Indigenous and traditional knowledge is being recognised for its critical role in managing climate change, and more recently mainstream attention to traditional agricultural knowledge sees increased respect for sustainable and ancient methods.
In a project supported by the Kenneth Lee Foundation and Oxfam, farmers in Bolivia's Amazon are turning to traditional irrigation systems in more sustainable agriculture. The system relies on building "camellones" (pictured at left and below right) which are platforms of raised seedbed, constructed above flood level and surrounded by canals. The result is a sustainble use of flood waters without the loss of seeds and crops. The canals capture the water during floods and provide for irrigation during dry seasons.
The system dates back to 1000BC to AD1400 when it was used by pre-Columbian cultures in Beni. The Director of the Kenneth Lee Foundation, Oscar Saavedra, says "The floods were the basis for development and the flourishing of a great civilisation." The region has experienced some of the worst floods in 50 years, largely attributed to climate change. According to the BBC, about 400 families have now enlisted in the camellones project, mostly growing maize, cassava and rice. Although the uptake of the method is still described as experimental, confidence in the traditional methods is growing. Dunia Rivero Mayaco, a mother of 3 from Puerto Almacen near Trinidad, is reported, "I had planted rice, maize, bananas and onions on my plot of land. But the water left nothing ... So that's why I am working here on the camellones." (At right: Such traditional irrigation systems may also lead to less need for clearing for farmland)
In India, traditional indigenous engineering is being implemented in order to establish sustainable systems of water management in modern agriculture.
Although much of the knowledge was transmitted through oral means and practical application, some documentation of the legal and administrative aspects of the knowledge is in fact held in the Treatise of administration, by Kautilya, adviser and minister of Indian emperor Chandragupta Maurya, 321-297 BC. Rajendra Singh (pictured below left) explains, "In Indian tradition, the knowledge was transmitted through practical work under the direction of respected elders and gurus. Thus the people engaged in practical work were really the pupils of the indigenous knowledge system ... The prosperous pupils provided help to the poorest who were working for water conservation, and the state provided only the land. It was a pupil-driven decentralised water management, which is another name for indigenous water management."
Singh attributes conservation of forest, water and other natural resources to "eco-friendly cultural traditions", dharma/parampara, and explains the conflict between this approach and the colonial notion of nature as a resource to be exploited. Singh calls for a revival of indigenous and traditional systems to restore the balance betwen nature and industry in Indian society.
One such tradition to be revived is that of Johad. Johads are concave mud barriers built across slopes to catch rainwater run-off. On all but one side there is a high embankment, the 4th side being open in order for water to enter. Water collected during monsoons penetrates the sub-soil and restores groundwater levels, available later through the use of wells and other means for irrigation of crops and water for animals. Singh explains, "When I went to Bheekampura in 1985, this unique traditional water management system was still alive in the collective memory of the people but remained alienated from the global environment."
Non-governmental organisation Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) began to revive the tradition of Johad. Johads started to be built in and by the communities themselves: "No engineer was called for consultation; we were guided entirely by the traditional wisdom of the people who have mantained the ecological balance for generations." As Singh says, the wisdom has been "perfected by tradition."