Local and indigenous knowledge emerges from blindspot

The long-standing blindspot created by scientists' dogged concentration on positivist science – emphasising empirical data and scientific methods to the exclusion of other methodology – may be ending.

The UNESCO Science Report: Towards 2030 has signalled the emergence of local and indigenous knowledge at the global science-policy interface as a possible end to the separation between science and a less empirical understanding of the world.

In his essay entitled “Local and indigenous knowledge at the science-policy interface”, Douglas Nakashima, head of the local and indigenous knowledge systems programme of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, said local and indigenous knowledge had in recent years emerged as an increasingly influential contribution to the debate.

He defined 'local and indigenous knowledge systems' as the know-how accumulated across generations to guide societies in their environmental interactions. They contributed to food security, from hunting, fishing, gathering and small-scale agriculture, as well as to healthcare, clothing and strategies for coping with environmental fluctuations and change.

The dynamic systems were transmitted and renewed each generation.

Key evidence included the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report 2014 conclusion indicating traditional and indigenous knowledge, systems and practices, including their holistic views, were "a major resource for adapting to climate change" that had not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts.

Nakashima cited two examples where local knowledge trumped positivist science. By observing the Pleiades constellation, Andean farmers could predict the advent of an El Niño year with "an accuracy equivalent to that of contemporary meteorological science".

The apparent size and brightness of the Pleiades varied according to the amount of thin, high cloud at the top of the troposphere, correspondingly reflecting the severity of El Niño conditions over the Pacific Ocean.

Given rainfall was generally sparse during El Niño years, this method enabled the Andean farmers to forecast equivalently or better than that achieved via long-term computer modelling.

The 2004 tsunami, which claimed more than 230,000 lives, saw the Moken people of the Surin Islands, Thailand, escape without a single life lost. While the tsunami wholly destroyed their seaside village, the villagers had known the unusual withdrawal of the ocean from the shoreline was a sign to abandon the village and move to high ground.

Nakashima said none of the Moken present had themselves witnessed a laboon, but based on knowledge passed down through generations, they knew the signs and how to respond.

"That human populations... have developed expertise in a multitude of domains related to their everyday lives seems self-evident, yet this fount of knowledge has been obscured by the rise of scientific knowledge as if science needed to marginalise other ways of knowing to ensure its own global growth in recognition and influence," he said.

Consequently, recognising the risk of an education centred only on positivist ontology or specific concept, the UNESCO programme on local and indigenous knowledge systems was developing education resources rooted in local languages and knowledge.

"These other knowledge systems are confronted with a multitude of threats, including mainstream education systems that ignore the vital importance of a childhood education anchored in indigenous languages, knowledge and worldviews," Nakashima said.