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Indigenous knowledge & sustainability

  • Introduction
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3
  • Activity 4
  • Activity 5
  • Activity 6
  • Reflection


Sophisticated knowledge of the natural world is not confined to science. Human societies all across the globe have developed rich sets of experiences and explanations relating to the environments they live in. These ‘other knowledge systems’ are today often referred to as traditional ecological knowledge or indigenous or local knowledge. They encompass the sophisticated arrays of information, understandings and interpretations that guide human societies around the globe in their innumerable interactions with the natural milieu: in agriculture and animal husbandry; hunting, fishing and gathering; struggles against disease and injury; naming and explanation of natural phenomena; and strategies to cope with fluctuating environments.

Source: Nakashima, D., Prott, L. and Bridgewater, P. (2000) Tapping into the world’s wisdom, UNESCO Sources, 125, July-August, p. 12.

Indigenous knowledge is the local knowledge that is unique to a culture or society. Other names for it include: ‘local knowledge’, ‘folk knowledge’, ‘people’s knowledge’, ‘traditional wisdom’ or ‘traditional science’. This knowledge is passed from generation to generation, usually by word of mouth and cultural rituals, and has been the basis for agriculture, food preparation, health care, education, conservation and the wide range of other activities that sustain societies in many parts of the world.

Indigenous people have a broad knowledge of how to live sustainably. However, formal education systems have disrupted the practical everyday life aspects of indigenous knowledge and ways of learning, replacing them with abstract knowledge and academic ways of learning. Today, there is a grave risk that much indigenous knowledge is being lost and, along with it, valuable knowledge about ways of living sustainably.

This module illustrates ways that indigenous knowledge may be integrated into education and thereby, bring the benefits of helping to ‘sustain’ indigenous knowledge and societies to all. It also encourages teachers and students to gain enhanced respect for local culture, its wisdom and its ethics, and provides ways of teaching and learning locally relevant knowledge and skills.


  • To appreciate indigenous perspectives on ways of living together and using resources sustainably;
  • To appreciate the role of indigenous knowledge and traditional ways of learning in maintaining the sustainability of a community;
  • To understand the role of ‘modern’ education in undermining indigenous knowledge and ways of teaching and learning; and
  • To identify opportunities for integrating relevant aspects of indigenous knowledge and approaches to teaching and learning into the school curriculum.


  1. The wisdom of the elders
  2. UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
  3. Why is indigenous knowledge important?
  4. Living by indigenous knowledge
  5. Indigenous and formal education
  6. Enhancing the curriculum through indigenous knowledge
  7. Reflection


Bates P., Chiba, M., Kube, S. and Nakashima, D. (2009) Learning and Knowing in Indigenous Societies Today, UNESCO, Paris

Grenier, L. (1998) Working with Indigenous Knowledge: A Guide for Researchers, IDRC, Canada.

IFAD (2003) Indigenous Peoples and Sustainable Development, Roundtable Discussion Paper for the Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Session of IFAD’s Governing Council.

Le Grange, L. (2007) ‘Integrating Western and Indigenous Knowledge Systems: The Basis for Effective Science Education in South Africa?’, International Review of Education, 53(5-6), pp. 577-591.

Johnston, A.M. (2005) Is the Sacred for Sale. Tourism and Indigenous Peoples, Earthscan, London.

Sillitoe, P. (2009) Local Science Vs Global Science: Approaches to Indigenous Knowledge in International Development, Berghahn Books.

World Bank (2004) Indigenous knowledge: local pathways to global development, Africa Regional Office, World Bank.

Internet Sites

Indigenous knowledge and practices vary greatly between countries and regions. Therefore, the activities and resources provided here need to be considered within the context of indigenous experiences in your part of the world.

Useful sources of information include:

Center for World Indigenous Studies

Alaska Native Knowledge Network – Indigenous Education Worldwide
Materials, contacts, links and other resources related to the:

  • Ainu of Japan
  • Maori of New Zealand
  • Aborigines of Australia
  • Native Hawaiians
  • First Nations of Canada
  • Native North Americans
  • Indigenous People of Russia
  • Saami of Scandinavia
  • Inuit

World Bank Indigenous Knowledge Programme

Traditional Knowledge in Sustainable Development and Resource Management
The LINKS project integrates local and indigenous knowledge (L/IK), practice and worldviews into sustainable development and resource management processes, such that rural communities become active partners in defining development targets, priorities and means. It focuses on the needs of traditional knowledge holders, both men and women, including both elders and youth.

