On indigenous knowledge.

The loss of ancestral knowledge amongst indigenous peoples and peasant populations – of medicinal plants and animals, handicrafts, songs, agricultural practices, traditional law and decision-making amongst other things – is painfully visible and accelerating all over the world, mainly due to the rapid and asymetrical changes that colonization and neo-liberal globalisation have wrought.

At the same time, ancestral knowledge has over recent years increasingly become a topic of international interest and debate. Knowledge of medicinal plants, for example, is of potentially great economic value for pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies.

Access to such knowledge is hence important for these companies, which means that without legal protection, ancestral knowledge is subject to illegitimate economic exploitation by third parties: pharmaceutical companies, to use the same example, can use indigenous knowledge of medicinal plants to produce new medicaments for a market that exists mainly in the USA and Europe, thus making (potentially big) profit from the wisdom of cultures who will not enjoy any economic, let alone social or political benefits from such commercialization.

Moreover, the current, globalized form of free market economy is increasingly dependent on a strong system of intellectual property rights undergirding its expansion. Ancestral knowledge however does not fit neatly into a system inherently built to protect the commercial interests of profit-oriented institutions and individuals. Ancestral knowledge is trans-generational, communally shared, often non-commercial in nature and purpose, and originates in the far away past. These characteristics conflict with the requirements for the granting of intellectual property rights.

Hence there is a heated debate taking place in many international fora – at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD), the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the World Bank – about how to best “protect” the intellectual “property” of indigenous peoples: their ancestral knowledge.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, indigenous ways of understanding the relationship between knowledge and the knowledge-holder (which might well not have anything to do with the dominant European concept of “property”), as well as the real needs of local communities, and the long-term consequences of ancestral knowledge and related biological resources (such as medicinal plants) are rarely discussed in those fora whose decisions might have serious future implications for the lives of many indigenous communities.

The issue is usually approached as an “economical problem” and “fair benefit sharing” (i.e. economic compensation) presented as ultimate solution. But is this the best way of understanding the issue? And might this generally accepted solution create problems instead of solving them?

It is no use trying to determine the situation of ancestral knowledge and making decisions about how to keep it alive and how to defend it from misappropriation in international fora far removed from and fundamentally uninterested in the lived reality of local communities. Even though the voices of some indigenous representatives are being heard in some of those fora, local communities are not only excluded from the decision-making process but most are also completely unaware of the issue in the first place.

Proposals for the protection of ancestral knowledge that have grown from the experience and deliberation of the knowledge holders themselves are urgently needed yet are few and far between. None such proposal exists in Ecuador.

We therefore propose the creation of a collaborative project of participative research and capacity building with a view to establish a network of organisations and individuals from the Ecuadorian Amazon which is able to:

1. investigate, evaluate, and monitor the situation of ancestral knowledge in the region (its character, importance, use, and distribution);

2. draw up an indigenous plan for the celebration and/or recuperation of ancestral knowledge in the region;

3. articulate an indigenous proposal for the protection of ancestral knowledge from misappropriation and misuse according to the shared cosmovisions of the Amazonian peoples;

4. participate in the debates regarding traditional knowledge on the international level;

5. continuously raise awareness of the issues on the local level through workshops, courses and other means of providing information.

9 thoughts on “On indigenous knowledge.

    k said:
    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 00:11 (049)

    Protecting the indigenous knowledge requires simultaneous protection of the LAND….the land is connected to the living life of the knowledge…they cannot be separated.

    colona responded:
    Thursday, November 15, 2007 at 14:21 (639)

    Absolutely! And not only PROTECTION of the land but also political and social AUTONOMY within it. Externally managed conservation areas such as National Parks are sometimes thought to “protect” the land and its biodiversity, but mostly local people are not seen to be part of such land and pushed off it. For any attempts at “protecting” indigenous knowledge (in itself a problematic term) to be meaningful, autonomy or self-determination needs to be claimed by forest- (or other biotope-) dwellers and respected by the rest. The “Parque de la Papa” (Potato Park) near Cusco, Peru, is an interesting example of a community-run area for the protection of “collective bio-cultural heritage” – a term which contains the inextricable connection of knowledge/culture and the biosphere it relates to.

    I should expand and update this page, really.

