Systems of Knowledge: Dialogue, Relationships and Process
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During the last 20 years, the existence of rich systems of local knowledge, and their vital support to resource use and management regimes, has been demonstrated in a wide range of biological, physical and geographical domains, such as agriculture, animal husbandry, forestry and agroforestry, medicine, and marine science and fisheries.
Local knowledge includes empirical and practical components that are fundamental to sustainable resource management. Among coastal-marine fishers, for example, regular catches and, often, long-term resource sustainment are ensured through the application of knowledge that encompasses empirical information on fish behaviour, marine physical environments, fish habitats and the interactions among ecosystem components, as well as complex fish taxonomies. Local knowledge is therefore an important cultural resource that guides and sustains the operation of customary management systems. The sets of rules that compose a fisheries management system derive directly from local concepts and knowledge of the resources on which the fishery is based.
Beyond the practical and the empirical, it is essential to recognise the fundamental socio-cultural importance of local knowledge to any society. It is through knowledge transmission and socialisation that worldviews are constructed, social institutions perpetuated, customary practices established, and social roles defined. In this manner, local knowledge and its transmission, shape society and culture, and culture and society shape knowledge.
Local knowledge is of great potential practical value. It can provide an important information base for local resources management, especially in the tropics, where conventionally-used data are usually scarce to non-existent, as well as providing a shortcut to pinpoint essential scientific research needs. To be useful for resources management, however, it must be systematically collected and scientifically verified, before being blended with complementary information derived from Western-based sciences.
But local knowledge should not be looked on with only a short-term utilitarian eye. Arguments widely accepted for conserving biodiversity, for example, are also applicable to the intellectual cultural diversity encompassed in local knowledge systems: they should be conserved because their utility may only be revealed at some later date or owing to their intrinsic value as part of the world's global heritage.
At least in cultures with a Western liberal tradition, more than lip-service is now being paid to alternative systems of knowledge. The denigration of alternative knowledge systems as backward, inefficient, inferior, and founded on myth and ignorance has recently begun to change. Many such practices are a logical, sophisticated and often still-evolving adaptation to risk, based on generations of empirical experience and arranged according to principles, philosophies and institutions that are radically different from those prevailing in Western scientific circles, and hence all-but incomprehensible to them. But steadfastly held prejudices remain powerful.
In this presentation I describe the 'design principles' of local knowledge systems, with particular reference to coastal-marine fishing communities, and their social and practical usefulness. I then examine the economic, ideological and institutional factors that combine to perpetuate the marginalisation and neglect of local knowledge, and discuss some of the requirements for applying local knowledge in modern management.
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