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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 5 (1998)
Development, and the Environment: The Making of Our Common Future,
edited by Kerstin Lindahl-Kiessling and Hans Landberg. Oxford University
Press, Oxford (1994), xxii, 282 pp.
Reviewed by Lars T. Soeftestad, Anthropologist, World Bank.
Increasing integration of local
and traditional economies into an international capitalist system--and
the resulting social and ecological problems--is paralleled by increasing
efforts to understand and explain these phenomena, predict future developments,
and control them. Explanatory models often amount to one-factor hypotheses:
taking out a slice of reality, arguing a particular and limited point
of view, or representing specific and limited aspects of the human reality,
they often pronounce judgment on issues beyond the scope and confines
of their argument. Although the insights provided by such efforts more
often than not are interesting and illuminating, one is often left with
a feeling of "So what?" or "What is the practical significance
of this?" or "How to bridge this with existing conflicting paradigms?"
or even "Can this be operationalized?"
The two volumes reviewed here represent
two recent examples. Major attention will be given to the Indigenous Organizations
and Development volume edited by Blunt and Warren, while Lindahl-Kiessling
and Landberg's Population, Economic Development, and the Environment will
be used for supporting arguments to place the former in a more encompassing
context, and to suggest further avenues along which the arguments in the
Blunt and Warren volume can be developed.
Blunt and Warren's volume contains
a wealth of local-level practical information and knowledge, too much
to do justice to in this review. The work on which the volume is based
began two or three decades earlier, when the authors first got involved
in rural development, governance, public sector management and training,
primarily working in Africa. The 1980s saw the beginning of a paradigm
shift, with increased emphasis on participatory approaches, capacity building,
and local institutions, as well as with the long-term viability of development
investments. According to the authors, "this generated interest in
the nature of indigenous or local-level, community-based knowledge and
how it provided the basis for both individual and community-level decision-making"
(p. xiii). As this knowledge accumulated, it became clear to the authors
that a major area of concern in the new development paradigm had been
overlooked. They argue that indigenous knowledge systems constitute "an
important bridge to mutual understanding and communication . . . between
the local communities and the development practitioners" (p. xiii).
The volume has benefited from the insights of a number of researchers
and practitioners, notably Norman Uphoff who, incidentally, also wrote
The various case studies focus on
local planning and management systems, local levels of technology and
development, and community-based systems of evaluation and capacity building.
The volume is organized by geography into three parts: Africa, the Indian
sub-continent, and Asia-Pacific, with the major emphasis on Africa.
The volume describes a variety of
indigenous organizations, and the authors believe that this is the first
effort in this direction in the development literature. They see it as
a complement to a recently published volume that focuses on the cultural
dimensions of development (D.M. Warren, L.J. Slikkerveer, and D. Brokensha
1995). Based on the premise that local people should decide what is best
for them, Blunt and Warren argue that indigenous organizations present
a natural point of departure and focus in development assistance. Alyhough
this may be a correct assertion, a pertinent question is how to do it.
The International Symposium on Indigenous
Knowledge and Sustainable Development (Silang, Philippines, 20-26 September,
1992) agreed on the following working definition of indigenous knowledge,
proposed by D. Michael Warren:
The term `indigenous knowledge'
(IK) is used synonymously with `traditional' and`local knowledge' to differentiate
the knowledge developed by a given communityfrom the international knowledge
system, sometimes also called `Western'system, generated through universities,
government research centres and privateindustry. IK refers to the knowledge
of indigenous peoples as well as any otherdefined community (Indigenous
Knowledge & Development Monitor, 1(2) ).
Furthermore, indigenous knowledge
systems relate to the way members of a given community define and classify
phenomena in the physical/natural, social, and ideational environments.
Examples include local classifications of soils, knowledge of which local
crop varieties grow in difficult environments, and traditional ways of
treating human and animal diseases. Indigenous knowledge systems provide
the basis for local-level decision making, this frequently occurs through
formal and informal community associations and organizations. Communities
identify problems and seek solutions to them in such local forums, capitalizing
and leading to experimentation and innovations. Successful new technologies
are added to the indigenous knowledge system. Indigenous forms of communication
are vital to the preservation, development, and spread of indigenous knowledge.
