Received Wisdoms: The Colonial Legacy in Colonial Management

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            Colonialism saw the oppression of indigenous people during the colonial era and the promotion of western ideologies. At the time, indigenous people were reluctant and resistant to changing their ways which was received with great reproach by colonialists. Even though most colonial legacies are often based on western knowledge, indigenous people still strive to utilize their own knowledge in fostering development.

However, there are those who have chosen to adapt received wisdom from their colonial legacies and modern day western philosophies and conceptualization. This clash between indigenous knowledge and received wisdom is highly evident in postcolonial management of former colonies. It is in this regard that Heaven, Owen and Okonkwo (2010) aim at establishing the concept of received wisdoms in colonial management and the role played by indigenous knowledge in fostering the same.

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            Puri (2007, p.359) indicates that indigenous knowledge is that shared knowledge within a community, one which has evolved over time through utilization trials and errors. Indigenous knowledge is often used by these communities in meeting their needs, lifestyle conditions and realities. As this form of knowledge is context based and embedded in the everyday lives of community members it is normally expressed through traditional customs, wisdom, technology and experience. Indigenous communities averse to changes and who strongly believe in their traditions perceive that western knowledge and its technological might cannot resolve community problems. Ideally, the perspective that indigenous knowledge fosters the harmonious coexistence between man and nature has been a narrative used in developing sustainable resources management.

            Indigenous knowledge has recently clamored great support in the postcolonial era as it is hailed to effect equitable growth, economic growth and participatory development of the communities. As such, there seems to be an emerging search for the new rhetoric and practice of indigenous knowledge as opposed to western knowledge. Its contrasting elements are observed in that indigenous knowledge seems to be the basis of decision making in local communities with regards to agriculture, education, environmental and resource management and health care. In addition, indigenous knowledge is observed to possess great value to the surrounding local communities and even for western researchers and planners who seek to improve living conditions in these communities. The uniqueness of indigenous knowledge lies in its natural relationship with local communities.

 Indeed, there are former colonies which have abandoned received wisdoms imparted to them by their masters and gone back to traditional practices. Bicker, Pottier and Sillitoe (2004, p.197) illustrates that a majority of middle and working class Indians have taken up traditional medical practices and shunned the use of western medicine and doctors. Medical traditional practices incorporate cultural and supernatural belief most traditional doctors treating the body as a moral entity as opposed to the mere physical element found in western knowledge. Furthermore, people in India consult traditional doctors for more than medical attention such as seeking guidance. This results to community cohesion and the overall development of national identity. This factor is the greatest advantage that indigenous knowledge has over western knowledge. Narratives have also been used in supporting indigenous resource management practices as illustrated by Hanna and Munasinghe (1995, p.101). Practices by the Cree Amerindians in Canada have been shown to community based management systems. These Cree traditional management systems are based on encoded ideals like respect, reciprocity and shared ideals amongst community members. A common Cree narrative of a hunter has been used in highlighting positive effects and ideals of indigenous resource management practices. The Cree people have a respect for game and abide by the principles that game animals are in control of the hunting process and that the role of human beings involves the cooperation of a community of beings in the natural system.

One major problem of indigenous knowledge is that it sometimes fails to address modern day issues and this can lead to the continued underdevelopment of indigenous communities. It is then that received wisdom dominates the colonial management debate which encourages the practice of policies which align with modern markets and international cooperation. Received wisdom encompasses knowledge which has been extensively used and accepted as the appropriate way of doing this. The nature of received wisdom can either reflect positive or negative aspects. Its negativity emerges in the fact that there are instances when received wisdom can be false and lead to detrimental consequences and on the other hand, received wisdom can be utilized in fostering development in former colonies. Brockington and Homewood (1996), highlight that false elements of received wisdom are often as a result of assumptions and generalizations. Received wisdom is characteristic of values and practices which are largely embedded in western cultures and is thus implicitly instilled by colonial governments. Its institutionalization in western countries makes received wisdom more believable even when it does not apply to some indigenous communities. Narratives emerging from particular elements of received wisdoms were used by colonizers in pressuring indigenous communities into changing their practices for the overall economic benefit of the colonizer. Spivak (1999, p.3) asserts that these same narratives have become ideally powerful and influential in the postcolonial era.

D’Souza (2006) showcases an analysis of the effective application of received wisdom in British India. During the colonial period in India, traditional communities suffered in the loss of their indigenous water harvesting systems. Colonialism imposed the policies of private property and discarded community control of natural resources which consequently led to more impoverishment. In their place, they put up dams, barrages and focused on promoting perennial irrigation systems for the indigenous people. To a large extent, this colonial hydraulic conceptualization brought water closer to the people and even heightened agricultural production. Indeed D’Souza (2006, p.625) asserts that the British just merely aligned land and water into new social, ecological and political connections which were of great benefit to the people. These technological land and water practices transformed India into a great economic hub for colonizers at the time but in modern times, these practices are benefiting local communities who had to abandon their traditional water storage practices. Similar effects have been observed in the forest policies in India as showcased by Jewitt (1995) and where colonial policies are applied in postcolonial India effectively.

