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Swathi Sridharan / ICRISAT

Chapter 7.1 Indigenous knowledge and coping strategies


Photo: Swathi Sridharan / ICRISAT

People who live in hazard-prone places devise methods for protecting themselves and their livelihoods. These methods are based on their own skills and resources, as well as their knowledge of their local environments and experiences of hazard events in the past. Their knowledge systems, skills and associated technologies are generally referred to under the broad heading of ‘indigenous’ or ‘traditional’ knowledge. The application of indigenous or local knowledge in the face of hazards and other threats is generally referred to as a traditional ‘coping mechanism’ or ‘coping strategy’. It is also sometimes known as an ‘adjustment’ or ‘adaptive’ mechanism or strategy, and as a ‘survival’ strategy when applied in extreme circumstances. The choice of skills and resources varies according to the nature of the hazard threat, the individual or collective capacities available to deal with it and a variety of individual, household or community priorities that can change during the course of a disaster.

Indigenous knowledge is acquired through experiences of living in specific environments over a long period of time. It is passed down from one generation to the next and continually added to or modified in the light of new experiences or experiments, as well as in response to external change. It is specific to its particular locality, community or culture, which is why it has been suggested that ‘local knowledge’ is a more appropriate term.+B. Wisner, ‘Local Knowledge and Disaster Risk Reduction’. Unpublished talk at the Side Meeting on Indigenous Knowledge, Global Platform for Disaster Reduction, Geneva, 17 June 2009. However, it can also incorporate outside specialist knowledge of various kinds, such as weather forecasts. It is not limited to any region or socio-ethnic group, although most studies of indigenous knowledge have taken place in low-income countries and communities. It is a form of social knowledge: acquired, shared, preserved and transmitted within communities (hence it is sometimes referred to, in a hazard/disaster context, as a ‘disaster subculture’). However, particular kinds of knowledge may be held by different social groups in those communities. Indigenous knowledge is wide-ranging. It includes technical expertise in seed selection and house building, knowing where to find wild foods, economic knowledge of where to buy or sell essential items or find paid work, and knowledge of whom to call on for assistance. Indigenous or traditional knowledge is not static. People are constantly adding to, adapting and testing their knowledge and skills to deal with altered or new situations, which is why local communities have been described as ‘workshops of knowledge production’.+Wisner, ‘Local Knowledge and Disaster Risk Reduction’.

The enthusiasm for sophisticated technological methods of overcoming disasters has often led specialists to overlook and undervalue the effectiveness of local coping strategies and technologies, and they are under-utilised by formal agencies. However, the growing interest in the potential of people’s adaptive capacities, especially in the context of climate change, may help towards a more constructive appraisal of local knowledge and coping. There have been many studies of coping strategies relating to food security, drought and famine, where disaster specialists have come to appreciate their extent, diversity and value. This came about in part from recognition many years ago that agencies’ orthodox approaches to fighting famine were not effective enough. Coping strategies in other natural hazards contexts have not received so much attention, but there is a growing body of evidence and experience demonstrating their value and explaining the circumstances that affect their adoption.

By learning how people perceive and respond to threats, interventions can be developed that build on the strengths of their existing strategies. It is important for development and relief/recovery workers to appreciate the extent of such indigenous skills and practices, and to support them to maximum effect. This approach helps to make communities partners in the risk management process. It can also be cost-effective where it reduces the need for expensive external interventions. It is more likely to lead to sustainable projects because the work is based on local expertise and resources. Identification of local knowledge – and those who possess it – should be one of the starting points for agencies trying to stimulate community-based DRR initiatives.

Indigenous and local skills, knowledge and technologies are not inherently inadequate. New, external technical approaches are not automatically superior. However, the opposite, romantic, trap of assuming that older ways are always better than the modern must also be avoided. Instead, one must look for what is appropriate for specific purposes and in given conditions. In many cases, a combination of different knowledge sets and skills may be useful, and ways of integrating them (or ‘co-producing’ knowledge) need to be found. It is also important to take account of the diversity of individuals’ perceptions and decision-making processes with regard to risk and risk management, which may be influenced by a range of psychological and socio-cultural factors.