The definition of indigenous knowledge
given above stands in contrast to the way the term is used in the present
volume. Here indigenous knowledge is not defined, but it appears to be
closely linked to the term "indigenous organization." The latter
term is understood to comprise:
As such, there appears to be an
effort to link the overall argument with key elements and views in the
emerging global indigenous peoples movement. Elsewhere, an institution
is understood to be a complex of norms and behavior that persist over
time through serving a purpose, whereas an organization is a structure
of recognized and accepted roles. Although there is some overlap between
institutions and organizations understood in this way, only institutions
that have an organizational basis are considered. Furthermore, indigenous
organizations are understood to be a subset of the larger category of
local organizations, something that appears to be very limiting and possibly
Although I understand the rationale
for the term indigenous knowledge, there are clear disadvantages to its
use within specific political contexts. The term "indigenous"
is not likely to score very highly with national-level stakeholders, particularly
in Asia (Africa is a different case, which may explain why Blunt and Warren
prefer this term). Because the proof of the validity and usefulness of
the indigenous knowledge paradigm lies in its successful application within
often highly contentious political realities, it would in many cases be
better to use the terms "local knowledge" or "traditional
In terms of the applications of
indigenous knowledge, it originally grew out of the perceived needs and
problems of the African agricultural sector. The international indigenous
knowledge agenda has grown substantially, both in terms of coverage and
content, and is now firmly lodged in various research institutions and
journals. Dr. D. Michael Warren, an anthropologist by training, was a
key person in defining and promoting this agenda. He--among other things--founded
the Center for Indigenous Knowledge for Agriculture and Rural Development
(CIKARD) at Iowa State University. CIKARD (URL: http://www.public.iastate.edu/~anthr_info/cikard/cikard.html)
was established to provide mechanisms to strengthen the capacity of development
agencies to improve agricultural production and the quality of life in
rural areas in cost-effective ways. Its goal is to collect indigenous
knowledge and make it available to local communities, development professionals,
and scientists. CIKARD concentrates on indigenous knowledge systems, decision-making
systems, organizational structures and innovations. CIKARD recognized
that the establishment of regional and national indigenous knowledge resource
centers is the most effective way of systematically recording, documenting
and using this knowledge. There are now more than 30 such global, regional
and national centers, with an additional 20 centers in the process of
being formalized. At the time of his unexpected death in Nigeria on 28
December, 1997, Dr. Warren was the Director of CIKARD and a member of
the editorial board of the Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor
The present volume will stand as a lasting testimony to his crucial role
in the growth of the international indigenous knowledge network.
Population, Economic Development,
and the Environment, edited by Lindahl-Kiessling and Landberg, addresses
somewhat similar issues, but it does so indirectly, and from a very different
perspective. The primary position taken by Lindahl-Kiessling and Landberg
is that the issue of population and its growth or decline cannot be separated
from the whole set of questions of economic and social development, and
from the environmental concerns related to the issues of production and
consumption throughout the world. Analysis must be made at the global
as well as at regional levels. More specifically, the Malthusian conflict
constitutes the major argument running through the volume, with economic
and social development and environmental issues as secondary and explanatory
areas of concern. In addition to providing a fresh look at the work of
Malthus, the volume addresses two main themes: factors underlying fertility
changes, and development issues related to the population-environment
nexus. Importantly, in connection with the latter issue, the volume argues
that classical economics' reliance on the market as the key to solving
all societal ills is flawed, and it concludes that the market mechanism
cannot be permitted to operate alone. Certain patterns of environmental
deterioration are caused not by market failures but by government policies,
and it follows that the causes of these failures increasingly should be
sought, and addressed, in the context of institutional analyses.
The contributors to the Lindahl-Kiessling
and Landberg volume are concerned about the several negative trends we
today witness on a global level. They argue that the rapidly increasing
stress on the world's natural resource base can, especially in the overpopulated
areas of the world, create social tensions and conflicts between as well
as within nations, and furthermore that such conflicts likely will occur
before there is an ecological breakdown. Towards understanding this, they
examine a wide array of issues, ranging from the connections between population
size and growth, environmental degradation, and poverty. They take into
account the increasing competition for natural resources by social structures
on several levels, including on the household level.
Compared with the Blunt and Warren
volume, the overall argument is much broader, and more complex. It is,
perhaps, less intuitive, but it reflects a situation that is more difficult
to model and where outcomes are equally difficult to predict, and it is
thus more true to reality. While operating mainly on a macro-level, variables
and issues on lower levels--all the way down to the household--are considered
The articles in Population, Economic
Development, and the Environment are realistic in pointing out the possible
futures, for all of us, if changes are not made, and some readers will
accordingly see it as partly pessimistic in outlook. (In contrast, pieces
in the Indigenous Organizations and Development volume do not address
future scenarios, and the book as a whole comes across as overly optimistic
in crediting the human race with the capacity to learn, adapt, and change
for the benefit of the common good.)
