The importance of indigenous knowledge

Posted on August 09, 2022 by Alison Fox

On International Day of World's Indigenous Peoples, we bring you an except from Zeremariam Fre's superb Knowledge Sovereignty among African Cattle Herders, which argues that there is much to learn from established indigenous knowledge, challenging the preconceptions that regard it as untrustworthy when compared to scientific knowledge from more developed regions. Enjoy!

Knowledge Sovereignty among African Cattle Herders focuses on the description, elicitation, documentation and analysis of major aspects of indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) among the Beni-Amer in the Horn of Africa. My fundamental point of departure is that Beni-Amer cattle owners (Seb-ahha) in the western part of the Horn of Africa are not only masters of cattle breeding, but also knowledge-sovereign in terms of owning cattle with productive genes and the cognitive knowledge base which is key to sustainable development.

The strong bonds between the Beni-Amer, their animals and their environment constitute the basis of their ways of knowing, and much of their knowledge system is based on experience and embedded in their cultural practices. Notions that this knowledge is somewhat ‘untrustworthy’ when compared to western scientific knowledge are explored further in the book. The evidence also shows that the Beni-Amer’s knowledge system includes elements of western knowledge; for example, the Beni-Amer incorporate western veterinary knowledge into their practice. The learning is mutual, however, since elements of pastoral technology, such as on animal production and husbandry, make a direct contribution to our scientific knowledge of livestock production. It is this hybridisation and dynamism which are at the core of this indigenous knowledge system.

This premise also affirms that indigenous knowledge can be seen as a stand-alone science, and that a community’s rights of ownership should be defended by government officials, development planners and policy makers, making the case for a celebration of the knowledge sovereignty of pastoralist communities. Throughout the book I demonstrate that the hybridisation of ‘indigenous’ and ‘scientific’ knowledge is a key factor in the sustainability of the Beni-Amer’s pastoral practices.

Pastoral knowledge is embedded in the cultural, spiritual, political and social system of pastoral societies. The cultural aspect is particularly important; the knowledge is often transmitted orally and passed down to each generation through stories, songs and other rituals, where cattle are revered. Pastoralists around the world have historically praised their cattle in verse; among the drovers in the Highlands of Scotland in the late seventeenth century, the commercial importance of an ability to sing about the good points of a Highland cow drew on long-nourished skills (Cheape 2011).

Sadly, the pastoralist culture is becoming eroded as the practice of pastoralism continues to be under threat from political and environmental stresses. Also, pastoralism itself is subject to many misconceptions. It is still viewed by some policy makers as outdated, ‘quaint’ or ‘backward’, and such myths need to be dispelled. Given the wealth of literature produced by decades of research into the environmental and economic advantages of pastoralism, it is important that we see the future of pastoralism not as declining, nor as a linear progression, but as offering many versatile options for dealing with new and emerging challenges in the African drylands and elsewhere. Indigenous pastoral knowledge, as demonstrated by the case of the Beni-Amer, has proved itself to be resilient to change and open to new approaches, offering evidence-based and modern solutions to present and future climatic and other pressures.

About the Author 

Zeremariam Fre is the founding director and former head of regional NGO, the Pastoral and Environmental Network in the Horn of Africa (PENHA). He currently works at the Bartlett Development Planning Unit at UCL as a teaching fellow and course tutor. His research and teaching are inspired by his work experience in development planning, dry land agriculture, land use policy, food security, peri-urban agriculture, indigenous knowledge systems, the role of women in food production, NGOs and social movements.

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