [5]



Scientific research

Frequently in conjunction with participatory development projects, researchers in a number of fields have employed indigenous knowledge as a useful research tool. This is most prominent in the field of health, where numerous new drugs and treatments have evolved from traditional medicine, but it also takes place in agriculture, biodiversity conservation and other fields. Examples demonstrate the broad range of applications.


The Onge people of Little Andaman Island in the Bay of Bengal possess knowledge of a plant that has been found to be effective against a parasite that causes malaria. In fact, "the Onge are the only population in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands that does not suffer from malaria."[6] As a result, pharmaceutical companies have taken an interest in harnessing the Onge's knowledge of botany on Little Andaman to produce drugs with the same properties as the plant; some have even gone as far as to offer to pay individuals to act as exclusive informants. Some 40 different drugs derived from species collected through indigenous knowledge are used in the United States to treat conditions ranging from pancreatic cancer to HIV, making an economic contribution that figures in the billions of dollars annually.[7]

A second major use of indigenous knowledge in the arena of botany is for beauty product. The Body Shop, a British cosmetics company, is a prime example.


One noted example of cooperation between experts in indigenous health knowledge and scientific methods was the identification of the cause of a 1993 outbreak, in the southwestern United States, of a rapidly fatal respiratory disease. Eventually identified as a hantavirus pulmonary syndrome,[8] identifying it involved both Navajo elders and Centers for Disease Control epidemiologists. While hantavirus had been known to medicine, being named for the Han River in South Korea, the respiratory presentation had not been described — except by Navajo tradition. [9] Detailed discussion with Navajo elders revealed that the pinon nut harvest of 1993 was especially rich, which caused overgrowth of the deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus, for which the pinon nut was the prime diet.[10] Navajo traditions associated mice with a disease similar to that seen in the outbreak, which has now been identified in other areas throughout the Americas.


Pre-Columbian agricultural strategies, some of which are still being used today, have contributed a great deal of information to our understanding of soil health and productivity. Pre-Hispanic raised fields in the notoriously harsh climate of the Bolivian Andes, for example, were capable of maintaining much higher populations than now exist in the same areas.[11] These fields provided many advantages over current strategies, including well-drained topsoil, nutrient-trapping macrophytes, effective solar radiation absorption and conservation, and an extended productive season.[12] A similar system used in the Valley of Mexico (see chinampa) demonstrates the ability to suppress nematode damage to plants, a quality absent in sterilized soils.[13]

Intellectual property rights

"Commoditization of knowledge by means of intellectual rights," writes Stephen Brush, "has been practiced for five hundred years, but it continues to raise numerous ethical issues."[14] With respect to indigenous knowledge, there are two major ethical issues:

  • Can/should indigenous knowledge be privatized and commoditized by outside interests?
  • Can/should life forms be privatized through patents?


  1. Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems (CEFIKS), Inc.:
  2. WIPO. 2001. Intellectual Property Needs and Expectations of Traditional Knowledge Holders. p. 211. Available online:
  3. Giles Mohan and Kristian Stokke. 2000. Participatory Development and Empowerment: The Dangers of Localism. Third World Quarterly 21(2):247–268.
  4. Department of Science and Technology, South Africa. "Indigenous Knowledge Systems" Available online: p. 9.
  5. Durie M. (2004 Oct), "Understanding health and illness: research at the interface between science and indigenous knowledge.", Int J Epidemiol 33(5): 1138-43
  6. Charles H. Norchi. 2000. Indigenous Knowledge as Intellectual Property. Policy Sciences 33: 387-398. p. 389.
  7. John Mugabe. Intellectual Property Protection and Traditional Knowledge: An Exploration in International Policy Discourse. Available through the WIPO:
  8. Special Pathogens Branch, Centers for Disease Control, Tracking a Mystery Disease: The Detailed Story of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome
  9. Special Pathogens Branch, Centers for Disease Control, Navajo Medical Traditions and HPS
  10. Laurie Garrett (1995), The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, Penguin, ISBN 0140250913, p. 536
  11. David D. Biesboer, Michael W. Binford, Alan Kolata. 1999. Nitrogen Fixation in Soils and Canals of Rehabilitated Raised-Fields of the Bolivian Altiplano. Biotropica 31(2): 255-267.
  12. John Janusek, Alan Kolata. 2004. Top-Down or Bottom-Up: Rural Settlement and Raised Field Agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin, Bolivia. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 23: 404-430.
  13. Bert Zuckerman, M. Bess Dicklow, Gerald Coles, Roberto Garcia-E, Nahum Marban-Mendoza. 1989. Suppression of Plant Parasitic Nematodes in the Chinampa Agricultural Soils. Journal of Chemical Ecology 15(6): 1947-1955.
  14. Stephen B. Brush. 1993. Indigenous Knowledge of Biological Resources and Intellectual Property Rights: The Role of Anthropology. American Anthropologist 95(3): 653-671. p. 653