UNESCO’s (MOST) database of best practice on Indigenous Knowledge
The Centre for International Research and Advisory Networks (CIRAN) in co-operation with UNESCO’s Management of Social Transformations Programme (MOST) jointly coordinate a database of best practice on Indigenous Knowledge. This site includes a definition of indigenous knowledge, a discussion of criteria for selecting ‘best practice’, and a registry of best practice that gives numerous detailed summaries of projects in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America that have sought to improve conditions and alleviate poverty through the successful employment of indigenous knowledges. The site also links to CIRAN and MOST’s joint publication entitled Best Practices on Indigenous Knowledge.

Indigenous Peoples Biodiversity Information Network

Sri Lanka Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge


This module was written for UNESCO by John Fien using resources and activities from Rohanna Ulluwishewa, Abdul Aziz Kaloko and Dyhairuni Hj Mohammed Morican, Annette Gough, Premila Kumar and Alan R. Emery and Associates in Learning for a Sustainable Environment (UNESCO – ACEID).

The wisdom of the elders

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Describing the wisdom of indigenous people, the former Director General of UNESCO, Frederico Mayor, once said:

The indigenous people of the world possess an immense knowledge of their environments, based on centuries of living close to nature. Living in and from the richness and variety of complex ecosystems, they have an understanding of the properties of plants and animals, the functioning of ecosystems and the techniques for using and managing them that is particular and often detailed. In rural communities in developing countries, locally occurring species are relied on for many – sometimes all – foods, medicines, fuel, building materials and other products. Equally, people’s knowledge and perceptions of the environment, and their relationships with it, are often important elements of cultural identity.

“What do we mean by indigenous knowledge?”

This question was explored at a workshop in Inuvik, Canada, by a group of Inuit people who agreed on a list of six principles:

Our knowledge …
  • is practical common sense, based on teachings and experience passed on from generation to generation.
  • is ‘knowing the country’; it covers knowledge of the environment and the relationship between things.
  • is holistic – it cannot be compartmentalised and cannot be separated from the people who hold it. It is rooted in the spiritual health, culture and language of the people. It is a way of life.
  • is an authority system. It sets out the rules governing the use of resources – respect; an obligation to share. It is dynamic, cumulative and stable. It is truth.
  • is a way of life – wisdom is using knowledge in good ways. It is using the heart and the head together. It comes from the spirit in order to survive.
  • gives credibility to people.

Source: Adapted from Alan, R. Emery and Associates (1997) Guidelines for Environmental Assessments and Traditional Knowledge. A Report from the Centre for Traditional Knowledge of the World Council of Indigenous People, Ottawa, p. 3.

Who are Indigenous People?

The world population of indigenous people is approximately 370 million, according to the United Nations. This includes around 5000 different groups, living in over seventy countries.

But, who are indigenous people? What characteristics do they share? It is difficult to answer this question because all indigenous groups are unique to the places where they live – and there are many different ways of defining ‘indigenous people’. Here are two:

Definition 1 focuses on legal ideas.
Definition 2 focuses more on cultural ideas.

Q1: Read these two definitions and answer the following questions:

  • Which definition do you prefer? Why?
  • Why are ‘legal’ ideas in Definition 1 important?
  • Which groups of people in your country could be classed as ‘indigenous’ according to this definition?
  • Why are the ‘subjective’ ideas in Definition 2 important?
  • Write your own working definition of ‘indigenous people’.

Putting these ideas together, the United Nations proposed the following definition in 1993:

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of societies now prevailing in those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal systems.

Source: Cited in Global Issues for the 90s, Centre for Teaching International Relations, University of Denver, 1993, pp. 86-97.

