Knowledge and change, the intangible and development
Before sustainable development came to assume an academic formality (the new 'earth systems' science is built around the concept), it drew heavily from intangible cultural heritage (ICH) as expressed through the customs and practices used to transmit traditional knowledge. That is why there has been a multiplicity of terms used in the field of sustainable development to designate this concept: indigenous technical knowledge, traditional environmental knowledge, rural
Whatever the preference, this is a body of knowledge that has been nurtured and built upon by groups of people through generations of living in close contact with nature. It is usually specific to the local environment, and therefore highly adapted to the requirements of local people and conditions. At the same time it is creative and experimental, constantly incorporating influences from outside and innovating from within to meet new conditions. UNESCO's 2003 Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage states this explicitly in Article 2:
"This intangible cultural heritage, transmitted from generation to generation, is constantly recreated by communities and groups in response to their environment, their interaction with nature and their history, and provides them with a sense of identity and continuity, thus promoting respect for cultural diversity and human creativity."
(The Convention has been ratified by 132 countries as of November 2010.) These are the qualities that make this form of ICH invaluable for returning a biosphere to sustainable development (the word 'anthrosphere' is also being increasingly used - part of the emerging terminology, it is a new-old way of including both natural and human-directed biodiversity and natural resource conservation).
Three examples aid an understanding of the close interplay of society, ICH and biosphere:
- Community rice in a 'hydraulic' society - Sri Lanka
- Justice and equity in Valencia and Murcia - Spain
- Mobility and wisdom in the rangelands - Iran
Community rice in a 'hydraulic' society - Sri Lanka
Paddy growing was not an occupation, rather it was a way of life in ancient Sri Lanka, closely interwoven with other social activities. Each stage in the agricultural cycle - from weeding, to ploughing, to transplanting the paddy and, finally, to harvesting it - was accompanied by special ceremonies involving song, music and dance. Indeed, those traditional dances which still survive clearly originated in such ceremonies: they are based on rhythmic movements which visibly symbolise reaping, ploughing and digging and provide us a lucid insight into the interwoven nature of ICH, customs and traditional knowledge.
In this society, repair of the village water tanks was the ordinary work of ordinary people. Major repairs and new constructions were traditionally undertaken by a specialised caste group of labourers, who worked for the villagers on direct contract and were not employees of the state. Significantly, it was the priest who initiated the most important agricultural activities. When the time was deemed auspicious for ploughing, for instance, the temple bell would ring and the village population would stream out into the rice fields.
As in all peasant societies, agriculture was very much a family affair with each family member undertaking specific responsibilities. One child's job, for instance, was to drive away any marauding monkeys from the paddy fields, another's was to look after the cattle and water buffaloes - these are responsibilities that can be seen at work today in the rice-growing regions of South and South-East Asia. Children would also help their parents in the fields, help harvest firewood, help prepare food and milk the cows and buffaloes. This tradition of mutual help - called 'attama' in Sinhala - meant that neighbours could thus be relied upon to help with pressing, day-to-day chores and with the more onerous agricultural tasks.
According to Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard :
Mutual help, individual tasks as part of shared responsibility, with both guided by the application of traditional knowledge provided great stability of the village and its irrigation systems. Whereas governments rose and fell, the village and its tanks remained the same for centuries. The rice-growing, water-wise villages of ancient Sri Lanka owed their existence and stability to a cohesive community bound together by reciprocal rights and duties. That their system worked as well as it did - in terms of agricultural self-reliance, water management and community prosperity - implies a common cultural pattern, adapted exclusively to the practice of irrigation agriculture.
Sadly, the rise of the modern Sri Lankan state brought about the breakdown of this society. To an irrigation department working in isolation and with no cultural understanding of the community, the smaller tanks were relics of the past. Such an approach meant the use of these tanks could not be justified on the basis of conventional cost-benefit analysis. How much more meaningless, under this logic, was the maintenance of a water tank purely for the benefit of wild animals? The sophistication of traditional irrigation in Sri Lanka was in this way sacrificed in the interests of economic expediency.
