Importance of Indigenous Soil Knowledge in Developing Sustainable Agriculture

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The farming system is a foundation in agriculture. A sustainable farming system is recognized as a system that maintains the resource base upon which it depends, relies on minimum of synthetic inputs, manages pests and diseases through internal regulating processes, and can recover from the human disturbance caused by agricultural practices, i.e., cultivation and harvest (Edwards et al. 1990; Altieri 1995). Sustainable agriculture is farming systems that are maintaining their productivity and benefit to society indefinitely (Appleby 2005; Lichtfouse et al. 2009).

Gleissman (2001) describes that the components of sustainable agriculture begin with two types of existing systems: natural ecosystems and traditional farming systems (Table 11.1). Both have a test of time to maintain land productivity and provide a different kind of knowledge. Natural ecosystems offer a reference point for better understanding of the ecological process of sustainability; while traditional farming systems provide various practices to support the social systems, culture, politics, and economy in order to be fit into the sustainability formula. The knowledge resulting from these systems can help agricultural research to create principles, practices, and designs that can be applied to unsustainable farming systems thereby transforming them into sustainable systems.

Altieri (1990) provides standard characteristics of traditional farming systems that make them sustainable. Sustainable farming systems commonly do not rely on external, synthetic inputs, but use locally available resources, such as local crop varieties, wild plants, and animals, which promote nutrient cycling, minimize negative impacts on environment, and maintain spatial and temporal variability. Sustainable systems are tolerant to local conditions, adapted to microclimate variation within the cropping system, farm, and region, and able to maximize yield to meet local needs first without sacrificing the long-term productivity. In addition, sustainable farming systems are built with indigenous or local knowledge (Handayani

Table 11.1 Characteristics of natural ecosystems, sustainable farming systems and unsustainable farming systems (Gleissman 2001)


Natural ecosystems

Sustainable farming systems

Unsustainable farming systems





Species diversity












Output stability




Human displacement of




ecological processes

Reliance on external





Internal nutrient cycling








et al. 2006; Handayani and Prawito 2008). The last statement supports the idea that indigenous knowledge is the foundation for developing sustainable agriculture. Indigenous knowledge can be related to plant varieties, soil, agricultural practices and tools, land conservation, land restoration and biological diversity. A sustainable farming system does not need to have all the characteristics above, but it must be planned in order to have all functions of these characteristics (Gleissman 2001).

Further, Gleissman (2001), Odum (1984), Conway (1985), and Altieri (1995) observed differences between two types of farming systems and one natural ecosystem. Table 11.1 shows that sustainable farming systems have high diversity, resilience, and the autonomy of natural ecosystems, while unsustainable farming systems or conventional agroecosystems provide relatively lower and more variable crop production. Lower crop production is usually caused by reduction in external inputs and adverse environmental impacts.

The characteristics of sustainable and traditional farming systems offer important lessons about the role of local society in sustainability. For farming systems to be sustainable, the culture and the economy of the local people must support and utilize practices that are ecologically sound (Gleissman 2001). In this case, the farmer has to make a decision to maintain the continuity of farm stability. For example, fallow periods have to be extended to restore the soil fertility, so that the farmers do not have to put more manure on the ground (Handayani et al. 2006). Traditional farming systems tend to use the concept of ecological knowledge, which is the beginning step in developing sustainable agriculture (Gleissman 2001; Altieri 1995; Appleby 2005).

Lessons from indigenous soil knowledge offer not only a host of innovative agro-ecological insights, but also opportunities for cross-validation of scientific findings (Handayani et al. 2006; Grossman 2003). It provides observations from concrete evidence for contemporary interpretations of soil patterns in nature. Previous research shows that oral traditions in many ethnic groups in the world deliver accurate information on past natural events and disasters, such as volcanoes, tsunamis, floods, drought, and degraded lands, which can validate scientific hypotheses. There are well-documented examples that indigenous soil knowledge brings significant predictions toward the pattern of soil fertility, agriculture productivity, rainfall, and plant adaptation well in advance of scientific information (Norton et al. 1998; Ali 2003; Ryder 2003; Handayani et al. 2006; Handayani and Prawito 2008; Ingram 2008).

