In this brief work, I discuss the polemics of Traditional Knowledge Systems and how Eurocentric arrogance and western hegemonic categories affected the study and documentation of Traditional Knowledge Systems. Giving examples, both global and from the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, in the Central Himalayas, an area I have long been working in, I explain the importance of Oral Traditional Knowledge Systems and their potential role in socio-economic development. There is, however, one silver lining, namely UNESCO’s grand efforts in emphasising the relevance of Traditional Knowledge Systems and treating them as constitutive of a full-fledged science in their own right. The stage for treating Traditional Knowledge Systems as a worthy human inheritance had been set, to some degree, by the World Conference on Science in 1999. Meeting in Budapest, the conference delegates in their declaration noted: ‘traditional and local knowledge systems . . . make and historically have made, a valuable contribution to science and technology . . . [and] there is a need to preserve, protect, research and promote this cultural heritage and empirical knowledge’.


In the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held at Johannesburg in 2002, traditional knowledge was successfully mainstreamed throughout the Plan of Implementation. UNESCO defends and promotes a cultural approach to development. The goal is to integrate culture as a prerequisite and basis for development project design, in order to endeavour ‘change in continuity’, to respect peoples’ way of life and thoughts, and to build a mutually agreed upon and sustainable development. UNESCO’s Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) project, contributing to the Millennium Development goals of poverty eradication and environment sustainability, aims to empower local indigenous people in biodiversity governance by advocating full recognition of their unique knowledge, know-how and practices.

Here it may be worthwhile to recall LotikaVaradarajan’s valuable suggestions for preserving and using the oral Traditional Knowledge Systems, if a sense of identity is to be preserved it is very necessary to perpetuate benchmarks of a given culture  or sub-culture . . . However, a balance needs to be  struck between the kinds of institutional  infrastructures which have been created in the cultural field. Libraries, archives and museums of  antiquities have serviced the sector based on written sources. The oral and non-verbal have received very  little recognition. University disciplines, necessarily of a multi-disciplinary order centered on these aspects have to be built up, and the special requirements of such studies have to be integrated within existing university schedules. A new chain of museums needs to be brought into existence - ethnographical and ecological museums, starting at the micro-level. At such museums, artefacts and visuals associated with local activities should be held. These museums should serve as repositories of oral and nonverbal material in the same manner as is done by archives and libraries for the written sector . . . Developmental activists could draw on these resources but the main users would be the local population. Patterns of education could also be decentralisedso  thatmarginalised sections, themselves, could play a part in the formulation of educational programmes. Traditional methods of transmission of knowledge and skills need to be studied in depth so that the educational process becomes more meaningful. If creativity is brought back at the grass-root level  sagacious choices would become more feasible improving the possibilities of a durable marriage between tradition and modernity.

Let’s now illustrate Traditional Knowledge Systems with some concrete examples.