Justice and equity in Valencia and Murcia - Spain
The two irrigators' tribunals of the Spanish Mediterranean coast - the Council of Wise Men of the Plain of Murcia and the Water Tribunal of the Plain of Valencia - are recognised under Spanish law. Inspiring authority and respect, these two courts, whose members are elected democratically, settle disputes orally in a swift, transparent and impartial manner.
They must, for the farmers of Valencia, on the river Turia on Spain's east coast, take their rights to water very seriously. For over a thousand years, they have relied on their city's Water Tribunal to guarantee that water drawn from the Turia is distributed fairly. Although they are not lawyers and do not keep a written record of the verdicts they reach, and although there is no prison for offenders, eight 'Síndicos' or magistrates meet under the Porch of the Apostles of the Cathedral of Valencia and settle verbally the disputes arising between farmers over the right to use water from the channels irrigating the 17,000 hectares of what is known as the "Orchard of Valencia" .
The Council of Wise Men has seven geographically representative members, while the Water Tribunal comprises eight elected administrators. Both bodies represent thousands of members from several communities. In addition to their legal role the irrigators' tribunals provide cohesion among traditional communities and synergy between occupations (wardens, inspectors, pruners, etc.), contribute to the oral transmission of knowledge derived from centuries-old cultural exchanges, and have their own specialist vocabulary peppered with Arabic borrowings. In short, the courts are long-standing repositories of local and regional identity and are of special significance to local inhabitants.
This scene is re-enacted every week, as it has been since the middle of the tenth century, when Abd-ar-Rahman III was the caliph of Córdoba, makes the "Tribunal de las Aguas de la Vega de Valencia" the oldest law court in Europe. The eight magistrates represent each of the 'mother channels' which are used for irrigation and for distribution of the water from the Turia. The roughly 1,500 farmers from each of these channel systems elect their own magistrate, who is required to be someone who actually farms the land and is not simply a landowner. The task of these 'people's judges' is to ensure that all the farmers of Valencia are supplied with the water they need through application of the provisions of a decree promulgated by King James I of Aragon in 1238, which is still in force and which states:
"Everybody shall be entitled to a share of the water in proportion to the amount of land owned".
Usually, the most common complaints with which the Court has to deal are concerned with the squandering or theft of water at times of drought, the disruption of channels, damage to crops as a result of water overflowing onto adjoining land, and failure to comply with irrigation schedules and to keep the channels clean so that the water can flow along them freely. The Court's remit has now to extend to matters of water scarcity, Spain's hydrological infrastructure and the effects of climate change in the Mediterranean region. The consumption of water in Spain - and especially in the Murcia and Valencia regions - is determined by agriculture, tourism and urbanisation. To meet these needs, governments have favoured technical solutions which usually involve the diversion of water to the south of the country, and which have been opposed.
But the effects of climate change at the regional level are already forcing the irrigators' tribunals to respond to emergencies. In 2008, Spain's worst drought in decades forced the city of Barcelona to ship in drinking water. The city was among the areas hardest hit by the worst springtime drought in the country since meteorological records began.
Mobility and wisdom in the rangelands - Iran
The highly diverse vegetation of the rangelands of Iran has evolved together with the livestock and land management systems of the Qashqai nomadic pastoralists. Their mobile rangelands management techniques are among those most compatible with biodiversity conservation. The rangelands of Iran contain a very high diversity of plants. much of which is unpalatable to humans but is eaten by wildlife and livestock, particularly indigenous breeds of livestock that have been cultivated by the Qashqai nomads over thousands of years. Traditionally, the Qashqai nomads have kept a variety of indigenous domestic animals, especially large herds of sheep and goats as well as transport animals like camels, horses and donkeys. The diversity of means of the Qashqai livelihoods and production of meat, milk, hides, wool, handicrafts, hunting, harvesting of native plants, fruits and herbs, reflects their resource management practices.