Since this definition was proposed, many international conferences, seminars, and workshops have further debated and refined what we now understand the word “indigenous” to mean in relation to the many different people groups around the world who wish to be recognised as such.

These meetings culminated with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007.

UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Described by the president of the UN General Assembly as “a major step forward”, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly during its 62nd session at UN Headquarters in New York City on 13 September 2007.

The Declaration is the result of nearly 25 years of contentious negotiations over the rights of native people to protect their lands and resources, and to maintain their unique cultures and traditions. Countries voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Declaration, with 143 in favour and only 4 against (11 countries abstained from the vote). The non-binding Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples sets out the individual and collective rights of the world’s 370 million native peoples, calls for the maintenance and strengthening of their cultural identities, and emphasises their right to pursue development in keeping with their own needs and aspirations.

Countries voting against the Declaration (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) said they could not support it because of concerns over provisions on self-determination, land and resources rights and, among others, language giving indigenous peoples a right of veto over national legislation and State management of resources.

Read more about the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Read the fulltext of the Declaration (available in many different languages).

Why is indigenous knowledge important?

This activity is based on a short essay about the benefits of respecting indigenous knowledge.

The essay was written by Maurice Strong who was a key organiser of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and later a special advisor to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. He wrote the essay as a foreword to the book, The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples (Burger 1990).

In this activity, the essay is presented in an unedited form with the paragraphs out of sequence. Edit the essay so that the paragraphs appear in the correct order.

Maurice Strong’s essay shows that indigenous knowledge is not only important in its own right, but is also important for the benefits it brings to:

  • The indigenous people who own and live it;
  • All the other people around the world who can learn lessons for living sustainably from it; and
  • The Earth which would be treated more carefully if indigenous knowledge and values were followed more widely.

Living by indigenous knowledge

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

This activity illustrates four ways in which indigenous people in different parts of the world use their knowledge to live sustainably. Each way is illustrated by one or more case studies from different parts of the world.

A spiritual relationship with the land

For indigenous people, the land is the source of life – a gift from the creator that nourishes, supports and teaches. Although indigenous peoples vary widely in their customs, culture, and impact on the land, all consider the Earth like a parent and revere it accordingly. ‘Mother Earth’ is the centre of the universe, the core of their culture, the origin of their identity as a people. She connects them with their past (as the home of ancestors), with the present (as provider of their material needs), and with the future (as the legacy they hold in trust for their children and grandchildren). In this way, indigenousness carries with it a sense of belonging to a place.

At the heart of this deep bond is a perception, an awareness, that all of life – mountains, rivers, skies, animals, plants, insects, rocks, people – are inseparably interconnected. Material and spiritual worlds are woven together in one complex web, all living things imbued with a sacred meaning. This living sense of connectedness that grounds indigenous peoples in the soil has all but disappeared among city dwellers – the cause of much modern alienation and despair.

The idea that the land can be owned, that it can belong to someone even when left unused, uncared for, or uninhabited, is foreign to indigenous peoples. In the so-called developed world, land is in the hands of private individuals, corporate investors, or the state and can be sold at the will of the owner. For indigenous peoples land is held collectively for the community (though competition between communities, and with outsiders, for rights of use, has sometimes led to conflict). According to indigenous law, humankind can never be more than a trustee of the land, with a collective responsibility to preserve it.

The predominant Western world view is that nature must be studied, dissected, and mastered and progress measured by the ability to extract secrets and wealth from the Earth. Indigenous people do not consider the land as merely an economic resource. Their ancestral lands are literally the source of life, and their distinct ways of life are developed and defined in relationship to the environment around them. Indigenous people are people of the land. This difference has often led to misunderstandings. Many have assumed that indigenous people have no sense of territory because they do not necessarily physically demarcate their lands. However, indigenous people know the extent of their lands, and they know how the land, water, and other resources need to be shared. They understand only too well that to harm the land is to destroy ourselves, since we are part of the same organism.

