Thursday, May 31, 2012


"Upon the whole I am inclined to think that the far greater part, if not all of those difficulties, which have hitherto amused philosophers, and blocked up the way to knowledge, are entirely owing to our selves. That we have raised a dust, and then complain that we cannot see" -- George Berkeley

After the December 2004 tsunami off the coast of Indonesia, calls multiplied for high-technology solutions (installation of early warning systems using cutting-edge satellite and ocean buoy technologies) to prevent similar disastrous occurrences. Then news began to circulate about how indigenous communities had escaped the tsunami’s wrath by using their traditional knowledge. This drew attention to the importance of traditional knowledge to natural disaster preparedness and response. Unfortunately, this knowledge system is still not being utilized very much in adapting to climate change.

Traditional knowledge (TK), indigenous knowledge (IK), traditional environmental knowledge (TEK) and local knowledge generally refer to the long-standing traditions and practices of certain regional, indigenous, or local communities. It is "a cumulative body of knowledge, know-how, practices and representations maintained and developed by peoples with extended histories of interaction with the natural environment. Indigenous people that live close to natural resources often observe the activities around them and are the first to identify and adapt to any changes. The appearance of certain birds, mating of certain animals and flowering of certain plants are all important signals of changes in time and seasons that are well understood in traditional knowledge systems. Why are we not tapping this useful knowledge?

Whilst encouraging efforts at ensuring efficient and effective early warning systems, in data and resource poor areas with low technology and infrastructure for early warning systems, the role of traditional knowledge in building the adaptive capacity of vulnerable groups is crucial. Societies are governed by norms, values and belief which, to a large extent, determine the kind of adjustments made in natural and or human systems in response to actual or expected climate stimuli. Various studies (check reveal that in the absence of modern scientific knowledge, traditional communities, with their substantial understanding of what goes on in their environment, have always made adjustments to ensure sustenance of their livelihoods using local indicators for predicting weather such as flowering of plants, animal sounds and movement, birds and insects.

A recent study I was involved in in Ghana showed that indigenous knowledge plays significant role in coping/adaptation strategies of the local people. Despite a wider awareness of scientific weather forecasts by the Ghana Meteorological Agency (GMet), most farmers did not plan their activities based on the weather forecast; the major reason being that they found the GMet forecasts to be less reliable and also too general, rather than being tailored to their specific communities. Rather, they relied on their own knowledge for predicting the weather. This underscores the usefulness of traditional knowledge in weather prediction and preparation for any unfavourable condition.

I must admit that some of the indigenous knowledge seems weird on first hearing but it works for the people! Trying to understand the science behind some of the indigenous knowledge will be a great step towards unraveling some of the mysteries surrounding them. I suggest that to build the adaptive capacity of such rural indigenous vulnerable communities to climate change will need long term studies to validate the traditional knowledge and incorporate them into scientific knowledge systems for effective adaptation strategies. The traditional knowledge systems are widely accepted by the people and it offers readily available and significant opportunities for integration into climate change adaptation programmes. Could the weather forecasts from the Ghana Meteorological Agency which some indigenous rural farmers consider too general and as such unreliable be downscaled using the validated indigenous knowledge? This is surely a step in the right direction.

"To know that we know what we know, and that we do not know what we do not know, that is true knowledge" -- Henry David Thoreau


  1. wonderful piece which has generated a serious debate in my office.

    1. Sustainability and Construction,

      Thanks for reading. I would like the people in your office to share their views with the whole world for the debate to continue. Many are waiting to learn from them.

  2. Hey Benji,

    I really like this entry, and think you summarize the case for local knowledge vis-a-vis "scientific" knowledge quite well. I've been doing a lot of thinking about IEK, TK, and local knowledge lately and I am starting to believe that the REAL reason it is not employed is that it takes power away from the organizations that benefit from aid. For example, if local people do a perfectly good job at maintaining a sustainable agro-ecosystem, how is the UNDP or Greenpeace going to be able to demand funding for "initiatives?" The government of Ghana obviously wouldn't want the solutions to be on the local level, because then they wouldn't receive aid from the EU, China, or the US to pay for large infrastructural initiatives or increased agricultural "productivity." People would be upset because there are careers, jobs, and economic growth on the line when the most obvious solution is to just let people continue to do things the way they have been doing them for thousands of years.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts.



  3. These are great thoughts, Douglas. This is another aspect of this whole business of giving great attention to IKs which is hardly mentioned. Great contribution!

  4. Undermining indigenous knowledge in our efforts to address climate change issues for the most vulnerable would trigger nothing but reluctance in accepting even the most innovative and result-oriented scientifically proven approaches. It is imperative on our part as scientists to carefully consider their ways and in conducting our researches identify appropriate measures that can be inculcated in building generally acceptable technologies easy for adoption at the grass roots level because their knowledge had been incorporated.

    By: Betty Annan, PhD

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