Livestock grazing, gentle ploughing, browsing, seed spreading and deposition of manure while grazing and along migration routes serve to maintain rangeland productivity and biodiversity. The removal or drastic reduction of grazing often results not only in lower productivity over the long term, but also in a landscape dominated by shrubs and with significantly lower biodiversity. States the entry for Qashqai nomadic pastoralism in the FAO list of Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems:
"The sustainable hunting practices of the Qashqai nomadic pastoralists have preserved wildlife for centuries. Adaptive methods for capturing and storing water in drylands while maintaining springs and water holes for their livestock, has also affectively provided water for wildlife. Most Qashqai know the name and properties of every single botanical species on the rangelands and can give long descriptions of their medicinal, food, feed and industrial properties for animals and people, as well as their place in the ecosystem."
The Qashqai have developed very sophisticated systems to cope with seasonal variation such as droughts and rainfall, including flexible marketing decisions -based on the expected condition and carrying capacity of the rangelands during the coming season. The sophisticated techniques of using scouting and early warning systems to predict droughts, take preventive measures, and adopt coping strategies are well known among the Qashqai nomadic pastoralists. This information is used to regulate the size of flocks to migrate, the number of tent-holds of people who can move along, and the dates of entry and length of grazing period in each territory. The mobile pastoralists, therefore, have a traditional system of dynamic assessment of carrying capacity of rangelands.
These three examples illustrate the value of intangible cultural heritage to the evolving crises of our times: food, energy and climate change. In the communal rice-growing, locally irrigated societies of Sri Lanka are to be found the lessons of the local self-reliance which has today become a community movement in many countries. The 'transition' movements in North America and Western Europe, which are contributing greatly to a wider and participatory understanding of sustainable societies, now embody ideas and practices that have been at work for centuries in the rice-growing communities of Sri Lanka (as also elsewhere in South and South-East Asia). The water tribunals of Valencia and Murcia (which is on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity) serve as an inspiring testament to the strength and validity of an ancient system of adjudicating rights and resources.
In an increasingly water-scarce and water-stressed world, it is community-based systems such as this one that promise equity with an authority that is easily accepted because of its cultural roots. Here too, the implication of the Water Tribunals' inclusion on the Representative List is that generic legal systems may provide protection in law and relief in statute, but it is local authority that rest on knowledge-based tradition that provides the most relevant solution. Climate change has altered weather patterns and crop seasons, and in regions where land is suitable neither for dryland agriculture nor irrigation, it is the thoughtful management of rangelands that is the only long-term conservation technique. The extraordinary flexibility of the Qashqai derives equally from their dense store of botanical and livestock knowledge, and serves as an example of the durability of a society in a difficult landscape.
One of the strengths of the 2003 Convention on Intangible Cultural Heritage is that it widens the scope of recognition to traditional knowledge by revealing its cultural roots, which is respected and transmitted through customary systems and expression. How is traditional or indigenous knowledge an invaluable aspect of intangible cultural heritage? Just as ICH is embedded in community practices, institutions, relationships and rituals, unique to a particular culture and society, traditional knowledge is the basis for decision-making in that culture or society concerning matters of agriculture, health, natural resource management and community organisation. A great deal of it is tacit knowledge and may not readily be coded. Indigenous knowledge provides the basis for problem-solving strategies for local communities, especially the monetarily poor and those communities outside formal (usually urban-denominated) systems of labour and production. This aspect of ICH represents a critically important component of global knowledge on development issues, yet it is an underutilised resource in the development process.
The now-extensive documentation of and study on traditional knowledge in a host of communities has yielded a common shortlist of key drivers of transmission and renewal: collective activities at communal and family level (for example, non-timber forest produce collection, agriculture, festivals); use of diverse biological resources, both wild and domesticated; communal access to sacred areas for healing, practices and rituals (such as forests and mountains); cultural and spiritual values and worldviews that underpin traditional lifestyles; customary laws that require traditional knowledge transmission and customary use/practices. These drivers correspond with the concept of collective biocultural heritage - collective management, biodiversity, landscapes, cultural and spiritual values and customary laws. Knowledge is used with biodiversity and embedded in traditional varieties developed by communities - the two cannot be separated. Spiritual values and livelihoods are bound with the landscape, while cultural values or preferences play a direct role in sustaining traditional varieties and biodiversity.
