IDRC Pan Asia Networking sponsorship


Dr. Linus S. Digim'Rina,
Department of Anthropology and Sociology, UPNG

The concept of Indigenous knowledge in its present use, is certainly new to PNG along with Intellectual, Biological and Cultural Property Rights - as has been highlighted in a seminar two weeks ago.  But what is indigenous knowledge?  The general impression is that there is such thing as IK out there in the villages which can be easily extracted. But whether that is the case or not really depends on definition and methods of extraction of such phenomena. And is Indigenous Knowledge (IK) the same as Local Knowledge (LK)? This ought to be pointed out from the out set.

Local Knowledge, for me, is much broader and certainly covers areas and communities or organizations both with urban and rural backgrounds. Such that squatter settlements may be attributed to having local knowledge but seem odd to use IK upon such communities.

Indigenous knowledge, on the other hand, and yet to be clearly stated by the various IK centres in the global network, somewhat uncomfortably rests upon communities not infrequently referred to as tribal, non-industrialized and/or kinship based communities.

Hence, it seems that our use of IK might just discriminate knowledge held by communities which are nonetheless local if not indigenous in nature and origin. This is due to our failure to understand or accept that knowledge is dynamic in whatever nature or setting: it is adaptable, subject to changes, loss or extinction and also improvement.

Suspected Motives of IK Centre

There are at least 30 IK centres throughout the world today and 12 of these are located in Africa. Without the benefit of detailed information of their goals, functions success and problems, it is generally clear that the main aim was to integrate IK into development projects and trends - mainly for economic development.  So that IK can become:

accessible to all




IK Centres seem to embark on:

Recording (methodology)

Manuals - promote ethics, method design

Archiving - sharing of IK - preservation

Utilizing - from local, to national and global

Research on IK - include both emic and etic views.

Policy issues

Global networking through symposiums and workshops.

The background to the IK concept, however, seems historical if not, colonial. It seemed to be promoted in countries where the indigenous peoples and their IK have been neglected, overlooked and exploited - through the drive towards "development". Now, is PNG in such a situation where one might join the band wagon of IK centre establishment in the name of protection and prevention of misuse and abuse of IK by outsiders? Not exactly, in my opinion.

IK and PNG societies

In PNG, knowledge ensures, existence and survival for both the individual and the groups he/she belongs to.

a. Forms of knowledge

Environment as source of food materials and spiritual satisfaction/fulfilment. For instance, is landscape a physical or social (cosmological) entity, as perceived by the people?

Aesthetic knowledge in carvings, magic, dances, drama, architecture, land for ancestors.

Social Survival: history of land and groups, myths of origin, sorcery, healing powers, and plant and herbal medicines, etc.

Techniques of production which are usually embedded in social relations.

b. Generally, all PNG/Melanesian societies have that. "Knowledge is power". It ensures:

  • elevation of status (special knowledge), through the procession of healing, sorcery, rain magic, etc.
  • leadership and authority: e.g. power to adjudicate over conflicting claims over properties such as land.
  • access or not to resources.
  • subjugation of others of others.

c. Knowledge as a source of cultural identity.

  • ensures membership to groups.
  • ethnic differences are maintained as a unique and special social qualities of a person.

Such that knowledge is a property to either the Group or individual.

d.  Knowledge in Melanesia has always been:

  • transmittable often through the principles of unilineal descent.
  • transactable albeit, usually between individuals.
  • immutable - subject to changes and improvement where necessary.

e)  Hence KNOWLEDGE, perceived as a source of POWER has been always jealously guarded and its transmission was too carefully and shrewdly made.   Dr. Simet, spoke of Tolai classifying: Public and Private knowledge, and those that are accessible and those that aren't.

This classification, perhaps varied from society to society, however, ought to be noted. Owners must be properly acknowledged and compensated prior to their exposure and wholesale use through commerce. In Melanesia, ACCESS to them is by QUALIFICATION only: BIRTH, RESIDENCE and perhaps MARRIAGE are the key criterion towards qualification.