The Lindahl-Kiessling and Landberg
volume is one of several recent treatises that address similar issues
on a global level. In this sense Population, Economic Development and
the Environment does not contribute a great deal of new data and analyses.
Its major contribution lies in an effort to place a number of disparate
elements into a coherent analytical and explanatory framework. In aiming
at tracing out a theoretical model for the interrelation between population,
environment, and development, there is, however, little emphasis on giving
concrete advice on local-level, regional, and national level action and
Both volumes read well and present
convincing stories, scenarios and arguments. This is to a large extent
because they each have a clear mission that drives the arguments and compels
the reader to follow. For the rest they are largely different, as witnessed
by the following set of dichotomies, several of which are closely related:
Having pointed out the differences in point of departure,
focus, and aims, this juxtaposition of intellectual and scientific pursuits
complements one another in many respects. Indigenous Organizations and
Development is important because it supports and underlines other work
currently going on in the development community, ranging from local NGOs
to global financial institutions. Social sustainability is as important
as environmental sustainability. Participation, consultation, transparency,
stakeholder identification, cultural aspects of development, involving
project affected people as well as the public sector, the private sector
and the civil society, and institutional capacity building at the local
level; these are all crucial issues that only recently have begun to be
addressed in a comprehensive and structured manner, and they are enriched
and complemented by the indigenous knowledge agenda.
Population, Economic Development, and the Environment
is important because it presents the other side of the coin, as it were,
namely the macro level. In doing so, it presents the overall political-economic
framework within which the indigenous knowledge agenda must make its case.
Although this framework certainly is both limiting and constraining, it
is also facilitating, while at the same time providing opportunities.
According to advocates of indigenous knowledge, it
is important for several reasons: (i) it represents the successful ways
in which people have dealt with their environments; (ii) familiarity with
local cultures can help extension workers and researchers communicate
better with local people; and, (iii) it can help find the best solution
to a development problem. Some comments on these pronouncement are in
order: (i) indigenous knowledge clearly points toward successful adaptations,
otherwise these cultural traits would disappear, but the implication that
all indigenous knowledge therefore is useful at the present time is not
necessarily correct; (ii) this is clearly true in the best of worlds and
in a very limited and narrow context, but this usually does not at all
mean that the solution to a problem is institutionalized and "solved,"
as external factors often will determine the long-term viability of the
solution; and, (iii) indigenous knowledge may contribute to finding the
best solution to a development problem, but a solution to a problem according
to this is only theoretically interesting.
It is precisely here that the indigenous knowledge
agenda interfaces with the macro level population argument, as portrayed
in the Lindahl-Kiessling and Landberg volume. And it is to this interaction
that the argument now will turn.
If everybody understands each other, all problems
will disappear and the rational use of indigenous knowledge will proceed
according to the plan. This is clearly naïve. This is not to say
that the indigenous knowledge agenda has not had success. It certainly
has. The point here is that this success to a large extent is defined
in relation to the limited scope of the agenda, namely giving primary
attention to technologies and techniques, and constructing an argument
within an instrumental, objective agenda. Likewise, the success stories
are small scale, and it is in the institutionalization and scaling up
of such interesting experiences that the indigenous knowledge agenda up
In the spirit of democracy, openness, and transparency,
the best thing we can do is to define an open playing field and invite
any persons or category of persons to get involved. At the same time we
clearly face a problem in that all stakeholders are not equal in terms
of access to resources, including information and funding. Stakeholders
will accordingly enter the contested playing field on unequal terms. In
this situation an institution like the World Bank can do a couple of things.
On the macro level it can work with governments on reforming regulatory
and legal frameworks to create equal conditions and opportunities for
all stakeholders. On the micro level, the World Bank can support local-level
initiatives that aim at, for example, awareness raising, capacity building
and support of local initiatives. While opting for an open-ended approach
that excludes noone, focused efforts are made to aid marginal groups in
entering the playing field on more equal terms. The latter is achieved
partly through direct support, partly through arguing on the macro level
that it pays to include marginal groups, and partly through long-term
arguments of environmental and economic sustainability.