Incorporating indigenous into scientific soil knowledge provides better approaches during the process of maintaining sustainable agriculture. Considering indigenous soil knowledge in daily practices in agriculture brings deeper awareness for ecologically sound farming systems. Ryder (2003) reported that empirical farmer evaluations can be used to verify theoretical scientific prediction of site suitability. Local farmers bring invaluable insight into historical changes in land cover and soil management practices that have had an impact on local soils. For example, in the Dominican Republic, surveyors and local farmers combine the criteria they use for soil identification and classification (including soil color, texture, structure, aroma, moisture, taste, stoniness, depth, and horizons). Integrating indigenous soil knowledge into soil surveys facilitates the exchange of empirical farmer knowledge and theoretical surveyor knowledge, thus enhancing rural development projects.

Table 11.2 Indigenous knowledge of soil degradation in Asia (Ali 2003; Handayani et al. 2006)

Soil degradation type

Controlling factors

Intensive cultivation

Population pressures


Limited grazing land


Population pressure and firewood, and furniture demand

Soil erosion

Too much plowing/tilling, no cover crops


High soil erosion


Heavy rainfall, soil has poor drainage system


Not enough rainfall, too much sand in soil

Low soil fertility

No fallow practices, no crop rotation, no manure application,


Table 11.3 Indigenous knowledge of soil characteristics and method of determination in Asia

(Ali 2003; Handayani et al. 2006; Handayani and Prawito 2008)

Soil characteristics

Method of determination


Soil compactness, heavy soil weight


The feeling of presence of sand, silt, and clay while tilling

Organic matter

The presence of earthworms, plant residues, roots, and darker soil color


Visual perception of poor vegetative plant growth and root, soil has

orange, reddish, or purple color with iron or manganese spots,

some farmers can taste the acidity, dense growth of Melastoma



Tasting the soil and observe the salt layer in the soil surface


The presence of clay or sand, more clay means poor drainage


High crop yield, dense growth of Chromolaena odorata, no Imperata

cylindrica and no Saccharum spontaneum in the field, high organic

matter, dark soil color

Table 11.2 shows that the farmers in Bangladesh and Indonesia have profound and deep knowledge of the local soil typology, soil degradation, and management problems (Ali 2003; Handayani et al. 2006; Handayani and Prawito 2008). The farmers have limited knowledge about soil genesis and chemistry, but they are highly knowledgeable in different soil properties that affect crop production (Table 11.3). In this case, the diversity of indigenous knowledge in these countries contributes to the national agricultural development planning, which has an objective to sustain higher crop yield without destroying the environment. By incorporating indigenous soil knowledge into the program, the farmers and scientists can contribute equally to rural development, and their knowledge of soils is complementary to each other.

In Tanzania, farmers have knowledge on rainwater harvesting based on their knowledge of soil properties and soil typology (Mbilinyi et al. 2005). The indigenous knowledge on potential sites for rain water harvesting are the following:

1. Areas with high moisture content indicate shallow water table and thus become the best areas for water storage reservoirs.

2. Heavy and stable soils are suitable areas for routing canals.

3. Clay soils have high water-holding capacity, and therefore will work the best for water storage reservoirs.

4. Best areas for charco dams are those where warthogs dig their ponds in search of water.

5. Flat areas adjacent to a gentle slope are the best for charco dams.

In recognition of the potential of rainwater harvesting technology to improve water availability and land productivity, the government of Tanzania considered it to improve agriculture development. Finally, rain water harvesting technology is becoming a key element of the Agricultural Sector Development Strategy in semiarid areas.

In addition, the concept of Mashamba ya mbuga was also developed by farmers in Tanzania (Mbilinyi et al. 2005). In this concept, farmers grow high water demanding crops in low land, so that the crops can receive rainwater from the surrounding high land. The rainwater harvesting systems developed by local farmers have been sustainable for many years, because they are compatible with local lifestyles, institutional patterns, and social-economic systems (Gowing et al. 1999).

