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1.1 LKMS in the development process
1.2 Some definitions

This report fits into an overall objective of helping the FAO analyze the role that local knowledge and management systems (LKMS) of natural resources can play in FAO's development projects and programmes. The approach of this report centers on a literature review of existing information on arid and semi-arid Africa. This includes North Africa, the Sahara, the Sahel, the semi-arid parts of the Sudan zone, and the arid zones of southern Africa. A few pertinent examples from other areas are also provided.

The main emphasis is placed on the use and management of natural resources, primarily vegetation, but also water and wildlife. The majority of production systems in these arid zones in one way or another rely on livestock (ranging from settled agropastoralists to continuously mobile nomads). Thus, pastoral systems, defined as any production system that relies for more than 10% of its output on livestock, is the main focus of the report, but other production systems that rely on resources in their natural state, such as hunting, gathering, fishing, and wood collecting, will also be considered.

Most of the research done on LKMS has been on systems of cultivation (e.g. see Hans Carlier's recent bibliography “Understanding traditional agriculture”1). The studies on pastoral systems were often meant not as studies of LKMS per se, but answered the needs of the disciplines that engaged in the study. Nevertheless, such studies have been instrumental in debunking many myths about these systems. However, no study has ever tried to pull them all together into a structure suitable for analysis. This literature review is intended to fill this gap. It is also intended as a necessary precursor to further work by FAO on LKMS, such as case studies, analytical studies, and training programmes.

This report was initiated by the Community Forestry Unit of the Policy and Planning Service of the Forestry Department of FAO. It is one of a series of studies designed to clarify local decision making, priorities, and knowledge in the management of tree and forest related resources. This report has benefited from a collaborative approach between technical experts from several divisions and services of FAO; namely, Community Forestry Unit, Forest Resources Division, Grassland and Pasture Crops, Land Tenure, Farming Systems, and Environment Groups. Much of the literature on which this report is based, are unpublished papers and otherwise obscure documents, that were collected over an 8 month period as a result of assistance and collaboration from a large network of development workers, academicians, and students. Their contribution is greatly acknowledged.

1.1 LKMS in the development process

After almost half a century of development activities in the arid and semi-arid lands of Africa, we are no closer to finding solutions to pressing problems such as economic stagnation and environmental degradation. The many reasons for the failure of development in these areas has been amply documented elsewhere². Some of the salient points are inappropriate technologies, inappropriate or incomplete research, and lack of or inappropriate management. These problems have led some development workers to propose a closer linkage between traditional agricultural systems and knowledge, and modern, scientific technologies. Although LKMS has been the subject of academic concern ever since anthropologist started their studies in Third World countries, it is only recently that its potential role in development has come under consideration.

Contrary to what the term may imply, “traditional” or “local” knowledge is not necessarily simple, does not occur in a vacuum, is ever changing, and very often borrows from the outside3. Although systems and knowledge may appear constant in the short run, it is rare to find systems that have remained unchanged for centuries. Even the Dina land use code of the Macina Fulani (see section 2.3.3) is now different from when it was originally established in the mid 1800's4.

An understanding of LKMS reflects a greater need and willingness to consider particular problems and potentials at the local level. LKMS is not well suited to developing scientific universals that are generalizable across a wide range of situations, but it allows a greater understanding of the heterogeneity (or “ecological particularism”)5 of local conditions.

Much (but not necessarily all) of LKMS is based on accurate, detailed, and thoughtful observations collected and passed on over many generations. “Farmers are well-informed decision makers” who combine information and techniques to maximize production and minimize risk6. Much can be learnt from the local people which may prove useful for development efforts. Modern technology usually comes in bits and pieces, and in order to fit it effectively into and build upon the local system, we need to have a thorough understanding of the LKMS7.

In the past 10-15 years, efforts at helping the small producer have had little positive impact because of the failure to seriously incorporate popular participation into the process - either inappropriate innovations were put forward, or the project or programme ended up supporting the least appropriate groups in the community8. The study of LKMS followed by incorporation of LKMS into developing adaptable technologies, can be effective means to increase the extension agent's and development worker's sensitivity to local needs, and stimulate meaningful dialogue between all participants in the development process9.

But perhaps, one of the most important advantages of using traditional systems is that they contain mechanisms (if still viable) “which promote relatively equitable access to the resources by the weaker and poorer members of society”10, thus furthering our goal of reaching the poor rural populations.

