My Preoccupation with Traditional Knowledge

Reductionist science and the marginalization of traditional, local knowledge (TK) has preoccupied me since working at Ecological Agriculture Projects (1989-1995), a resource centre at Macdonald College of McGill University. We were a small, dedicated team of agronomists and information management professionals developing access to an immense and unique body of ‘grey literature’ describing ecological agricultural principles and practices. This special collection of knowledge produced by farmers for farmers contained concepts not included either in the Library of Congress subject-headings. So that in developing access to the collection, we hired graduate students with expertise in ecological agriculture to develop a new classification system and to assign classification to documentation.

Bodies of knowledge represent different ways of knowing. The fact that this body of knowledge was neither collected nor disseminated within the mainstream of academic journals, and barely part of research agendas, highlighted one means in which a dominant knowledge system narrows our field of vision, ignoring other ways of knowing the world.

The pressures of modernization and cultural homogenization threaten indigenous systems and practices – in agriculture, in medicine, and resource use. Around the early 1990s, traditional knowledge began to be recognized as an innovative approach to conserving biodiversity as well as for its commercial uses.  The trend to commodify TK represented a danger as it could ignore the social structures that have generated this knowledge and the livelihoods on which many indigenous communities and the knowledge itself depend.

The Convention on Biological Diversity addresses ex situ preservation and favours conservation of TK within socio-cultural and ecological contexts of the systems. How to incorporate traditional knowledge in working with farmers, in development programs in order to protect culture and livelihoods? What strategies and incentives can be used to encourage inclusion of indigenous communities as equal partners in the collection and exchange of TK?

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Following a contract with IDRC researching Plant Genetic Conservation and intellectual property issues, I decided to carry-out fieldwork on TK as part of my M.A. in Anthropology. The USC Canada-Nepal “Seeds of Survival” program mandated to save threatened crop varieties and to promote strong rural communities and healthy ecosystems around the world inspired me further. In May 2004, I traveled to the Nepal office in Kathmandu in May 2004 with a research plan. I was to accompany two agricultural field officers into the mid-hills of the Himalayas.
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