Indigenous Knowledge is Not the Solution
5 August 2023

In January 2023, an Insight Report appeared on the World Economic Forum website called ‘Embedding Indigenous Knowledge in the Conservation and Restoration of Landscapes’. The report was in collaboration with Deloitte and it sought to prioritise “the voice of nature and those Indigenous peoples who have spoken for it for millennia” (p4). It refers primarily to the indigenous knowledge systems of Australia.

My respect for the indigenous people of Australia did not come lightly. Twenty years ago, while consulting on-site for Argyle Diamond Mine, I was startled to hear what seemed to be the voice of the Mountain informing me that the land being under-mined was sacred. As a Yale-trained scientist, it was a difficult moment that I managed to force into the realm of ‘I did not actually hear that’. For a while at least. To cut a long story short, a three-year process of severe cognitive decline followed during which time I had to choose between indigenous and Western psychological solutions to my problem. The mainstream solution involved a great deal of medication; the African solution (I had scuttled back to Africa after my experience) was to learn how to divine through an indigenous Southern African training process that continues to this day.

Before I go further, let me respond to the Acknowledgement of Country in the upfront section of the report. I acknowledge the Elder who welcomed me as a reader. Marrungbu – Thank you. I am from Africa, though I am a descendant of settler colonials and my ancestors descended from the Celts in Scotland and England. The lineage that accepted me is that of Majoye which forms part of the Southern African tradition of sangoma, ‘people of the song or drum’ I offer my thoughts as a contribution and I believe that we both stand on the side of beauty.

I agree with and honour so many of the concepts shared in this report, including ideas such as ‘relational obligation’, ‘multigenerational responsibility’ and ‘fractal scalability’; the context is clear; and it is a compelling read. Yet I find myself wondering: Is it truly possible to prioritise the voice of nature and indigenous people in this way?

I am not an IK expert; I am simply a practitioner who has no blood ties to the knowledge, but who walks the land and has remained in mentorship for more than two decades. My submission concerns not the content but rather the entire proposition and form of the report, which flies in the face of what virtually every indigenous knowledge holder and serious student knows: it is exceptionally difficult for someone trained in the North Atlantic paradigm to hear and act with integrity when they seek to apply or “include” indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledge cannot be “embedded” by a WEF report; at worst, it risks being used as currency or paraded in the hope of capturing the attention of a society bereft of options that feel real.

The five-point action framework provided for investors can be memorised, followed, celebrated, rolled up and smoked. The potential for those five steps to be “authentically embedded across the project lifecycle” is close to zero. Let’s pray that an ‘Indigenous Inside’ project certification scheme does not surface in the next few years.

How might we seek to “moderate or modify the reporting requirements attached to investment funding”? Say, for example, I had wanted to add into my audit report for Argyle’s management that the mountain was of the opinion that the diamond mine was on a sacred site. Perhaps what I had heard was actually the voice of the traditional land owners, the Miriuwung Gajerrong people but, whatever it was, where would I have put it? How might I have written it? Would there have been ears to hear? Twenty years later, are we likely to hear any better? But let me not veer off piste here: we are asking investors to consider indigenous knowledge in the conservation and restoration of landscapes, not in how their investments destroy them in the first place.

After Argyle was sold to Rio Tinto in 2002 (enough said), I learnt that the local community began holding ‘Welcome’ ceremonies for visitors as part of a renegotiated agreement with the traditional owners. There is clearly politics around Welcome ceremonies as anthropologist Francesca Merlan suggests and which I don’t understand, but I for one would have been happy to be smoked and washed if it might have avoided a cognitive shutdown. Do you think it would have worked? Not according to my mentor who told me straight that “We do not get to wash away the desecration of a sacred site”.

I was lucky to live in South Africa where remnants of the old cures for such afflictions still exist. To honour those who taught me, I submit respectfully that embedding indigenous knowledge in investment life cycles falls profoundly in the realm of the counterfactual. Twenty years of persistent effort is helping me get my mind around the possibility of some applications within the organisational sustainability field and, even then, my ability to do this with integrity remains tenuous.

For too many of us, at Swiss mountain retreats or sweaty site-meetings, a momentary openness to indigenous knowledge is likely to give way to cynicism and expedience and we will say, courtesy of reports such as these, “At least we gave it our best shot”.

Despite the hopes and ardent beliefs of many well-intentioned people, indigenous knowledge does not ‘plug and play’; we do not really learn kung fu like that. For us, the way forward must include relentless focus on our own knowledge systems, the ones that have all but destroyed indigenous science, along with indigenous law, politics, religions and above all economics. As the WEF report states, “the transactional process for exchanging knowledge that is commonly accepted within business, philanthropic and government systems is not fit-for-purpose when it comes to respecting Indigenous Knowledge systems”.

And yet, this equally well-intentioned report pops up.


Post script: Within an hour of posting this blog on LinkedIn, a comment from “The Organisational Justice Guy!”  reminded me that my ancestors from the Global North had brutally destroyed IK and that “to equate IK with primitivism is racist at its core”. When I pointed out that I was not equating IK with primitivism, a spat ensued which resulted in me, complexity expert Dave Snowden and Sociological Safety™ expert Rob Jones being blocked. It goes to show that this arena is fraught and that nuance and irony carry a risk of being badly misunderstood.


Banner picture a composite of a screenshot from the cover of WEF Deloitte’s (2023) report and an image of Argyle Diamond Mine from which is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0.

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