It is important not to romanticize LKMS. We need to redress the balance, but not to end up in the opposite extreme. The increasing call for studying LKMS is not a “sterile collectors' mania for bits and pieces of local lore”11, but a genuine attempt to see what role LKMS can play in the development process. “A sentimental belief in 'traditional values' and a gut feeling that the 'people know best' without knowing why and under what circumstances, will be... unhelpful and damaging to the prospects of rural development in the long run”12.

A combination of formal science and LKMS, or “technology sharing” between the two13 may prove to be an effective development approach. Paul Richards expressed it quite well when he said “... an idea borrowed from the people, developed by the agronomist [or ranger or forester] and returned to the people again is much more likely to be adopted than something totally alien to the culture”14. A combination of LKMS and formal science can draw on the strengths of both. Traditional decision making is flexible and fluid (both in time and in its objectives) because it depends on changing circumstances, but it lacks planning powers. Modern planning has fixed goals, objectives and techniques, but needs periodic feedback mechanisms to provide it with flexibility.

But not all LKMS remains intact. There are those that are still successfully in use, but often only very locally; those that are still in use but no longer meet the increased pressure of changing land use and other socio-economic changes; and those relatively recently abandoned for various reasons15. Whether traditional systems should be revived or modified, and the optimum mix between formal science and LKMS needs to be worked out in the field because it depends on the aspect being studied, the social conditions, the phase of R & D16, the logistical means, and above all, the viability of the LKMS. Viability, in this context, is meant to include both the degree of survival of the LKMS, and its appropriateness to the present-day constraints and development needs.

In combining traditional and modern systems, several advantages can emerge. The development worker concerned with natural resource management, gains an additional constituency, recruits personnel with profound knowledge of local areas who can provide lessons on long term adapted resource strategies. The local people gain the legal recognition of their ecologically-sound traditional land use practices, see appropriate utilization of their traditional lands, and gain new advocates at the national and international level17.

Just as development workers in the area of cultivation systems are turning to LKMS for help, there is an increasing call for pastoral development projects and programmes to set aside old myths and to consider the value of pastoral LKMS for development.

1.2 Some definitions

In this paper, LKMS will refer to the local, folk repository of technical knowledge and management systems, and is differentiated from “formal science” which refers to western style science. The definition of the related term “ethnoscience” appears to differ among researchers. Some authors equate it with LKMS 18, whereas others define it as the study of LKMS19. In this report, the term “ethnoscience” will be avoided.

Much has been written and said about pastoral production systems, and yet, we are still far from agreeing upon a uniform set of terms to describe them all. In part, this problem stems from the great heterogeneity and overlap between different systems, so that it is hard to categorize them under standardized definitions.

Pastoral systems, hunting-gathering (including fishing), and “sylvo-transhumance” are the main production systems within arid and semi-arid lands. Many production systems can be classed as “transition” systems (in a classificatory sense, not necessarily evolutionary). Pastoral systems can be grouped under two main types: transhumant, and agropastoral. Transhumant systems involve migration between regular seasonal areas. They include “nomadic” systems, but this term often falsely connotes “anarchic” movements, whereas most if not all migratory systems involve some kind of regular movement, at least between dry and wet season areas, or between pastures and salt licks, etc. These can be divided into short and long transhumance, which are distinguished by the distances travelled, length of stay in one place, and amount of herd splitting (see BOX 1.1).

Agropastoral systems are defined as those that, in addition to livestock production, involve some form of crop cultivation. These range from the transhumants who are opportunistic farmers (they plant a crop on their way north to wet season pastures, and harvest it on their way south), to sedentary farmers who raise only a few livestock, and do not transhume. And in between are many different degrees of transhumance, number of livestock raised, type of crops planted, etc. (see BOX 1.1).

BOX 1.1

The groups that practice long transhumance will generally spend only a small part of the year at their permanent homestead (where there is usually a permanent well), and/or will leave only a small part of their livestock there. Otherwise they move between wet and dry season pastures that may be more than 100 km apart. In general, pastoralists of north Africa, who have to escape both the snow and cold weather of the mountains and the heat of the plains, will go from the Sahara foothills and mountains in the summer to the lower, mediterranean plains in the winter23. In East and Southern Africa, the transhumance pattern is generally between highlands and lowlands, for example among the Basotho of Lesotho24, the Borana of southern Ethiopia25, and in Madagascar26, or between the plateaux and floodplains, as with the Maasai of Amboseli27, Lozi of Northwest Zimbabwe28, and the Twich, Ghol and Nyarraweng Dinka of Kongor (Sudan)29. Transhumance in West Africa and the more arid parts of the Sahel is generally north to south following the rains, such as the majority of the Fulani, but in parts of Benin and Cameroon, pastoralists transhume between highlands and lowlands30.

