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Swathi Sridharan / ICRISAT

Chapter 7.3 Indigenous knowledge and coping strategies

Limitations of coping strategies

Photo: Swathi Sridharan / ICRISAT

Local knowledge, skills and coping strategies must be assessed rationally and scientifically on the basis of their effectiveness. This is not a debate between local/indigenous/traditional and external/scientific/modern systems in themselves, but a question of finding the most appropriate approach for each situation. In farming systems the value of local knowledge (of crops, soils, food preservation, climate and protection against pests) is now widely recognised, and successful projects build on this. Similarly, local knowledge of indicators of drought and famine is now used effectively as a component of some famine early warning systems (see Chapter 14). Anthropological research on communities living by the Jamuna River in Bangladesh has revealed the extent, complexity and robustness of indigenous understanding of the river and its behaviour.+H. Schmuck-Widmann, Facing the Jamuna River: Indigenous and Engineering Knowledge in Bangladesh (Dhaka: Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge, 2001). At the same time, however, geological mapping and monitoring are needed to identify locations liable to seismic activity, and scientific monitoring and forecasting of cyclones offer a far more reliable basis for issuing warnings and planning evacuation than local understanding of precursors (see Chapter 14). It is also unrealistic to expect indigenous strategies to be able to cope with extreme events. A massive earthquake may well overwhelm indigenous construction techniques, for example, just as repeated years of drought will exhaust communities’ food and cash reserves. Social support structures can break down under the pressure of the struggle for scarce resources. Traditional coping mechanisms may also be inadequate for events that were not anticipated and of which there is no previous experience, or for multiple shocks and stresses.

In some cases, traditional beliefs can make people more vulnerable. In one example, when Mount Merapi in Java, Indonesia, became active in 2006, many people living on its slopes ignored official warnings to evacuate, partly because traditional Javanese culture gives mountains a sacred status, making those living on them reluctant to leave, and because Merapi is believed to be home to spiritual creatures who can give protection against volcanic activity if offered ceremonial gifts. The traditional precursors that formed part of their indigenous knowledge, such as unusual animal movements, intense lightning storms or premonitions through dreams, were also absent.+K. Donovan, ‘Doing Social Volcanology: Exploring Volcanic Culture in Indonesia’, Area, 42 (1), 2010.

Indigenous knowledge and coping strategies are also affected by wider developments in the economy and society, such as changes in land use caused by population expansion or shifts in patterns of land ownership. In many parts of the world, population growth and economic and other pressures push households into living and working in more marginal, hazardous locations and adopting unsustainable practices. For example, the long-term expansion of commercial plantations and ranches often forces peasant farmers onto marginal lands in hills and valleys. Trees and other vegetation that stabilise slopes and retain water are then cut back for smallholdings, thereby increasing the risk of flash floods and landslides. Traditional knowledge, for instance of seed varieties that are resistant to drought and other climatic pressures, has been put under pressure or even lost due to the heavy promotion of new ‘improved’ varieties or alternative crops by agro-chemical companies and government agricultural extension agents. Economic migration and new job opportunities can take younger people away from their communities and traditional occupations, which means that they do not acquire or use the knowledge their forefathers had. Traditional social support networks and moral obligations also appear to be breaking down under the pressure of market forces and rapid social change.

Indigenous knowledge is often handed down from one generation to the next through indigenous means of communication, such as stories, songs, poems, ceremonies and rituals. Where these methods decline due to social and economic changes – singers and storytellers moving in search of work, for instance, or younger people’s lack of interest in taking on traditional community roles – this transmission is fragmented and knowledge may be lost. There have been calls for indigenous knowledge to be included in school curricula as a way of countering this trend.

Identifying which coping strategies are effective or do not work well, and why, is a major challenge. Local knowledge and coping mechanisms are often invisible to outsiders, and considerable effort may be needed to identify and understand them. This is often difficult for those whose class, upbringing and education have taught them to denigrate indigenous and traditional knowledge as ‘primitive’. DRR programmes can easily fail to address local people’s needs and priorities because programme planners do not understand their knowledge, reasoning and behaviour. It is also important to find out who in the community possesses indigenous knowledge and who does not. Where the holders of such knowledge are themselves marginal or less visible within communities – for instance women (who are often knowledgeable about different seed types), or older people – this can be very challenging. Conversely, valuing and using their knowledge can help to boost their status within their communities. Older people are more likely than most members of the community to possess extensive knowledge of environmental signals, simply because of their greater experience. In some farming communities, for example, groups of elders have a formal role in weather forecasting. There is a risk that indigenous knowledge may not be shared across a community where packets of knowledge are held by different groups and the community lacks cohesion.

Where people are changing or adapting coping strategies rapidly in response to changing events, it may be even harder for outsiders to spot what is going on. All the more reason, then, for building up a close relationship with communities during normal times in order to gain a full understanding of how they cope with crises. There is also a potential for conflict between traditional and modern knowledge systems and cultures linked to power relationships in society. ‘Experts’ in positions of authority do not like to be challenged. For instance, traditional practices in house-building and rainwater harvesting, even if effective, may be opposed by officials because they fall outside the specifications of construction codes that assume the use of more high-tech materials and methods.

There are some innovative approaches to bring scientists, agencies and communities at risk together in order to exchange knowledge, particularly relating to climate forecasting and warning. These include participatory workshops, scenario planning, simulations and games, demonstration studies and learning circles, in which formal scientific information and forecasting tools are combined with local indicators and information-gathering methods. These have led to the distribution of scientific information that is more relevant to communities’ needs, and to communities having greater trust in that information and using it more effectively.+E. Visman, Knowledge Is Power: Unlocking the Potential of Science and Technology To Enhance Community Resilience through Knowledge Exchange, Network Paper 76 (London: ODI, 2014), Much work remains to be done to replicate and scale up such approaches.

Case Study 7.6 Effectiveness and limitations of traditional practices

More than three-quarters of Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala is hilly or mountainous and ecologically fragile. The extensive clearing of forests for timber, ranching and farming, combined with widespread burning, has left much of the region’s mountainous terrain in a degraded state. Hurricane Mitch in October 1998 dropped over 50 inches of rainfall in one week. Barren hillsides could not retain or absorb water and a massive runoff carried away tons of topsoil, rocks and vegetation.

Members of the Farmer to Farmer network, a grassroots movement for sustainable agriculture in Central America, observed that damage to agricultural land was uneven. The network approached the NGO World Neighbors, which agreed to sponsor and facilitate a research project looking at the hurricane’s impact on different kinds of farming system. The study compared ‘conventional’ and ‘agro-ecological’ farms that were otherwise similar in terms of topography, angle of slope, location, crops grown and the intensity of the storm.

Conventional farming involves clearing and burning before the planting season, ploughing with the slope and planting extensively. It also involves high levels of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and hybrid seeds. By contrast, agro-ecological farming involves working with nature to regenerate and conserve nutrients and other natural resources. The study found that sustainably farmed plots had much more topsoil than their conventional neighbours, more soil moisture and less surface erosion. Overall, however, the damage from landslides and eroding gullies seems to have been equally severe on both types of plot, indicating that agro-ecological methods are vulnerable to a storm of Mitch’s severity.

World Neighbors, Reasons for Resiliency: Toward a Sustainable Recovery after Hurricane Mitch (Oklahoma City, OK: World Neighbors, 2000),