IK and outsiders

Since the middle of the last century, much of that knowledge was tempered, degraded, ignored and relegated to the derogatory category of "mumbo-jumbo" as it is said to be based on limited knowledge, not subject to rigorous scientific experimentation. Missionaries, laymen and anthropologists in particular have however attempted to collect some of these knowledge. The main problem with the attempt was that methods were foreign and therefore unsuitable and had total disregard of local patterns of information dissemination and transmission. For instance, the ritual aspect of the knowledge was overlooked and discounted as non-scientific, though a few of them may have their own values in disciplined and focussed thoughts.

IK Centres must begin with existing literature stored by field ethnographers, as well as the material culture shipped overseas at the turn of this century. It should be a condition that all such information must too be made available in literature before any fresh information collected from the indigenous people is disseminated further overseas.

Relevance of IK Centres

a.  If one was to assume that IK Centres were indeed a result of the neglect of minority groups in a country - then we do not have such a situation in our country. We run our country ourselves on a Westminister model which somehow compliments with our ethnic differences and indigenousness.

b.  Is it possible, and worth the effort, to record:-

  • genealogies of groups (useful for land titles and claims; Yes, but beware of cases of adoption).
  • individual knowledge of plant uses; Yes - but owners must be properly compensated.
  • cultivation techniques, techniques of resource exploitation usually sustainable, architectural knowledge, music, songs and the lot.
  • trade and exchange systems, indigenous values of items accorded as properties, etc.
  • artistic, architectural and aesthetic knowledge.

What of semi-indigenous knowledge?  My own Ensisi Yam Gardens. Important as it continuously reconsolidates my kin relations within the urban setting.

The answer is yes, but methodologies ought to be carefully thought out and designed. It won't hurt to use existing indigenous models as opposed to scientific methodologies, or at least grafted together.

Unfortunate results

However, I forecast the following unfortunate effects on rural indigenous PNG people if IK centres were to be established on the single motive of 'development' given the generally poor quality of life for all brought about by 'economic development'. Firstly we must understand that majority of the population is in the rural areas. Generally speaking, they form the repository to IK amidst Christiansation and capitalistic ideas. These people are by and large illiterate and have limited access to modern facilities. If IK was then taken as a source of power and cultural identity for us all and our people back there then if IK centres have a motive or intention to record this would demean their self and personhood. It is life for them.

If Centres intend to centralise knowledge, it would deprive and alienate people's source of power and identity. How many of the indigenous people are literate enough to access such information through those centres located far from their own reach?

If the Centres intention is to expose IK it would ultimately dis-empower the indigenous people. The concept of IK centres is almost comparable to the thus far aborted attempt to register customary land claims without the due care being towards understanding the history and system of tenure, use and accessibility of a property.

These are words of caution rather than negative instructions. It is important to be wary of approaches and methods developed and that they do not encroach or even impose upon peoples private domains, properties and their own liberty of individualism or even communitarianism.


I echo the voices of some of the IK Centres that a carefully thought out methodology must be designed. Longer time for research is required for that ahead of the policy-oriented and quick fix studies which over time have proved not to be durable. Total immersion among the people is therefore a requirement. The suggested solution is to situate the centre with the people and leave it with the people to administer it. However, teach them the technicalities of the Internet, for example. Training and application must be village based involving the knowledge-owners heavily. Educate them if they are not educated. In this way the power and control of knowledge remains with the people.

Legislation is necessary only for the prevention of abuse of IK by outsiders - including within PNG too. IK in Melanesia in its various forms is, however, owned and has avenues in place for its transmission and transactions. The Centres must work along those avenues and models in order to ensure a proper conduct in research, information storage as well as its dissemination. Legislation must be seen only as prevention of abuse and protection of the owners' knowledge.

Requirements of an indigenous knowledge centre in Papua New Guinea - Dr. Linus Digim'Rina - 1997 Waigani Seminar
e-mail author:  c/o John Evans evansjoh3@email.com
Papua New Guinea © 2000 published in www.pngbuai.com

Return to top of page

Site Search Engine

Section Directory

Indigenous Knowledge Centre