The extent to which these ICH forms - biocultural heritage, traditional knowledge - have influenced new understandings of humans and biosphere can be seen in the subject matter of continuing research in ecological economics. This is by no means an exhaustive list of current enquiry, but it serves to underline the importance of traditional knowledge as the catalytic element of ICH in its application to sustainable development: 'Planetary stewardship', 'The production and allocation of information as a 'good'', 'Developing a systematic 'Science of the past' to create our future', 'Integrating agro-ecology and landscape multi-functionality', 'REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation), forest people's rights and climate governance', 'Biodiversity loss and global disease ecology', 'Connecting ecological economics and human-dominated watersheds', 'A safe operating space for humanity', 'Defining and classifying ecosystem services for decision making', 'The value of producing food, energy, and ecosystem services within an agro-ecosystem', 'Beyond GDP: The need for new measures of progress', 'The evolutionary redesign of worldviews, institutions, and technologies'. These inquiries, all avowedly multi-disciplinary in terms of both tools and methods, owe a debt of origin to the immense store of ICH held by the world's peoples who live close to and with nature.
Every society has a history behind its knowledge resources, and it is this history - kept alive and dynamic, expressed as ICH, focused as traditional knowledge - which guides its development process. Charles Takoyoh Eyong, of the Center for Development Research, Bonn, Germany, has explained.:
"African indigenous knowledge systems are holistic in nature, and centuries of tight bonds with an environment produces a deep understanding and not snapshots of the inter-relationships among the different elements of a habitat. They have linkages and guidelines for social equity, relationships with non-human beings, ecological responsibility and respect for the super-natural. Environmental changes are best countered by diversified indigenous survival strategies and adaptive responses, developed at intra- and inter-household as well as community levels."
There is growing awareness that the recognition and strengthening of local cultures not only preserves cultural diversity, but also enhances a sense of identity and social cohesion. Culturally sensitive approaches to addressing the specific needs of indigenous peoples have shown that strengthening cultural identity and promoting sustainable socio-economic development are mutually reinforcing objectives.
(This is an extract from a paper, 'Knowledge and Change: Intangible Cultural Heritage and Sustainable Development', by Rahul Goswami, for the Section of Intangible Cultural Heritage, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 2010.)
 'Traditional irrigation in the dry zone of Sri Lanka', By Edward Goldsmith and Nicholas Hildyard. Published as Chapter 24 of The Social and Environmental Effects of Large Dams: Volume 1. Overview. Wadebridge Ecological Centre, UK, 1984.
 'Irrigator's Tribunals of the Spanish Mediterranean Coast', Unesco, Sector for Culture, Intangible Cultural Heritage, Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity 2009.
 'Qashqai Nomadic Pastoralism', Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 2009
 The Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) is a policy institute whose programmes and activities contribute to finding sustainable solutions to the world's escalating water crisis. SIWI manages projects, serves as a platform for knowledge sharing, synthesises research and publishes findings and recommendations on current and future water, environment, governance and human development issues. The Institute hosts the annual World Water Week.
 Protecting Community Rights over Traditional Knowledge: Implications of customary laws and practices, Key findings and recommendations 2005-2009, International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), 2009 November.
 From Chapter 12, 'Indigenous Knowledge and Sustainable Development in Africa: Case Study on Central Africa', Charles Takoyoh Eyong (Center for Development Research, Bonn, Germany) in Indigenous Knowledge Systems and Tribes and Tribals, Special Volume No. 1: 121-139 (2007)
UNESCO's documentation on intangible cultural heritage has explained it thus:
"While fragile, intangible cultural heritage is an important factor in maintaining cultural diversity in the face of growing globalization. An understanding of the intangible cultural heritage of different communities helps with intercultural dialogue, and encourages mutual respect for other ways of life. The importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next. The social and economic value of this transmission of knowledge is relevant for minority groups and for mainstream social groups within a State, and is as important for developing States as for developed ones."
The text of the 2003 Convention, many examples of ICH which are listed under the Convention and a wealth of supporting and explanatory documentation can be found on the UNESCO website.
What do you think? Leave a comment below. See our commenting guidelines.
Sign up for regular Resilience bulletins direct to your email.