Case Study: The Penan and Kedayan of Brunei

The Penan of rural Brunei have great regard for the forest. This is manifested in their perceptions of their forest environment, especially their prevailing ‘Molong’ concept of natural resource conservation. ‘Molong’ gives the Penan a sense of caring and stewardship over their forest resources. This involves responsible and moderate use of forests, so that they will continue to be sustaining for future generations. Greed has no place among the Penans. In practice, this means that when they harvest a clump of sago or rattan, they use only the mature stems, and leave the young shoots for harvesting in a few years time.

Penans also greatly respect and protect the diptercorp trees which produce the seeds that the wild boar eat. They do not pollute the rivers because they also know that wild boars eat the plants that grow by the river banks. They also let the boar get their share of the sago trees and protect the acorn-producing trees which the boars also love. The Penans have a great fear of tree-fellers who cut the trees indiscriminately in their jungle because they are afraid that the disturbance will decrease their food supply. The forest seems to be everything to the Penans. They feel an affinity with it and are thankful for its supply of staple foods, building materials, medicines and raw materials for their handicraft. The forest is their world and they live in harmony with it and so guard it tenaciously.

Until the last few decades, the Kedayans, another rural people of Brunei, have survived by carefully utilising forest, land and wildlife for their livelihood. Through their day-to-day activities of agriculture and hunting, they utilised and extracted forest resources to produce food and manufacture materials for their consumption and tools for their survival activities, respectively. They have been practising this way of life through many generations, using a complex and highly adaptive system, such as cultivation of hill and swamp rice. To cultivate their staple food, rice, they used different agricultural techniques, both shifting and permanent, depending on the different types of padi (such as, tugal, paya, hambur, tanam) they were growing.

Well into the 20th century, the Kedayans were traditionally shifting agriculturists, felling, burning and planting hill padi in successive hillsides in succeeding years. An example of areas subjected to this method of rice cultivation is the very rural parts of Temburong, such as Kampong Piasaw-Piasaw. Today, a large part of Temburong is still covered with forest – evidence that the Kedayans have not over-exploited or misused their forest environments. In short, it has been their harmonising and systematic methods of using their environments (particularly land and forests) that have enabled them to practise similar economic activities through many generations to produce food and manufacture materials, not only for themselves but also to sell the surplus to non-agricultural people in the country.

Sources: Adapted from Burger, J. (1990) The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples: A Future for the Indigenous World, Penguin Books, Ringwood, p. 20; Ulluwishewa, R., Kaloko, A. and Morican, D. (1997) Indigenous Knowledge and Environmental Education, Paper presented at Environmental Education Workshop, University of Brunei, Darussalam, pp. 3-4.

Natural remedies and medicines

In many parts of the world, indigenous societies classify soils, climate, plant and animal species and recognise their special characteristics. Indigenous people have words for plants and insects that have not yet been identified by the world’s botanists and entomologists. The Hanunoo people of the Philippines, for example, distinguish 1600 plant species in their forest, 400 more than scientists working in the same area. Of the estimated 250,000 to 500,000 plant species in the world, more than 85% are in environments that are the traditional homes of indigenous people. Nearly 75% of 121 plant-derived prescription drugs used worldwide were discovered following leads from indigenous medicine. Globally, indigenous peoples use 3000 different species of plant to control fertility alone. The Kallaywayas, wandering healers of Bolivia, make use of 600 medicinal herbs; traditional healers in Southeast Asia may employ as many as 6500 plants for drugs. Almost all trees and many plants have a place in medicinal lore.

Some scientists now believe that indigenous knowledge may help them to discover important new cures for diseases such as AIDS and cancer. Many developed countries realise the potential for indigenous medicine. It is locally available, culturally acceptable, and cheaper than imported drugs.

Case Study: Medicinal Plants in India

Indigenous people work on body and mind together to help cure illness. Medicinal plants are used to treat the spiritual origins of disease as well as the physical symptoms. The vast knowledge of such plants is now beginning to be acknowledged by the rest of the world. So is the role played by indigenous people as custodians of the world’s genetic heritage.

A botanical survey of India revealed that tribal peoples of the north-east use plant drugs to cure fevers, bronchitis, blood and skin diseases, eye infections, lung and spleen ulcers, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Knowledge of their use is passed on by the ‘vaiyas’, Indian herbal medicine doctors. In a single area of 277km² (107miles²) 210 types of medicinal plants have been found.

