AT A CROSSROADS: Role of traditional, modern knowledge in livelihoods

Sunday September 1 2019

Supporters of science and research prepare to

Supporters of science and research prepare to hand out leaflets as part of the March for Science protest in Sydney on April 22, 2017. Thousands of people rallied in Australia and New Zealand on April 22 in support of science, the first of more than 500 marches globally triggered by concern over the rise of “alternative facts”. PHOTO | FILE 

By Saumu Jumanne

The modern world is characterised by scientific and technological advancements in almost all realms of life. Despite this development, I’m a geographer who holds the view that we should never underestimate the value and power of traditional knowledge.

Call it local, traditional or indigenous knowledge; it can greatly contribute to sustainable development from the family to the nation levels.

Take the case of agriculture--the mainstay of our economy. It is a source of income, food and raw materials for our industries, but faces various challenges some of which can be solved using traditional knowledge. Such challenges include land degradation, inadequate use of improved seeds and fertiliser, and climate change.

Adoption of dynamic traditional knowledge in a form of beliefs, cultural values, rituals, community laws, and various local practices, can go a long way in addressing some challenges in agriculture, health, and conservation/management of resources or the environment at large.

Climate change is one of the most serious challenges facing agriculture today more than in any other time in the history of the world. Various studies indicate that prolonged drought, unreliable rainfall, high temperatures, increase of crop diseases and pests are some of the direct and indirect repercussions of climate change which lead to reduced agriculture productivity.

Researches show that numerous traditional knowledge-based methods and techniques have been proved to mitigate climate change. It has also proved that when traditional knowledge is integrated with modern knowledge, they enhance sustainable development.


Take also the case of grain post-harvest loss. Some firms have come up with The Perdue Improved Crop Storage bags. This is touted as a new technology, but our grandparents used to store grains in airtight containers, without use of pesticides and they could be stored there for years. Pesticides’ sellers decided to teach current generation they must use pesticides to store grains.

Many communities depend on traditional knowledge for their day to day lives. Some of it is useful in modern science. I’m very impressed to see a growing appreciation of the value of traditional knowledge despite living in the modern era of science and technology.

The role of traditional knowledge was emphasized in the 53rd Greater Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum held in Dar es Salaam (August 26-28, 2019). Its theme was “Early Warning for Early Action in Support of Climate Resilience”. Stakeholders urged the communities to report climate change information as well as various local methods they use in forecasting climate change and early warnings.

In any successfully implemented community project, involving the local community in the planning and decision making stages is vital. This is because they are part and parcel the project. Their roles in the conservation and ensuring sustainable use of natural resources goes beyond being natural resource managers. Furthermore, local community members have extensive knowledge and skills about their local environments, and are directly involved both in the conservation and sustainable use of the natural resources. Thus, failure to fully involve them in such projects can only lead to underperformance.

Local community knowledge including their laws, skills, practices and techniques tend to provide valuable information on the local environment and the resource available as a whole. With this regards, even some of the conflicts within our society can be avoided when the local community participates fully in the process of decision making (down-top approach), instead of underrating them using a top-down approach.

In order to achieve sustainable development in natural resource based projects such as natural resource conservation or management, integration of both traditional and modern knowledge cannot be avoided, and the results would be much better.