False narratives which emerge from generalizations embedded in received wisdoms can result to the development of inefficient resource management policies. Jorgensen and Sekhar (2003) argue that these false narratives have attributed to an increasing deforestation crisis in South Asia. These false narratives emerge from overall mainstream ideologies on deforestation which are based on the assumption that the leading factors of forest degradation are the consumption of forest products like fodder and fuel wood by indigenous communities. Following these conceptualization government policies sought to promote forestation by addressing the fuel wood crisis. Such a policy fails to put into consideration other pertinent factors which are likely to contribute to deforestation. If policy makers had addressed other factors like corruption, timbre extraction and expansion of agricultural land they would have derived a more comprehensible solution.

It is evident that indigenous communities are often burdened with the responsibility of causing deforestation especially where false narratives are popular. However, this is often not the truth as most indigenous people are aware of the importance of forests and even uphold traditional practices which prohibit activities which may deplete the forest. Ideally, promoting conservation and management of resources and the environment is intricately aligned with indigenous knowledge and local practices. Social forestry initiatives should involve local communities especially as they already practice effective forestry traditions. Saethre (1993) exemplifies the case of such effective practices found in the Himalayan region where the extraction of biomass resources does not include cutting down trees. Similarly, Sharma and Shaw (1993) illustrate that communities which live near forests in Nepal rely on dry wood for fuel and also utilize grass for hay without engaging in any felling of trees. Other factors like traditional rights, non use of tree species and religious practices are also influential in regulating environmental resource management.

Clearly there is an eminent power struggle between received wisdom and indigenous knowledge. While received wisdom seems to work in some former colonies, indigenous knowledge is working for others. However, they both bear strengths and weaknesses which should be addressed in post modern colonialism. Limitations of indigenous knowledge are observed in the collapse of Easter Island in Polynesia where the overdependence of local people on the environment contributed to its collapse. Post modern colonialism calls for the integration of indigenous and western knowledge in fostering development, resource and environmental management. This integrative framework will allow indigenous communities to preserve their traditions and at the same time benefit from modern technological practices. They will have shifted to focusing their attention to aspects of political and social context which are also instrumental in development. Furthermore, modernity has introduced many new concepts in the utilization and application of various ideologies such that it is inevitable that indigenous communities will have to adjust to modern times.

Indeed, if proponents of indigenous practices wish to preserve indigenous knowledge in modern times they should adopt conservation methods which are politically engaging. In consideration that most of them are keen to alienate indigenous knowledge as an individual entity, Briggs and Sharp (2004) caution that failing to engage other development ideologies results to the subsequent failure to develop effective alternatives which can be even more beneficial. As such, instead of engaging in an indigenous vs. western debate, indigenous knowledge proponents should reorient and influence state policies which do not consider the integral role played by local people in environmental conservation into adapting indigenous friendly dimensions. Furthermore, in colonial management focus should not be on making distinctions between indigenous knowledge and received wisdom rather it should lie in reconciling these differences. An element which is of great importance in managing colonial legacy is the recognition and realization that all forms of knowledge are useful but to particular groups of people. Also, the different ways in which this knowledge is disseminated and utilized in environmental conservation will similarly benefit different groups of people. It is only after this realization that knowledge can be utilized effectively for the benefit of the entire society.

Heaven, Owen and Okonkwo (2010) set out to investigate the place of received wisdom in colonial legacy management. The above discussion comprehensively supports their conceptualizations of the interplay between indigenous knowledge and received wisdom. Indigenous knowledge has been indicated to refer to shared knowledge within a community which has evolved through practice over the years and is culturally embedded in those communities. On the other hand, received wisdom represents widely recognized information which is held to be true and more often than not, it is constructed under western ideals of development. This dichotomy of knowledge has served former colonies differently and in the illustrations provided it is evident that both indigenous and received wisdoms can accrue adverse repercussions. Although post modern colonialism reflects inevitability for changes especially in indigenous knowledge practices, it is pertinent that this knowledge is incorporated in modern day environmental conservation and management paradigms. Indigenous people have practices which are instrumental in the conservation of forests and instead of being sidelined during policy formulation and implementation they should be involved in these processes. On the other hand, indigenous people must also appreciate the benefits which are derived from western technological practices and endeavor to integrate them as well. This integrative process is a rather delicate one where extensive awareness as an initial action can be fundamental in starting a change process where a holistic conceptualization of knowledge will be achieved.


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