The Kameng and Lohit peoples in Arunachal Pradesh crush a bulk of Fritillaria cirrhosa to a paste to relieve muscle pains. Research has now confirmed the presence of a chemical similar to cocaine in a related Fritillaria plant that brings relief to muscular pain.

Growing evidence of plant-based contraception is available among many tribal peoples. Worldwide, over 3000 plants are employed for contraceptive use. In the Karjat tribal area of Maharashtra, near the west coast of India, a native herb taken twice a year is said to be effective.

The Karjat study concludes that traditional health practices can provide up to half of local primary health needs. Enlightened health-care workers are beginning to re-introduce traditional plant remedies where allopathic drugs have become common-place. Properly studied and recorded, this traditional knowledge could revolutionise the world of medicine.

Source: Burger, J. (1990) The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples: A Future for the Indigenous World, Penguin Books, Ringwood, pp. 32, 38.

Sustainable resource management

The industrial world is facing an ecological crisis. Yet few industrial economists would admit they could learn from indigenous people. Their economies are often called ‘primitive’, their technology dismissed as ‘Stone Age’, and most governments assume they can benefit only from salaried employment.

Yet these traditional ways of life have proved highly durable. Hunting and fishing have allowed the Inuit to survive in the Arctic; nomadic pastoralism provides a livelihood for people in the arid Sahelian region of Africa; shifting cultivation has sustained hundreds of distinct cultures in the fragile ecosystem in the Amazon and the forests of South-east Asia. Non-indigenous people have not been able to survive in these extreme conditions without destroying the balance of the ecosystem.

The key to this success is sustainability. Indigenous people today use the resources available without depleting them. They use their intimate knowledge of plants, soils, animals, climate, and seasons, not to exploit nature but to co-exist alongside it. This involves careful management, control of population, the use of small quantities but a wide diversity of plants and animals, small surpluses, and minimum wastage. Plants provide food, medicines, pesticides, poisons, building materials; animals provide meat, clothes, string, implements, oil.

Indigenous knowledge of nature has ensured the survival of many people in fragile habitats. But it is a knowledge centered not on exploitation but on the harmony of the natural world. All flora and fauna have a place in an ordered universe made up of humankind, nature, and spirits. Indigenous cultures also help to protect the natural world from destruction through religion and rituals. Animals are commonly held in respect and their numbers maintained, often through careful management. Those following the buddhist religion in India, for example, have survived many droughts because they will not kill an animal or a tree. They breed cattle selectively, monitor the feeding of their camels, and live on milk, yogurt and a few cultivated crops. Many people have developed a detailed understanding of animal behaviour. Those living in tropical forests, for example, recognise that where two different ecological zones meet, the hunting is more productive. Many even grow crops or trees to attract certain animals and increase their numbers.

Case Study: The Karen of Thailand

Shifting cultivation (sometimes called ‘slash and burn’) is a sustainable economic system that need not harm the environment. It is the most commonly practised system among indigenous people of Asia and lowland Latin America, and provides them with a high degree of economic independence and cultural integrity. Given sufficient land and low population density, it is a highly successful way of using the forest. The Karen of Thailand practise this system.

The economy of the Karen people is based almost exclusively on subsistence dry rice production. An area is cleared of trees, undergrowth is burned, rice planted and later harvested. Each year a new site is chosen and the cycle takes seven years to return to the site first cleared. The system permits regeneration of the forest and thin tropical soils, and does not expose the steep slopes to heavy rains, which would eventually wash away the soil in a fixed-field system.

Money has virtually no place in a Karen community. If a village has enough food it is prosperous. When villagers say “we have enough rice”, it means not simply that they will survive, but that they have everything they need. If, however, shifting cultivation is unable to provide for the entire needs of a village, the people grow chilli or bamboo shoots, or they may collect and sell honey or other forest produce. Nearly all the income raised is used to buy rice.

Source: Burger, J. (1990) The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples: A Future for the Indigenous World, Penguin Books, Ringwood, pp. 40, 44.

