We All (Should) Know
Camila Montecinos
Keywords:  Grass root technologies; Intellectual property rights; Plant breeding.
Correct citation: Montecinos, C. (1995), "We All (Should) Know." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 22, p. 24.

Daniel Goldstein's first prejudice is his assumption that modern science and its associated technology are the only way to solve the problems and fulfil the needs the world faces. Doubtlessly, modern science and technology have much to offer. But they also are a source of problems. Water pollution by agrochemicals, the rise of resistant pests and diseases, accelerated genetic erosion, soil erosion due to monocropping, and salinization of irrigated soils are just a few examples of what may happen when modern technology is automatically regarded as progress and used as a single panacea. The reason why millions of farmers in developing countries have not adopted modern technology is neither that they 'do not know' nor that they want to stay 'backward'. It is simply because the proposed modern technology does not fit their needs. Due to this failure, these farmers have the right to seek alternatives.

A second prejudice is a really classic way of under­valuing local knowledge: scientists do 'science', while local communities are involved in 'alchemy', 'superstition' or 'wishful thinking'. If we would agree with the invalidity of local knowledge, the purest logic brings thousands of questions to our minds. To name a few:
(a) If the domestication of cotton and all other crops did not involve valid knowledge, why then has modern science not achieved something similar?
(b) How is it possible that, with virtually no exception, small­scale farmers are testing, transforming and adapting the surrounding technology that they consider to be interesting?
(c) Why is the statement of Ethiopian farmers that Phytolacca dodecandra works as a pesticide against molluscs considered to be superstition or 'simply observation', while the same claim of the University of Toledo (USA) is regarded advanced science, on which they demand an exclusive right under the system of intellectual property protection?
(d) Why was, thirty or forty years ago, diversity in small­scale farms regarded as a clear signal of backwardness and ignorance, while now we know that it is an efficient mechanism to reduce pest and disease damages?

We could go on and on. An important part of the answers to these questions is the bottomless arrogance of modern society, which is convinced that the 'scientific method' is the only way to build knowledge. This attitude has brought us to ignore and attack other knowledge systems equally valid and often far more effective, complete or profound.

If we would recognize that there are many ways to build and transmit knowledge, conditions could be set up to allow the huge majority of our fellow citizens to become active contributors to social, scientific and technological development. This would require awareness of some characteristics of local knowledge systems.
Firstly, knowledge is a heritage that each person, generation, society receives and transforms, until it is left as heritage to those who come next. This knowledge 'belongs' to current and future generations as much as it belonged to the original ones. The piracy problem described by Hope Shand (Monitor no. 17) does not lie in the fact that a given scientist, university or company uses the knowledge developed in rural communities in the Third World. The problem emerges when they do not recognize the contributions made by communities, and seek to monopolize that knowledge under protection of the law.
Secondly, local knowledge is not restricted to being an exclusive heritage of particular ethnic groups. It is a form of knowledge that, if we look at history, has been present among all those peoples and societies that kept an intimate and permanent contact with nature surrounding them. This knowledge derives from daily observation and experimentation with life forms, productive systems and natural ecosystems, and the existence or absence of European ancestors has no influence on the capacity to build it. If nowadays it has nearly completely disappeared from industrialized countries and from an important part of the Third World, this is because of permanent aggression by modern society, urbanization, and agricultural industrialization, which preclude our contact with many natural phenomena.
Thirdly, the different forms of local knowledge are not archaeological artefacts, fossilized heritage of the wisdom achieved many centuries ago. They are living and dynamic forms, in continuous development, evolution and change. For this reason, once we stop attacking it, this knowledge can be retrieved, rebuilt, and invigorated. This revitalization could follow many paths, even some that do not need that direct contact with nature which Goldstein seems to dislike so much.

If we accept only the validity of knowledge obtained in laboratories or through certain types of experiments, we are leaving out a tremendous range of opportunities for learning, enjoying and improving our role on earth. Acknowledgement and respect for the value and potentialities of local knowledge will not keep us in poverty. Quite the opposite, it will give us tools to fight it at its very root, most of all because it may open numerous opportunities to the humane and intellectual capacities that, according to Daniel Goldstein, are currently blocked or persecuted in our countries.

Fortunately, viewpoints such as Goldstein's, although still predominant, are no longer the only ones within the scientific community. Regarding his advice, he should know that many of us do read Nature and other periodicals, but I certainly would have an even closer contact with the journal if it accepted the fascinating challenge of reporting on different forms of building knowledge.
Camila Montecinos

Camila Montecinos is an agronomist. She has worked at the Centro de Educacion y Technologia in Chile since 1885. The article presents her personal views

Contributions to the Biotechnology and Development Monitor are not covered by any copyright. Exerpts may be translated or reproduced without prior permission (with exception of parts reproduced from third sources), with acknowledgement of source.


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