    Thanks for your comment.

    palooka said:
    Wednesday, March 26, 2008 at 08:51 (410)

    “I should expand and update this page, really.”

    that would be greatly appreciated by this one! i read with grave concern.

    the “needs” and the “threats” are clear. the question is, of course, what to do about it? its also clear that, having pretty much destroyed a perfectly good planet, the eagle is more the problem than the solution and now, like an advancing rot, is headed your way and only more of the same can be expected.

    will we ever learn? somewhere in the middle ground there must be a balance point. somewhere between this… http://www.garyascott.com/2008/03/25/2057.html… sort of thing and the autonomous self-preservation woven into the regional cultures of the condor and their resources coveted by the eagle. will the chinese bring any better?

    should we continue to fool ourselves into possibility without addressing the core problem that is the human condition? i am hearing that the time is now for the prophecies, long held by the keepers of such, for the coming together of the eagle and the condor. yet the peoples of the messenger continue to be the victum of genocide in the name of the eagle’s concept of progress. his lands raped, his resources stolen, his wisdom ignored, his socio-political ways scorned, his culture ragaged, his very soul pirated. i was hoping the condor had some wisdom to impart specific to this… that they are not merely opening the door in the name of prophecy midst an ignorance to a history staring them in the face. perhaps they do and i’ve missed it. but if this is so, why are we seeing the reflections we are seeing?

    the challenge is daunting and personally, i blow fuses trying to conceptualize a merger. it seems all i can do is see the problem. we have only to look to see that all we have so far is the makings of another re-enactment and the condor will end up dead meat or slaves to the eagle. again!! am i a realist or a whining pessimist?

    your work is much appreciated…. palooka

    rebecca said:
    Friday, May 23, 2008 at 20:39 (902)

    Colono, please contact me via my personal email address

    Fayecita said:
    Friday, April 3, 2009 at 19:42 (862)

    It’s great you’re discussing this issue but saying that local indigenous communities in Ecuador have not really put forward plans to ‘protect’ their ancestral knowledge is a misleading thing to say. There are many organisations in the Amazonia (Only mestizos call it el Oriente and this term is considered by many indigenous peoples as derrogatory) and other parts of the country who have put proposals forward on their own terms and debated these issues in the UN permanent forum. I’m not saying that they are being listened to but they ARE actively trying to defend their rights.

    colona responded:
    Friday, April 3, 2009 at 20:06 (879)

    Hi Fayecita and thanks for your comment!

    At the time of writing this post (2005/6), there was only a COICA proposal seriously put together and being brought forward in international fora. And as you will know, COICA is anything but a local indigenous organisation. I am aware of more concrete work by parts of the indigenous movement elsewhere in Ecuador, but not from the Amazon (apart from maybe the Cofan with regards to the Ayahuasca patent case?!). Please post some examples, it would be good to have them published here! I should maybe clarify that the text was supposed to highlight the need for real grassroots work on the issue and not just work by the big representative indigenous organisations, the representativeness of which is often contested at the grassroots level.

    Thank you very much for pointing out the connotations of the term Oriente, which I have now removed from the post! None of the people I worked with ever mentioned the derrogatory nature of Oriente, but I can’t be sure I made use of it very often.

    K STOCKL said:
    Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 05:04 (252)

    hey what do you guys think of this five star ECO hotel being constructed in ahuano, ATLANTISECUADOR.COM coming soon

    colono said:
    Wednesday, May 6, 2009 at 10:44 (489)

    This is the first I hear of it – and the link doesn’t tell me anything, but in general terms I would most likely advocate the use of any decent means necessary to stop the construction.

    I am not surprised, though, what is an airport without a fancy hotel? That’s the whole point of opposing roads and airports: they do not come in isolation, but bring further destruction, economic pressures and consequent cultural erosion with them.

    Do tell us more!

    colono said:
    Thursday, May 28, 2009 at 11:42 (529)

    So the atlantis website is up and running and it appears that someone by the name of “Karin” has been one of the designers, suggesting to me that the comment above was left by the same person. In other words, it is probably plain advertising. In any case, I have removed the active link from the comment to the website of this disgusting Euro-American colonial hotel.

    On the site it says rooms of “European standard” and hot water and TV in all rooms, each with a balcony. Who in the heaven’s name needs hot water in the middle of the Amazon? Who needs a TV? Such people should stay at home – and not come to the rain forest to destroy it.

    The claim that “Karin and Roberto” have designed the hotel to not “compromise the environment” is a pathetic oxymoron and either a testimony to “Karin and Roberto’s” complete ignorance or their total disregard for nature. Shame on them.

    I cannot emphasise enough how much I mistrust this hotel and the people behind it with all their lies, hot water and TVs. The Atlantis hotel is another colonial enterprise that would have pleased Cortez the Killer. Anyone who goes there participates in the destruction of the rain forest.

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