United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
Innovative measures required to protect indigenous knowledge

Paris - International interest and demand for knowledge developed by indigenous peoples is at an all time high - politically, culturally and financially.

Yet this demand often results in abuse, rather than respect, for the communities and individuals involved, according to UNESCO. Driven by the demand for new drugs, plant and animal varieties, and commercial products, scientists, corporations and governments across the globe are tracking traditional knowledge. The healing powers of medicinal plants known to the indigenous Guaymi people of Costa Rica; the ingredients used by traditional healers in South Africa that may help to stem the tide of AIDS-related tuberculosis - has, understandably, sparked much interest abroad. But the needs and concerns of the indigenous communities that hold this knowledge have often been ignored.

As controversies surrounding indigenous intellectual property rights simmer, UNESCO will hold a major event at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (August 26 to September 4) to highlight innovative approaches to protecting and sharing traditional knowledge. Indigenous peoples, Third World activists and a wide range of scientific and legal experts from Ethiopia to Thailand will lead the discussions, scheduled for August 29, at the Ubuntu Village, (Wanderers Club, Water Berry Room) from 9.30a.m. to 6.30p.m. This forum will be organized jointly with the International Council for Science (ICSU), Tebtebba Foundation (an indigenous institute for international research and policy based in the Philippines) and in cooperation with the International Chamber of Commerce.

On this occasion, UNESCO and ICSU will release a much-awaited report on traditional knowledge to resolve a heated debate within the international scientific community. Ten years ago at the "Earth Summit" in Rio, government representatives pledged to protect and respect the knowledge and practices of indigenous and traditional communities through article 8(j) of the Convention on Biological Diversity as well as Agenda 21. However, progress in this field has fallen short of expectations. Just defining the concept of traditional knowledge has proven explosive. In 1999, during ICSU's 26th General Assembly meeting in Cairo (Egypt), a small but influential group of scientists expressed concern that official recommendations concerning "traditional and local knowledge" might open the door to anti-science and pseudo-science, according to reports by the scientific journal Nature (October 14, 1999).

In particular, delegates from the United States feared that the documents and recommendations emanating from the World Conference on Science (organized in Budapest by UNESCO in 1999) could encourage the spread of creationist ideas concerning human origins, especially in schools, to the detriment of evolutionary theory. The International Astronomical Union also expressed concern that new measures to protect traditional knowledge would be manipulated to demand inappropriate support for the pseudo-scientific approach of astrology at the expense of astronomy. So, before offering blanket support of "traditional knowledge", the assembly requested that a study group offer more precise information concerning its definition and protection. This final report, prepared by ICSU and UNESCO, will be released on August 29.

In addition to the report's release, there will be three major sessions focusing on the links between traditional knowledge and natural resources management, formal education and the threats to cultural diversity as well as the need for innovative measures to protect the intellectual property rights of indigenous peoples.

The first session will highlight the most important and controversial agreement over indigenous rights that was recently brokered between the Grand Council of the Cree and the Quebec government in Canada. Romeo Saganesh of the Grand Council will lead the discussions by explaining why the Cree communities agreed in February to end 25 years of opposition to construction in the James Bay territory (northern Quebec). Since 1975, the Cree have fought a series of legal battles to thwart government attempts to further develop hydropower in this remote wilderness region. The Cree maintained that the dams would wreak environmental havoc and destroy a traditional way of life, in which hunters trap beaver, hunt caribou and moose during winter and fish and hunt geese throughout the year. The Cree mobilized tremendous international support, becoming an icon for native peoples around the world.

Yet in February, the Grand Council brokered a deal with the Quebec government in which the nine Cree villages in James Bay will receive US$16 million this year, US$30.7 million in 2003, and then US$46.5 million a year for 48 years. In return, the Cree will drop their lawsuits totalling US$2.4 billion against the government over existing hydro schemes on their land. In addition, they will no longer oppose plans to build new dams on the Eastman and Rupert rivers, subject to environmental approval. These new schemes will increase Quebec's electricity supply - much of which is exported to the US - by about eight percent. The deal also guarantees the Cree a proportion of the newly created jobs (an estimated 8,000) and greater control over logging and other sectors of their economy. Seventy percent of the Cree living in James Bay endorsed the agreement in a referendum in February.

Romeo Saganesh of the Grand Council will discuss the key points in the agreement, notably the clause assuring Cree participation in environmental assessments of the new hydro-schemes in James Bay. For Saganesh, the agreement recognizes indigenous land rights, as well as traditional knowledge of the environment. A representative of the Quebec government will also take part in the debate as will Marie Roué, of France's National Centre for Scientific Research, who headed a research team recording Cree ecological knowledge.

