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Modernising processes have little time or respect for indigenous knowledge practices or ‘ways of knowing’. This is the case even though indigenous practices have enabled people to cope with issues such as healthy eating, illness challenges, as well as extreme weather events, for many years. Such practices offer decision making options, relating to village-based risk avoidance, that enable more sustainable living. This is particularly apt when considering that humanity requires more sustainable development trajectories that embrace complexity, while, at the same time, moving away from top-down technocratic approaches to a more participatory governance, research and political agendas. This, in short, is all about ‘just transitions’ as we seek to move towards sustainable living without compromising people. Within this milieu, scientific knowledge is still limited in securing a deeper understanding on how such change can be achieved. This begs the question that if modern science should embrace indigenous knowledge as a legitimate form of knowledge generation, could it bring about a deeper understanding of sustainable practices and a move towards participatory governance, research and political mechanisms?
Hand-washing and health – An Example from Africa
To put this question into context, elderly Nguni people, for example, describe how, in the past, when a stranger arrived at a village, a complex hand-washing ritual was followed before greetings were exchanged. Such a ritual has relevance to the current COVID-19 crisis where the spread of a virus can be inhibited by careful hand-washing. Interestingly, the tradition held that it was unwise to dry ones hands on fabric after washing. This is because the fabric could further harbour germs. Hands were simply allowed to drip-dry which meant that any germs would simply pass into the soil where natural microbial processes would neutralise any possible pathogens.
Unfortunately, indigenous knowledge practices and indeed natural and cultural heritage have at times been denigrated. In response to this the Southern African Journal of Environmental Education produced a dedicated edition, Volume 35, on this topic (Pesanayi et al., 2019). Pesanayi et al. (2019) describe how education in colonial southern Africa has dominated and marginalised indigenous heritage, cultures and practices. This occurs through assumptions of western modernisation, and, by default, modern scientific practices.
Milpa/forest garden cycle – An Example from Belize
Milpa/forest garden cycle has been a characteristic method of cultivating the land by the Maya people of Central America for thousands of years. This technique involved clearing the jungle with controlled fires to create arable land. The ashy and fertile soil then allowed to plant maize, beans, squash and other crops. After a few years of use, these areas were left for years to regenerate, and forest gardens were maintained to grow various plants and trees for sustenance. Ironically, the modern adaptation of this method – shortened or no fallow slash-and-burn agriculture – by different cultural groups and the transition to industrial agriculture exhausts lands and has grown to cause serious environmental issues. Changing trends in land-use and land-cover threaten forest and wetland ecosystems.
In some areas, rainforests are cleared permanently, after which the land is used till exhaustion, making it necessary to use large amounts of inorganic fertilizers and pesticides (Doyle et al., 2021). As a result, deforestation triggers noticeable changes in the seasonal weather patterns. In other cases, research reveals how the rejection of traditional agricultural methods by the Mopan Maya in Southern Belize, due to socio-economic and political changes, is leading to “a less diverse agricultural and biological landscape (Steinberg, 1998:407)”.
To collect a sample of 6 video clips, each of 3 minute max in length, that illustrate indigenous knowledge practices. We have a number to draw on including one on hand-washing and health.
We have many more we can select from, but it would be nice to collect samples from your (other) parts of the world.
Video Clip Sample: Handwashing and health
Jim Taylor, former President of the Environmental Education Association of Southern Africa (EEASA).
Dawson Munjeri, Center for Culture and Heritage Studies at the University of Great Zimbabwe.
Ella Erzsébet Békési, Heritage Education Network Belize (HENB).