ASA Conference 2004, Durham - Locating the field

Local knowledge in development: problems and prospects

Convenor: Sillitoe, 'in association' with the Development Forum

Panel abstract

At several meetings we have heard many interesting papers on the topic of local knowledge in development (e.g. the Association of Social Anthropologists 2000 and 2003 conferences) but there has been a sense of frustration at lack of time to discuss the many challenging issues touched upon. The intention at the Durham conference is to have a session devoted to the debate of issues, in contrast to the presentation of papers.

It is increasingly accepted that local knowledge (often called indigenous/ traditional knowledge) has a part to play in development interventions, but its role is ambiguous. Its application in development is largely seen as assisting in the tackling of technological problems. But drawing on local knowledge equally raises political issues. What should be the terms of engagement?

We know that local knowledge has weaknesses in development contexts as well as strengths, both of which result from its locally situated character. It does not necessarily comprise a comprehensive knowledge system and not all members of a community may equally share it. Consequently, even when interventions take local knowledge into account, not all persons may stand to benefit, it may inform activities that are not necessarily either socially just or sustainable. What are the implications of engaging in such work?

We assume that local knowledge should be the basis for building local capacity and competence, and that it should be applied as a counter-model to global science. But engagement with development implies that external institutions, both national and international, should intervene in the activities of local people. Local knowledge needs to interface with global scientific knowledge, each drawing on the other to effect sustainable adaptation to changing natural and socio-economic environments. On what grounds should we involve ourselves in such interventions?

These are just some preliminary ideas. We wish to invite interested participants to suggest issues and questions for discussion. Please phrase these as one sentence bullet points. We wish them to act as catalysts for discussion. Broadly, we wish to explore the ramifications of the application of local knowledge to the development process, considering new directions and approaches to this work within anthropology, their methodological implications etc. The intention is to have an informal discussion to air issues of common interest, pinpoint future research priorities etc.

Dan Taylor

  • there is certainly a need to bridge the gulf between those who reject local knowledge as unscientific and retrogressive and the populists who have managed to transform it into uncontextualised 'mumbo jumbo'.

Tonye Mahop Marcelin

  • The real value of a plant to rural communities
  • The real value of information associated to the plant to rural communities
  • how do community menbers regard those coming to them to investigate about their knowledge of the use of plant genetic resources
  • How do members of rural community regard information exchange amomng them and with outsiders

Gabriella Aspraki

  • I would be most interested in discussing how our conceptions of, and expectations from IK might change across cultures.
  • Also, in case of native researchers, like myself, what happens? Is the researcher part of the researched collectivity? etc. etc.

Stan Frankland

  • the politics of indigeneity
  • divergent notions of the indigenous

Allice Legat

  • wish to question the concept 'local knowledget' based on my expereince with the Dogrib and their knowledge of caribou

Christoph Antweiler

  • Local knowledge is a combination of locally/culturally specific contents and a specific, yet human universal, cognitive capacity!
  • Local knowledge is not only indigenous knowledge!

Helen Newing

  • What should be the relationship between ‘experts’ and local communities?
  • How can local knowledge systems relate to formal planning requirements?
  • When is a ‘scientific’ (western technical) approach to sustainable natural resource management unnecessary?
  • Under what circumstances, if any, should external evaluations be based on local knowledge rather than ‘scientific’ approaches?

Cora Neumann

  • Can traditional health resources form a bridge between humanitarian interventions and sustainable development programs?


Helen Newing and Lissie Wahl

The category of ‘Communal Reserve’ in the Peruvian Protected Areas system is being used increasingly by forest peoples to gain land and resource rights to extended areas. However, by law local resource use must be documented according to formal management plans, which should be directed by the beneficiaries and approved and supervised by the government authorities. This mechanism fits well with current international discourse on co-managed protected areas. However, it poses several political and structural challenges that are currently under negotiation in Peru. How far can the need for formal management plans be reconciled with indigenous and local systems of organization and knowledge? When is a technical approach to sustainable natural resource management necessary, and how far can it be reconciled with existing systems? Should government approval and supervision always be based on technical approaches? The law is contradictory on these issues, on the one hand recognizing the legitimacy of local political and knowledge systems, but on the other requiring management documents produced by qualified professionals. In my paper, I will examine these issues with reference to the six existing communal reserves in Peru.

Conflict and conservation in the Danube Delta, Romania

Sandra Bell, Gillian Wallace and Kate Hampshire

The Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve Authority (DDBRA) was established by the Romanian government in 1990 to manage 5800 square kilometres of wetland. Around the same time the government also signed up to the Ramsar convention which placed the Danube Delta on a list of wetlands of international importance and acknowledged the role of its reed beds as a filter for the Black Sea. The delta is a site of great concern to the world’s ornithologists because it lies at the intersection of the main European migration routes for 325 species of birds.  The function of the DDBRA is to implement and influence a range of conservation policies issuing from the state government. However, in the preceding nine years the management of conservation has led to increased tensions between the DDBRA and inhabitants of the eighteen scattered and often inaccessible villages of the delta. These tensions centre on the regulation of fishing, hunting and other economic activities, the imposition of restricted areas, local taxation and transport policies and issues surrounding poaching. The paper explores the apparently intractable nature of the conflict between the inhabitants and the DDBRA, the most potent causes of division and what might constitute some first steps towards resolution.

Accessing plant genetic resources and associated knowledge in rural areas: issues of concern to rural communities

Marcelin Tonye Mahop, Queen Mary Intellectual Property Research Institute

It is essential for researchers and commercial partners using plant genetic resources and associated knowledge in their activities, to seek access to these resources from the people who are ensuring the primary custody. Indeed, rural communities living in remote areas rich in plant resources are the primary custodians of biodiversity. In addition, due to their long lasting and close reliance to plants for their basic needs, they have developed a significant body of knowledge, which allow them to make use of the plants around them. Both the knowledge and plants therefore appear having substantial value to them. On the other hand, plants genetic resources and the traditional knowledge appear to be important basic assets for research and development and are therefore heavily sought by other stakeholders who will exploit them beyond the control of rural communities. This paper is a synopsis of how rural people value plant genetic resources and associated knowledge to them on the one hand as well as providing rural communities’ account of their relationships with seekers of access to these resources.

Key words: Access, Rural communities, custody, traditional knowledge