Short transhumance is usually a feature of agropastoral groups who have large number of livestock, but in a few cases fully pastoral peoples can be classified as such. For example the Somali living in Ethiopia live along the river for most of the year, but will transhume a short distance to salt licks and calcareous savannas31.

Transhumants who are “opportunistic” farmers usually live in the more arid parts of Africa. They plant millet on their way north with the rains, and leaving it to the vagaries of nature and other men, will return only in time to harvest whatever has successfully ripened. Some examples are the Baggara of northern Sudan32 and the Moors of Mauritania33.

Agropastoralists who practice some form of transhumance will usually split their herd, leaving the “milk” herd permanently at the homestead, and sending the rest on short transhumance. Some examples are the Ngok Dinka of Abyei34, the Tonga of southern Zambia35, and the Twareg and Fulani of northern Burkina Faso36. But many other agropastoralists have only a few livestock, and do not send them on transhumance. They generally do not consider meat as important as cereals, and milk is drunk only by women, children and the herd boys. Examples are the Lowiili of southern Burkina Faso37, and the Kikuyu of Kenya38.

There are still a few hunter-gatherer groups in Africa, such as the Bushmen of Kalahari, the Pygmies of the former Belgian Congo and French Equatorial Africa, and the Dorobo of northern Tanzania20. Their mobility pattern is shaped both by the availability of water and that of wild foods, although at least among the Bushmen the latter tends to be more important21. Some consider hunting and gathering to be “an anachronism from the days of sparse population and endless territory”22 implying that they will gradually disappear, but recent trends (see section 4.2) suggest that these groups tend to retain much of their traditional production system while diversifying into livestock or crop production.

Another form of pastoral production can be called “sylvo-transhumance”. Although the example comes from Iran, it is worth mentioning, if only to raise the question of its existence in Africa. The Lutfi of southern Iran herd shoats between highlands and lowlands, but will also cultivate semi-wild, non-irrigated orchards of almonds, figs, grapes, walnuts, and rose bushes, which they tend, and harvest the products for sale in urban centers, during their annual transhumance39.


1. Carlier 1987.

2. For example, Sandford 1983.

3. McCorkle 1986; Warren 1986, p. 1.

4. Sandford 1984, p. 1.

5. Richards 1985, p. 10.

6. Brokensha & Riley 1980b, p. 265.

7. Brokensha & Riley 1980b, pp. 264-265.

8. Richards 1985, p. 17.

9. Warren & Meehan 1980, p. 318.

10. Odell 1982, p. 6.

11. Chambers.

12. Richards 1980, p. 192.

13. Guggenheim & Fanale 1976, cited in Howes 1980, p. 347.

14. Richards 1975, p. 110.

15. Stigter 1987, p. 5.

16. Howes 1980, p. 328.

17. Brownrigg 1981 cited in Clad 1985, p. 47.

18. Knight 1974b, p. 61; Knight 1980, p. 215; Richards 1980, p. 192.

19. Warren & Meehan 1980; Leff 1985, p. 265; McCorkle 1986, p. 129.

20. Allan 1965, p. 260.

21. Campbell 1971, p. 109.

22. Biesele 1971, p. 66.

23. Despois 1961, p. 225.

24. S.D. Turner, Maseru, Lesotho, pers. comm. 1988.

25. Helland 1982, p. 246.

26. Ba 1982, p. 19.

27. Western & Dunne, 1979, p. 76.

28. Gluckman 1951, p. 9.

29. McDermott & Ngor 1983, p. 3.

30. Ba 1982, p. 19.

31. Guillaumet 1972, p. 76.

32. Adams 1982, p. 263.

33. Wilson 1986, p. 25.

34. Niamir 1982.

35. Allan et al. 1948, p. 117.

36. Barral 1977, p. 58.

37. Goody 1956, p. 29.

38. Middleton & Kershaw 1972, p. 18.

39. Amanolahi 1986, p. 359.

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