Views from the ANThill: Indigenous Knowledge, Development and Trust

by douglas reeser on January 26, 2012
A Healing Garden in southern Belize.
Photo courtesy of douglas reeser.
Here in Belize, I'm working on a number of what might be called "development" projects. Basically, I've been partnering with a few different organizations, all working on a type of traditional healing garden, each one of which aim to preserve and pass on traditional (indigenous or local) knowledge, educate youth, and provide a means of income generation. Each organization is built on ethnic background, and so each project is working with a traditional knowledge system specific to each ethnic group. Still, there is a good deal of overlap, as each group's knowledge is derived from the same environmental conditions. Each of the projects are at various stages of development or execution and each has faced its own challenges. I have come to realize that this is likely the path that each must take to have a chance at success. Most agree that success will include a multi-ethnic healing garden in a central location that offers a space for the wider community to spend time and share.

Just as each healing garden project has its own unique trajectory, my role in each has also been variable. It has become a challenge for me to keep the distinctiveness in mind has I work towards successful project outcomes. I decided to look for some reference to help make sense of my experience here, and I came across an article by anthropologist, Paul Sillitoe, "Trust in development: some implications of knowing in indigenous knowledge.The article is a reflection on the lessons learned through the Indigenous Knowledge (IK) Initiative implemented in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, and intended to give local voices and practices more prominence in development projects. Sillitoe examines the idea of knowledge, and explains that the word’s meaning can vary from context to context and culture to culture. He posits that while defining exactly what IK is and means, we can find some form of it everywhere around the globe. Today, IK has become a central means of addressing poverty in the global development agenda, however it has yet to be utilized very effectively; i.e., IK has not been brought into the dominant technological and market mainstream, and poverty reduction has not been a fully successful outcome of most development schemes. 

Sillitoe goes on to bring up trust as one of the fundamental issues in regards to successful development projects that must also be participatory with local communities. Development practitioners have so far been loathe to fully trust in IK and reticent to give up their own power in regards to the shape and outcome of development projects. In turn, local communities have often returned that distrust due to betrayals of the participatory process. Distrust then, can spoil the best-intentioned projects. Sillitoe points out that trust is so central to human interaction that we largely take it for granted. Trust is learned at a very early age and is embedded in our language and its use. He posits that it may carry more weight in oral cultures, as knowledge gained through experience (embodied knowledge) is the most trust-worthy.

This embodied knowledge is often the most valued to indigenous groups, and can be said to comprise the basis of indigenous knowledge. Sillitoe explains that IK is comprised of “the ways that [people] constitute, authorize, and validate their knowledge” (13). The meaning of knowledge can be described as “justified belief or truth” (14), and is recognized as arising from experience and the senses. Sillitoe offers a contrast by pointing out that Westerners agree that knowledge is stored or resides in the brain, and can be obtained through a variety of means, including experience, study, or interactions. But this perspective is simply a belief, and beliefs vary across cultures. For instance, the Wola (Papua New Guinea) believe that knowledge is housed in the chest and is best derived from personal experience. Because knowledge is understood differently in different contexts, cultures, and places, development projects need to take these differences into consideration.

The variability of knowledge is another aspect of IK that is often ignored. There exists within the knowledge of a particular topic, variability between individuals, conflict over knowledge claims, variability in interpretation, and more. This variability is often overlooked in the development (and anthropological) world, which tends to see somewhat homogenous cultures, traditions, communities and/or regions. Sillitoe characterizes the knowledge of the Wola (a ‘stateless’ group) as decentralized knowledge, which, through language can indicate the amount of faith or authority a given person has in what they are talking about. Can such decentralized knowledge be incorporated into the wider development agenda? This remains to be seen, but does offer a potential point to address by development groups that are looking to improve the success of their projects.

The article offers a great discussion of IK in general, and also touches on language, meaning, cultural variability, and a deeper exploration of trust and its role in development. For me, the piece by Sillitoe has helped me to understand why I am working on incredibly similar projects with three different groups in the same locale. I am beginning to see that each group must go through the experience of creating such a project so that it informs their knowledge base. Only then will they be able to come together from places of understanding, and perhaps create a truly communal garden, based on the healing traditions of the diversity reflected in this place.
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  1. Have you been to The community site is trying to aggregate all of this knowledge to help protect indigenous people and inform those who are interested in the traditional knowledge of these cultures.

  2. dooglas12:06 PM

    Thanks for the link Ben - I wasn't familiar with them yet, but it looks like an interesting project they have going. There are some issues with what they are doing though - namely what appears to be an uncritical look at placing IK in the public domain. I would be happy to discuss this further.


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