It is not easy to pinpoint what is missing in the
indigenous knowledge approach, and it is with a certain uneasiness that
one criticizes something as worthwhile and inherently good as this. However
that may be, I think it boils down to an approach that implicitly, if
not explicitly, sees the local community, with its constituent institutions,
organizations, and knowledge systems as both the beginning and end of
analysis and focus. Limited in its ability to characterize local-global
articulations, this approach is limited accordingly in its ability to
evaluate successes and failures. Most importantly, there appears to be
no emerging framework dealing with political and strategic alliances with
other parties, either on the same level as the community or at higher
levels of integration. Outside actors, issues, and levels certainly exist
and are acknowledged, but are never really brought into the analysis.
Each case of indigenous knowledge is somehow seen as unique, and there
appears to be little emphasis on doing comparisons across sectors and
cultures. The history and rationale of the overall indigenous knowledge
paradigm becomes an obstacle to seeing across the divide represented by
the various dichotomies discussed above, and this leads to the present
fundamental problems in reaching out and mainstreaming its ideas. As a
result, it unfortunately remains a somewhat exotic agenda that exists
at the margin of the overall development enterprise.
Those who focus their efforts on the preservation
and promotion of indigenous knowledge also need to be aware of this encompassing
economic-political reality. They must be willing to reach out to stakeholders
that have partly conflicting agendas, to strategize and create alliances,
and to recognize the implications of the fact that indigenous knowledge
exists in an institutional and organizational context that goes much beyond
the individual community. As part of this reorientation, it would be necessary
to address the implicit argument that indigenous peoples, through their
knowledge systems, somehow hold the key to a sustainable management of
natural resources. This is too simple. Traditional institutions and organizations
change, just like institutions and organizations everywhere else. They
change for a variety of reasons, forced to try and adapt to changing external
conditions. Some become obsolete and disappear, and most of the rest are
more or less gradually transformed in the process.
Towards this, I offer to the indigenous knowledge
community the practice and theory of comanagement as a potential avenue
to explore. Comanagement (also referred to as "collaborative management"
or "joint management") describes a partnership among different
stakeholders for the purpose of managing specific resources. Key members
in such a partnership will be the government agency with jurisdiction
over the resource in question and local residents and resource users.
They will have reached an agreement specifying roles, responsibilities,
and rights. Comanagement is characterized by a conscious and official
distribution of responsibility that involves all legitimate and relevant
stakeholders. It is recognized that not all responsibility can or should
be devolved to the community, and the state will always retain some responsibility
(G. Borrini-Feyerabend, ed., 1997; cf. also G. Borrini-Feyerabend 1996;
E. Pinkerton and M. Weinstein 1995). Comanagement is becoming increasingly
attractive to NGOs.
The comparative advantage of international development
banks like the World Bank lies more on the macro level, in collaborating
with governments in setting up stakeholder consultation processes and
in reforming regulatory frameworks. A recent experience with formulating
a sector strategy for the coastal zone in Ghana that I was involved in,
relied heavily on organizing large-scale and exhaustive stakeholder consultations
that spanned the whole coastline and involved hundreds of people representing
all relevant stakeholders. Among them were local and regional traditional
chiefs that represented the traditional chieftaincy system and thus brought
traditional values and knowledge to bear on the issues at hand. This was
an extremely rewarding experience for everybody who participated, and
it set in motion processes in the coastal zone that are still unfolding
(World Bank et al. 1997). This work benefited from earlier conceptual
and policy-oriented work focusing on the interrelation between modern
and traditional institutions in Africa (M. Dia 1996).
Indigenous Organizations and Development asserts that
it makes good sense to combine development assistance and indigenous organizations.
In this it is important that the various stakeholders, both on the national
and the local level, both domestic and international, cooperate to create
a smooth relation between various macro- and micro-level factors that
are crucial to creating an enabling atmosphere on the local level. In
this process, a better understanding between such diverse phenomena as
indigenous knowledge, population growth, and environmental sustainability
is emerging as crucial, and the two volumes will hopefully contribute
to building this understanding. Hirschman (1994) has argued persuasively
that we need to understand development as a process--as well as a growing
capacity of--problem solving. This speaks to the importance of nurturing
and crafting an integration of indigenous knowledge, institutions, local
organizations, and political processes.
Borrini-Feyerabend, Grazia, editor.
Hirschman, Albert O.
Pinkerton, Evelyn and Martin Weinstein.
Warren, D. Michael, L. Jan Slikkerveer, and David Brokensha, editors.
Warren, D. Michael.
World Bank, et al.