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Home > Linking Traditional and Scientific Knowledge for Sustainable Development (organised by UNESCO, Tebtebba Foundation and ICSU, in cooperation with the International Chamber of Commerce) - Updated: 18-09-2002 2:28 pm
Opening Address by Mr Walter Erdelen, Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, UNESCO, Johannesburg, 29 August 2002  

ADG-links.jpg As the Assistant Director-General for UNESCO’s Natural Sciences Sector, I am pleased to welcome you to this full day session on

Linking Traditional and Scientific Knowledge for Sustainable Development


that is jointly organised by UNESCO, the Tebtebba Foundation, and the International Council for Science, in cooperation with the International Chamber of Commerce

Over the last three decades and under the guise of many terms - traditional knowledge, indigenous knowledge, farmer’s knowledge, ethnobotany – the recognition of “Other” systems of knowledge has been steadily gaining ground in sustainable development and biodiversity conservation circles. This most recent movement to acknowledge traditional knowledge traces its origins to many corners of the world. Examples are traditional marine tenure systems contributing to coastal conservation in the Pacific Basin, indigenous hunters’ and fishers’ knowledge informing wildlife management in the Arctic, farmers' knowledge of soils influencing rural development in sub-Saharan Africa.

Initiatives such as these have contributed to the momentum leading to prominent reference to indigenous and local knowledge in documents emerging from the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 … documents such as Agenda 21 as well as the Convention on Biological Diversity and in particular its Article 8(j) that explicitly acknowledges the importance for biodiversity conservation of the ‘knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles’.

More recently, at the World Conference on Science in 1999, organized by UNESCO in cooperation with the International Council for Science, the relationship between scientific and traditional knowledge was the focus of a thematic session on “Science and Other Systems of Knowledge”. Through the “Science Agenda – A Framework for Action”, a set of recommendations on this specific issue was addressed to governments, NGOs and international organizations including the recommendation to “sustain traditional knowledge systems through active support to the societies that are keepers and developers of this knowledge, their ways of life, their languages, their social organization and the environments in which they live, and fully recognise the contribution of women as repositories of a large part of traditional knowledge”.

With these events in mind, here at Johannesburg, 10 years after Rio, it is timely to pause and reflect on the first steps that have been achieved in the traditional knowledge domain and the long road that still lies ahead. Today, in a world that acknowledge the central role of knowledge in the development process and that sets before itself the goal of 'building a knowledge society', a niche on the international agenda has been clearly defined for the distinctive systems of knowledge and know-how possessed by indigenous and local communities.

But even though much progress has been made in the recognition of traditional knowledge, the task of actually implementing recommendations agreed upon at the Earth Summit, the World Conference on Science and other international, regional and national events, has proved infinitely more complex than originally anticipated.

The entire issue of intellectual property rights to protect the knowledge of indigenous and local communities is an obvious case in point. During the past decade, this issue alone has become a major focus for international debate. Whereas some might have hoped that existing intellectual property rights regimes could be easily adapted for application in this new domain, the emerging consensus is that traditional knowledge protection requires the development of novel sui generis instruments that are adapted to their unique nature. Obviously this work is only just beginning.

Similar observations can be made about the major theme of today's encounter – ‘Linking traditional and scientific knowledge'. Achieving such an interlinkage is not a simple task. Of course, the uncomplicated approach would be to acknowledge traditional knowledge but only on Science’s own terms. 'Linking' would then be reduced to merely identifying elements of indigenous knowledge judged to be of interest to science for their eventual integration, while discarding the rest. Such ‘mining’ of traditional knowledge is carried out by the pharmaceutical industry and agri-business when they prospect (and in some cases pirate) traditional knowledge for bio-active ingredients or plant/animal varieties with the goal of developing new commercial products.

No doubt, for most scientists, this is the natural tendency. After all, we are first taught that Science is rational, objective, methodical and culture-free …
and thus an exceptional and superior way to know reality. It would therefore seem quite natural to subject traditional knowledge to the rational filter of science in order to separate the grain from the chaff, empirical truth from superstition.

But if we, as scientists, listen to our own historians and philosophers of science, then we must acknowledge that science has another face that is not the one most commonly presented for public consumption. Science has its own historical, social and cultural context. From its very origins, science is anchored in a dualistic worldview that separates Culture and Nature, sets humans apart from other living organisms, and opposes the rational and the spiritual. This will to separate, reduce and compartmentalise is both science's force, as witnessed by enormous advances in Western technology, and its weakness, as all scientists traumatised by the elusive challenge of interdisciplinarity will eagerly attest.

But if scientists admit to sharing a worldview that has a basis in culture, then judging traditional knowledge by the tenets of science makes no more sense than evaluating science according to the tenets of traditional knowledge. Rather than rational and objective, this narrow approach to linking with traditional knowledge can best be qualified as ethnocentric.

Today the linking of traditional and scientific knowledge is in need of novel and more comprehensive approaches that acknowledge the diversity, dynamism and multiple dimensions of traditional knowledge, and the broad range of its contributions to sustainable development.

Through its cross-cutting LINKS project, UNESCO is cultivating such an interdisciplinary and holistic approach by mobilising inputs from all of its programme sectors – Natural Sciences, Social and Human Sciences, Culture, Education and Communication & Information. The presentations and debates that will take place throughout this day will help identify the ways forward in this most promising but admittedly challenging domain.


Date 28-08-2002 10:00 pm
Document Speech J'burg Links condensed.doc 29696 bytes (Download Help)


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