Sophisticated knowledge of the natural world is not confined to science. Human societies all across the globe have developed rich sets of experiences and explanations relating to the environments they live in. These "other knowledge systems" are today often referred to as traditional ecological knowledge or indigenous or local knowledge. They encompass the sophisticated arrays of information, understandings and interpretations that guide human societies around the globe in their innumerable interactions with the natural milieu: in agriculture and animal husbandry; hunting, fishing and gathering; struggles against disease and injury; naming and explanation of natural phenomena; and strategies to cope with fluctuating environments.
Numerous scientists and development agencies dismiss these other systems as insignificant. Yet they have already contributed greatly to the development of "modern science." When colonial Europe was "discovering" the world, for example, ethnobotany and ethnozoology were established to grapple with the sudden influx of biological information from ‘foreign parts.’ Western taxonomic knowledge and practice were significantly transformed by this encounter with traditional systems of knowledge. Western science profited from the appropriation of traditional taxonomic and ecological understandings, with little acknowledgment of their intellectual origins.
Traditional knowledge remains the basis of local food production in many developing countries. As Lazare Sehoueto of the Kilimandjaro Institute (Benin) points out, "‘local knowledge’ is the principal knowledge resource for small-scale farmers who represent 70 to 90% of agricultural producers and more than 60% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa." Similarly, the Maya have developed a large number of herbal remedies on the basis of their "astute understanding of the signs and symptoms of common disease conditions." These remedies represent, in the view of Brent Berlin of the University of Georgia (USA), an invaluable asset for remote regions of Mexico where "the delivery of modern medications is economically impossible."
The pharmaceutical industry has not been blind to this potential. It recognises that traditional health practitioners may greatly facilitate the search for new bioactive ingredients by providing information on their selective use of biodiversity. Biotechnicians, including those of the agro-chemical industry, are very much interested in the genetic potential of the numerous crop varieties developed and sustained by generations of small-scale farmers. In tropical agro-ecosystems in Thailand and Indonesia, for example, peasants commonly maintain more than 100 domestic plant species, as well as harbouring in their paddies, rice varieties adapted to a range of environmental conditions.
While this growing recognition of traditional knowledge might seem beneficial, it poses some major problems. It dissects and reduces such knowledge into the categories of "useful" and "useless", fragmenting traditional systems and leading to their accelerated replacement by science. It has also triggered an intensification of "biopiracy", the unauthorised appropriation of traditional knowledge, and subsequently calls for appropriate systems of protection for this knowledge.
Adapting intellectual property rights (IPR) arrangements is one solution. Patent and copyright laws, however, have evolved within narrow socio-economic and political contexts. Designed to protect individuals whose inventions require safeguarding in view of their potential commercial value, they remain incompatible with traditional knowledge, which is collectively owned, whose "invention" extends across generations, and whose raison d’être is not profit, but ecological understanding and social meaning.
Due to these contradictions, legal rights may have impacts quite other than those intended. By protecting select elements in isolation from the larger cultural context, they encourage fragmentation of the cultural system. By designating knowledge "owners", they may trigger social dissension between recognised proprietors and others who are excluded. Finally, as IPRs protect knowledge by setting rules for their commercial exploitation, they may facilitate the appropriation of traditional knowledge by the global marketplace. In short, extant legal arrangements are ill adapted for protecting traditional knowledge. Today, efforts are turning towards the challenging task of defining new or sui generis systems.
There is clearly a need for novel approaches to traditional knowledge systems, which can meet the challenges arising from their increasing prominence. Perhaps one important step forward is to consider traditional knowledge, not as static sets of information, but as integral components of living and dynamic societies and cultures: a process, not a product. With its ethical, scientific, cultural, and educational mandate, UNESCO is well placed to address this pressing contemporary issue in the more comprehensive framework that interlinks the goals of social equity, biodiversity conservation, sustainable development and protection of the intangible cultural heritage. << Back
Douglas Nakashima (UNESCO Science sector)
Lyndel Prott (Culture sector)
Peter Bridgewater, (MAB Programme)