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Building on Local Traditional Knowledge in South Asia

Woman farmer in Himachal Pradesh, India with her cattle.
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Blog post written jointly by Marta G. Rivera-Ferre, Marina di Masso, Mara Miele, and CCAFS.

Local traditional knowledge (LTK) is advocated by many international development and research institutes, as well as by local NGOs and grassroots civil society. When discussed within the climate change adaptation community, it is heralded as a crucial untapped knowledge source that may hold the key to sustainable adaptation to climate change. Yet organizations and scientific literature have been much more vague as to how to tap into these resources; whether they will remain relevant in the context of accelerating, unprecedented changes (in climate, economic structures, and demographics); and to what extent locally-produced and -tailored practices might be transferable/scalable to other areas.

To help answer these questions, CCAFS released an Open Call for research on the role of LTK in South Asian agriculture. A Spanish team, led by Dr. Marta Guadalupe Rivera-Ferre of the Center for Research on Agro-food Economics and Development (CREDA), was selected, and in conjunction with CCAFS, the researchers have begun exploring the nuances of LTK. In particular, the team has chosen to examine how LTK can manage risks of and adapt to projected climatic risks related to water (shortages and flooding).

A preliminary review and reflection of the process has yielded several interesting insights including:

Availability of literature on LTK in agriculture

“We have found notable differences concerning the available information of LTK in agriculture for the different countries in IGP. India is by far the country with more available data, followed by Nepal and Bangladesh, and by Pakistan at the very last fourth place. Also interesting is that only a few scientific journals publish articles about this issue and most of the research is found in grey literature.”

Dangers in transferring or scaling up LTK

“It is important to have in mind that indigenous agro-ecosystems are highly site specific and differ from place to place. Thus, an incorrect application can possibly create a domino effect by which people consider the practice as not useful, instead of realizing that the problem lays not in the practice itself but rather in an imprecise reproduction of it.”

New LTK rhetoric disguising the same old agendas

It is our belief that LTK should not only be respected and protected, but also learned from. Although the institutional discourse about LTK seems to be pointing in the latter direction, when looking into the specific measures supported, we find contradicting messages. On the one hand, LTK is referred to as essential knowledge for climate change adaptation. On the other hand, we detect that international organisms and private foundations are sometimes making instrumental use of LTK, using it as a tool to target these traditional communities and then make them implement measures which these organisms consider to be improvements.”

LTK as “business as usual”

“In the literature, LTK is broadly considered as a complement of western knowledge in a projected ‘sustainable intensification’ of agriculture in the context of an increasing world population. Within this scenario, LTK seems to be smoothly integrated in a conceptual framework that basically maintains a business as usual state of things. Some examples are the promotion of indigenous communities as good candidates for emissions trading; or the promotion of LTK production for export under the labels of “organic product” or ‘underutilized specie.’”

This definition of LTK as static is also an oversimplification of what in actuality is a constantly evolving process, in which rural societies have responded to ongoing changes using—but also modifying—generational knowledge, according to the needs of the day. This more complex definition of LTK may be more unwieldy to categorize or even research, but it is a crucial part of understanding the role that LTK may play in climate change adaptation.

Framing LTK within an equitable food system

“From a restricted conception that reduces food security to the food production stage (availability), LTK can serve the objective of improving food security. But more importantly, if we widen the scope to a food systems approach and assume a bottom-up perspective, LTK can be the starting point to building an adaptation strategy that ensures not only climate-resilient, but also fair, food systems…. Notably, LTK practices are not by themselves ideal. In the context of climate change, they may need adjustments to adapt to rapid changes, based both in other LTK and the available scientific information, to generate new and innovative strategies. However, the premise of this improvement shouldn’t necessarily be increasing yields. Other, overriding goals may be reducing risk from droughts and floods,  and modifications made to LTK practices should keep this premise in mind.

…. We believe it is also important to reflect on what value the scientific community gives to LTK. Is it merely folkloric? Is it something to catalogue and store away, in order to have a record of the way things “used to be”? Is it some coarse knowledge that traditional rural communities and indigenous communities posses and use, but is only valid for that lifestyle and not for other realities? Or are we valuing it as a holistic way of living and cultivating, involving a kind of knowledge that we have lost on our way to modern agriculture? And as such, should it be analyzed in a comprehensive way instead of as isolated practices? “


Please stay tuned for future blog posts exploring regional case studies of LTK, as well as the final conclusions of this research.

To contact Marta with any thoughts or any additional LTK knowledge, please email: marta [dot] guadalupe [dot] rivera [at] upc [dot] edu