Pawluk (1995) described that Zuni farmers in New Mexico, USA have indigenous soil knowledge, such as he'bik'yaye, a sticky clay area with poor infiltration, so:lana, a coarse alluvial sediment, which can capture water and is considered fertile soil, and danaya so:we, an organic soil located below upland forest trees. They have soil terms to show surface soil condition with regard to infiltration, farming practices, and transport of parent material. Further, solutions to land degradation in Zuni Indian Reservation, New Mexico were built based on indigenous knowledge. The agroecology research supports community action by valuing and recognizing local agricultural systems and combining them with scientific soil knowledge to combat desertification (Norton et al. 1998). Incorporating Zuni-developed knowledge into research design increases respect and communication among local people, researchers, and planners, and therefore empowers the local farming community to develop agriculture and conserve resources on their own terms.

Scientific knowledge depends considerably on indigenous knowledge for interpretation, especially at the level of local farm implementation (Ingram 2008). Agriculture practices require highly skilled operations using technical and scientific knowledge, but this knowledge needs to be integrated with local knowledge of soil and weather conditions to be more effective. Research proves that farmers have more understanding toward nutrient budgeting and are more confident in land management when they combine both indigenous and scientific knowledge during the process of cultivation (Ingram and Morris 2007).

In England, farmers are technically well informed about agriculture, but they often have limited understanding of scientific knowledge of more complex systems, such as calculating the nutrient value of manure. Most farmers have a good knowledge of soil but they may have limited skill or knowledge about soil management. The research concluded that although farmers' knowledge about soil and sustainable agriculture is good, some areas need to be enhanced by policy and further research efforts (Ingram 2008).

In Chiapas, Mexico, organic coffee farmers have a dual soil knowledge system built upon experiences and phenomena that they can visualize and apply (Grossman 2003).

However, the implementation of agricultural practices depends upon socioeconomic factors. Farmers have excellent knowledge about the transformation of leaf material to soil (decomposition) over time, but their knowledge of various factors affecting decomposition is not well understood. They know about the root nodules, but not the role of legumes in nitrogen fixation. About 50% of the farmers interviewed thought that compost addition can improve coffee plant growth and soil fertility. Results show that farmers still possess knowledge gaps regarding unseen phenomena and more training is needed to address the unobservable ecosystem processes.

In Mongolia, herders rely considerably on soil conditions and vegetation cover when assessing pasture (Fernadez-Gimenez 2000). Severely damaged pastures are referred to as weedy or waste lands (khog hazar), black or bald pasture (khar or khadsgay belcher), or areas where the "soil has died" (khurs ukhsen gazar). Artemisia glauca and A. adamsii in the mountain steppe were the most widely recognized indicator species for overgrazed pasture. Ungrazed mountain pastures are considered to be poor forage by herders because the heavy thatch of litter limits the growth of coarse, tall grasses.

In Indonesia, farmers recognize various fallow species that are used as indicators of soil fertility during the process of shifting cultivation. For example, C. odorata (Fig. 11.1) and Wedelia trilobata (Fig. 11.2) are considered indicator of better soil fertility compared to Saccharum spontaneum (Fig. 11.3) and Imperata cylindrica (Fig. 11.4) (Handayani et al. 2006). Ants are also used as indicators to show that the soil is unfertile, however, earthworms are an indicator of good soil for farming. Clay soil is considered good for cultivating paddy rice, and organic soil provides the ideal growth medium for oil palm trees (Handayani and Prawito 2008).

Imperata Grasslands Palm Oil
Fig. 11.2 Wedelia trilobata has invaded Imperata cylindrica grassland after 3 years with an improvement in overall soil fertility (Handayani et al. 2006)
Fig. 11.3 Saccharum spontaneum has invaded degraded land in Sumatra, Indonesia
Weelia Cylindrica
Fig. 11.4 Imperata cylindrica grassland in Sumatra, Indonesia

The above-mentioned facts show that indigenous soil knowledge provides the basis for sustainable agriculture; however, there are some obstacles to using it. Akullo et al. (2007) describe these obstacles as follows:

1. Modern agriculture training has often biased people's attitudes toward using indigenous soil knowledge.

2. Some farmers feel that it is time-consuming to involve indigenous soil knowledge into farming activities.

3. Ineffective for large-scale production.

4. Some religious beliefs forbid traditional beliefs and technologies regarded as demonic or superstitious.

5. Lack of standardization and limited documentation of indigenous technologies and practices.

6. High variation in guidelines, which sometimes cause confusion.

7. Some people cannot effectively relay the knowledge to others.

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