Sustainable social relationships

Social cohesion has been the key to survival for many indigenous cultures. Food gathering and hunting depend on mutual support and co-operation, and disharmony within a part of the group is dangerous to the whole. In many cultures men and women have developed complementary, if not equal, roles; political decisions are arrived at by consensus in many cultures, and other social arrangements that benefit the entire community have often been incorporated into indigenous cultural traditions.

Marriage, for example, is an integral part of the social system – political, economic, and spiritual – in many indigenous societies. For example, in Thailand, a Hmong groom must pay a high dowry but, in turn, the wife becomes a member of the husband’s clan under the direct authority of the household. Marriage can also ensure political stability for the community (by regulating exchange between groups), and continuing harmony with the spirit world. For essentially religious reasons, marriage may be prohibited between a man and woman of the same kin group; in other societies it can only take place within the kin group. The notion of marriage as a relationship founded only on the bond of romantic love is rarely, if ever, seen in traditional societies.

The nuclear family, too, is a rare concept. A complex interweaving of lineage, clan, and family connections means that most individuals are related to each other – tradition that fosters the sense of belonging to the group, and of the need to share.

Even decisions about having a child are, in some societies, controlled by laws, helping to keep the population stable. In Melanesia, children are sometimes adopted to rebalance the size of families.

The physical architecture of a village frequently reflects the social architecture of the people. In some communities, for example, among the highlanders of West Papua (Irian Jaya) the chief’s home is separated from the other houses to emphasise the social hierarchy. By contrast, the Karen of Thailand, who have a high degree of household autonomy and social equality, have no village centre and all live in similar houses.

Case Study 1: Maori of Aotearoa (New Zealand)

The Maori established a system of justice with a highly developed oratory, but no codified set of laws, courts, and judges. When the British imposed their own legal system on New Zealand, the rules took no account of Maori culture.

Traditional Maori justice was based both on the material and the spiritual worlds; redress for minor offences was determined by the community, more serious ones by the elders or chiefs.

Punishment would be exacted by a transfer of goods known as ‘utu’, or satisfaction, to the injured party. Persistent theft or murder, however, was punishable by ‘muru’, or plunder, but only after full and formal discussion with reference to the true, or customary principles. Other offenders might receive a beating, the withdrawal of community assistance, or, worst of all, banishment.

In some respects there are similarities between traditional Maori law and that imported by the British. But the similarities ended with matters of the spirit world.

Chiefs with spiritual power could use it to conserve parts of the land for a feast. Access to the land was prohibited and violation would anger the spirits. Strangers unwittingly entering such areas would force the community to exact compensation, or even kill the intruder, in order to avoid being punished themselves by the spirits. Respect for the spirit world was fundamental to Maori society, but fell outside the comprehension of the British legal system.

Case Study 2: Papua New Guinea

World wars have torn societies apart, but not all societies are so destroyed by conflict. Within some indigenous communities, conflict is regulated by customary law. Rather than starting a war, aggression is normally channelled into a ritualised process of war-making and long-term destruction is minimal.

In Papua New Guinea hostilities between groups are a part of the cycle of events encompassing long periods of peace and enmity. War is just one aspect of cultural life. The idea of annihilating the other group is absent; indeed, the Tsembaga and Mae Enga are known as the peoples who marry their enemies. War is a means by which the individual and the group find their identity, and is largely ceremonial.

War may be precipitated by theft, poaching, or – most serious – the killing of someone else’s pig – or long-standing disputes over territory and resources may create permanent hostilities. The Big Man, the non-hereditary chief, may try to avoid war by negotiating compensation or an exchange of gifts, but he cannot impose a decision. Equally, individuals do not take justice into their own hands as an unresolved dispute entails obligations for the whole group. But even on the point of war there is always a ritual means of stepping back from open confrontation. Anger can be channelled into a ‘nothing fight’, a competition of insults and shouting; or else it may lead to a real fight, with blows exchanged and sometimes even serious casualities. After a war a lengthy process of peace-making begins. Gifts, ceremonies, and marriages establish links and obligations between the parties.

Source: Burger, J. (1990) The Gaia Atlas of First Peoples: A Future for the Indigenous World, Penguin Books, Ringwood, pp. 50, 61-62.