The second session of the event will focus on preserving traditional knowledge as a dynamic and living resource by ensuring its transmission from one generation to another. "In school, indigenous children are often confronted with sets of knowledge, world views and values that are foreign to their own. Implicitly, or explicitly, their own knowledge is denigrated, contributing to a tremendous sense of alienation that in many indigenous communities is not unrelated to a high incidence of youth suicide," says Douglas Nakashima of UNESCO. "While there is no minimizing the need for education, there is clearly a problem. If we acknowledge the importance of indigenous knowledge to sustainable development and cultural diversity, we must set ourselves the task of finding an appropriate balance between global and local knowledge in classrooms the world over." Mr Nakashima will moderate this session during which a diverse panel of experts will present their work to integrate traditional knowledge in classrooms in South Africa, Thailand and Vanuatu.

South Africa is now rolling back the legacy of apartheid in university classrooms where traditional African knowledge systems and values were systematically rejected or ignored in favour of European scholarship, according to experts like Catherine Odora-Hoppers of the University of Pretoria and Otsile Ntsoane of South Africa's Northwest University. According to both experts, the aim is not to ignore world scholarship but to assure space in the lecture halls for African epistemologies. During the post-colonial phase, there was tremendous enthusiasm for "Africanizing" education. This interest has proved difficult to apply on the ground. A two-year investigation found, for example, that there is not a single university degree programme offered primarily in an African language.

Discussions will then turn to the plight of the Karen and other indigenous peoples living in the hills of northern Thailand. Sakda Saenmi, director of the Inter-Mountain Peoples Education and Culture in Thailand Association (IMPECT), will present this NGO's efforts to offer courses specifically designed for rural Karen youth as opposed to the standard government curriculum. Karen youth are increasingly suffering from a "cultural crisis", according to Saenmi. "The number of suicides among tribal children and youth is also increasing - a clear sign of a deep conflict within. Youth are taught to respect the Thai culture of their nation, but are not equally taught to respect the culture of their peoples. A feeling of inferiority and self-denial results."

This session will also examine an ironic situation in Vanuatu. The South Pacific island nation, governed by its indigenous people, legally recognizes the importance of traditional knowledge and institutions in governing natural resources. However, the formal education system has not integrated indigenous language, knowledge and culture within the curriculum. "As a result, a worrisome incongruity exists," according to Russel Nari, a senior policy officer of Vanuatu's Environment Unit, who will lead discussions during the event. "Schooling tells indigenous children that their future is rooted, not in the knowledge of their parents and grandparents, but in the knowledge imported from a Western pedagogical tradition."

The final session of the event will focus on the politically-charged issue of bioprospecting, the continual search, primarily by multinational pharmaceutical companies, for commercially viable medicinal plant compounds. For indigenous peoples around the world, "bioprospecting is synonymous with exploitation," according to Dr Meto Leach of New Zealand, a Maori and trained biochemist. Along with Hohep Kereopa, one of the most respected Maori traditional healers or tuhonga, Dr Leach will present a unique research project to identify the active compounds of Maori medicinal plants while recognizing Maori rights to ownership.

New Zealand is rich in biodiversity and the Tuhoe Maori have developed a sophisticated repertoire of medicinal plants. This new research project formally recognizes Maori ownership of the knowledge, practical use and development of native plants used by Tuhoe. However, if any new drugs or treatments are developed and commercialized, the benefits will be shared: 40 percent will go to the Tuhoe representative body, another 40 percent will be awarded to a trust board for New Zealand's Maori, and Waikato University - Dr. Leach's employer - will receive the remaining 20 percent. Finally, the research will specifically focus on developing treatments for chronic diseases affecting the Maori, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. This sets the project apart from the vast majority - which seek to profit from indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants without sharing financial or medical benefits.

Linking Traditional and Scientific Knowledge for Sustainable Development
August 29, 9:30 to 6:30 p.m., Ubuntu Village, Wanderers Club, Water Berry Room

Contact: Amy Otchet
Bureau of Public Information,
In Johannesburg, cell phone: (+27) (0)828 580 718
email: a.otchet@unesco.org

Isabelle Le Fournis
Bureau of Public Information
Cell phone: (+33) (0)614 6953 72
email: i.le-fournis@unesco.org

Source Press Release No.2002-52
Publication Date 21 Aug 2002
© UNESCO 1995-2007 - ID: 5633