Principles for Living Sustainably

The case studies you have just read reflect the principles for living sustainably explored in Module 4:

  • Conservation
  • Appropriate development
  • Democratic participation
  • Social equity and peace

Q2: Analyse the case studies in relation to these principles for sustainable living.

Interviews with Indigenous People

This task provides suggestions for investigating indigenous ways of living sustainably by talking with local indigenous people about:

  • Indigenous knowledge possessed by people in your area; and
  • Aspects of this knowledge they would like to see taught in schools.

You could do this on your own or with a small group of colleagues.

It is important to check and observe local protocols for inviting indigenous people to talk with you about their knowledge. There may be issues about who has the right to speak, about what, and to whom. Other issues may relate to sacred and secret knowledge. Possibly, some knowledge may only be shared with people of certain ages, or with men or women only. Learn all you can about these protocols to avoid insensitive questions.

Worksheets for four interview topics are provided below.

Check which topic local groups would be most happy to discuss with you, and/or like to see incorporated in the school curriculum.

Indigenous and formal education

Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Indigenous communities depend on their immediate environment to meet most of their basic needs. Therefore, they possess a deep appreciation of the environment and its underlying processes which forms the foundation for decision making in most day-to-day activities.

Traditional Education

Indigenous knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation through traditional education, with adults teaching practical knowledge of culture, the environment and survival through demonstrations and through a wide range of ceremonies, stories, songs, village meetings and taboos.

Formal Education

Formal education was introduced to many developing countries in the 19th century (often by colonial governments) to produce administrators, clerks, teachers and interpreters. This type of education was based on abstract knowledge systems – scientific knowledge – that evolved in the western industrialised world. Formal education systems had little place for indigenous knowledge or indigenous methods of education.

It was, until recently, assumed that indigenous knowledge was irrelevant, unscientific and outdated. Therefore, few attempts were made to integrate indigenous knowledge into formal education despite its potential value in solving contemporary problems.

As a result, education was confined to classrooms and children separated from their culture and environment. The teacher-centered nature of formal education also separated children from parents and, consequently, parents became less able to pass on the knowledge they had inherited to their children.

Explaining the Change

The experience of colonialism is often seen as the beginning of the decline in importance of indigenous knowledge.

Q3: Explain some of the effects of colonialism on indigenous knowledge.

Several contemporary factors are also contributing to the decline of indigenous knowledge. Two of these are:

Q4: Identify examples of ways these two factors may have led to a decline in the importance of indigenous knowledge in your country.

Comparison between Indigenous and ‘Scientific’ Knowledge

Indigenous knowledge is different from non-indigenous knowledge, or ‘scientific’ knowledge, that most of us are familiar with. However, indigenous knowledge is still scientific.

Read Traditional Knowledge Is Science.

Read the conclusion about the importance of indigenous science from the 1999 UNESCO World Conference on Science: Science for the 21st Century.

A table in your learning journal identifies some differences between education systems based on indigenous and non-indigenous knowledge. It may not be feasible to totally reorient formal education to an indigenous system, however, there may be some lessons that can be learnt.

Aspects of Education Indigenous Education Formal Education

View of Knowledge
  • Sacred and secular together; includes the spiritual
  • Holistic and integrated – based on a whole systems view of knowledge
  • Stored orally and in cultural practices
  • Powerful predictability in local areas (ecological validity)
  • Less valued in distant areas
  • Secular only; often excludes the spiritual
  • Analytical or reductionist – based on sub-sets of the whole
  • Stored in books and computers
  • Powerful predictability in natural principles (rational validity)
  • Weak in local use of knowledge

  • Long-term wisdom
  • Cultural and ecological sustainability
  • Practical; for use in everyday life
  • Integration of critical thinking and cultural values in decision making
  • Short term recall
  • Economic sustainability
  • Abstract; to pass examinations
  • Use of logical and critical thinking in making decisions

Methods of Teaching and Learning
  • Lengthy period of acquisition
  • Learning through experience
  • Teaching through example, modelling, ritual and storytelling
  • Tested in practical life situations
  • Rapid acquisition
  • Learning by formal education
  • Teaching through abstract concepts and didactic methods
  • Tested artificially in examinations

Q5: Identify some practical ways in which education today could be reoriented towards promoting a sustainable future by learning from indigenous education.

Enhancing the curriculum through indigenous knowledge

Today there is a growing recognition of the value of indigenous knowledge for sustainable development. It would, therefore, be wise to sustain indigenous knowledge in traditional communities and integrate it into the school curriculum where culturally and educationally appropriate.

Five ways indigenous knowledge could help enhance the curriculum include:

Learning Attitudes and Values for a Sustainable Future
Indigenous communities have lived in harmony with the environment and have utilised resources without impairing nature’s capacity to regenerate them. Their ways of living were sustainable. Indigenous knowledge shaped their values and attitudes towards environment, and it is these attitudes and values, which have guided their actions and made then sustainable. Therefore, indigenous knowledge can help to develop sensitive and caring values and attitudes and, thereby, promote a vision of a sustainable future.
Learning Through Culture
Indigenous knowledge is stored in culture in various forms, such as traditions, customs, folk stories, folk songs, folk dramas, legends, proverbs, myths, etc. Use of these cultural items as resources in schools can be very effective in bringing indigenous knowledge alive for the students. It would allow them to conceptualise places and issues not only in the local area but also beyond their immediate experience. Students will already be familiar with some aspects of indigenous culture and, therefore, may find it interesting to learn more about it through these cultural forms. It would also enable active participation as teachers could involve students in collecting folk stories, folk songs, legends, proverbs, etc., that are retold in their community.
Learning Across Generations
In view of its potential value for sustainable development, it is necessary to preserve indigenous knowledge for the benefit of future generations. Perhaps the best way to preserve indigenous knowledge would be the integration of indigenous knowledge into the school curriculum. This would encourage students to learn from their parents, grandparents and other adults in the community, and to appreciate and respect their knowledge. Such a relationship between young and older generations could help to mitigate the generation gap and help develop intergenerational harmony. Indigenous people, for the first time perhaps, would also get an opportunity to participate in curriculum development. The integration of indigenous knowledge into school curriculum would thus enable schools to act as agencies for transferring the culture of the society from one generation to the next.
Starting Locally: From the ‘Known’ to the ‘Unknown’
The philosophy of ‘from the known to the unknown’ should be adopted if education is to be effective. Therefore, it is wise to start with the knowledge about the local area which students are familiar with, and then gradually move to the knowledge about regional, national and global environments. Indigenous knowledge can play a significant role in education about the local area. In most societies, indigenous people have developed enormous volumes of knowledge over the centuries by directly interacting with the environment: knowledge about the soil, climate, water, forest, wildlife, minerals etc. in the locality. This ready-made knowledge system could easily be used in education if appropriate measures are taken to tap the indigenous knowledge, which remains in the memory of local elderly people.
Learning Outside the Classroom
Students can learn much from fieldwork in the local area. This calls for some prior knowledge and understanding. For instance, to be able to understand the relationship between indigenous people, soils and plants, students need to identify the plants and soil types in the local area. One way to get a preliminary knowledge of plants and soil types in the local environment is to consult indigenous people and invite them to teach your students in the field.

Indigenous people may also be willing to show students collections of artifacts and certain ceremonies and explain their significance and, where appropriate, share with them particular sites of special significance.

Case Studies

Science education
Explore ways in which science education can be enhanced through integrating indigenous knowledge into classroom teaching.
Indigenous education
Read a case study of an approach to indigenous education among the Eeyou (Cree Indian) people of Canada.


Begin by opening your learning journal for this activity.

Completing the module: Look back through the activities and tasks to check that you have done them all and to change any that you think you can improve now that you have come to the end of the module.

Q6: List three syllabus topics you teach into which you could integrate the study of indigenous knowledge-culture, values and practices.

Q7: List some key guidelines for cultural sensitivity and the teaching methods you would need to follow.

Q8: List any possible barriers to integrating indigenous knowledge and following these guidelines in your teaching. How might these barriers be overcome? Who can assist you to achieve this?