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close this bookTraditional Knowledge and Sustainable Development (WB)
close this folderSummary of the conference proceedings
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentTraditional knowledge and cultural survival
View the documentTraditional knowledge, land, and the environment
View the documentTraditional knowledge and agricultural sustainability
View the documentContributions of traditional medicine to health
View the documentTraditional institutions and participation
View the documentGovernment policies and traditional knowledge
View the documentBuilding a new partnership
View the documentConclusion


Ma te huruhuru ka rere te manu.
A bird can only fly if it has feathers.

The role of traditional knowledge is the same as the feathers. Traditional knowledge is an enabling component of development.... Our cultural artifacts, our whole cultural fabric, rely on every single interlocking part of the fabric. Our knowledge system is a very integral part of that. So, we have to have access to it. Not just to preserve it, not because it makes us feel good to have it; we have to be able to use it. Without my tikanga Maori, I'm just another person. And, if I am just another person, I've failed in my duty to my grandchildren and their grandchildren by not transmitting these values to them.

Whaimutu Dewes
Washington, D.C.
September 28, 1993

On December 18, 1992, the United Nations declared 1993 as International Year for the World's Indigenous People:

... with a view to strengthening international co-operation for the solution of problems faced by indigenous communities in such areas as human rights, the environment, development, education, [and] health. Resolution 164

The positive response to the International Year and the need for further progress in solving the problems faced by indigenous peoples led the United Nations General Assembly to proclaim an International Decade of the World's Indigenous People (1995-2004).

To support these efforts, the World Bank held a two-day conference on the topic of "Traditional Knowledge and Sustainable Development." On September 27 and 28,1993 the conference brought together a group of indigenous peoples with staff members and representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations agencies to discuss the relationship between traditional knowledge and sustainable development. The closing speaker was Whaimutu Dewes, a Maori lawyer who works for one of the largest business corporations in New Zealand. The theme of his summary remarks, as well as the conference itself, was that no contradiction exists between the maintenance of strong cultural traditions and identities and economic development. To the contrary, for development to be socially and environmentally sustainable, it must take into account and draw upon the values, traditions, and cultures of the people in the countries and societies that it serves.

Indigenous peoples - perhaps more than any others - are aware of these relationships between culture and development. According to the United Nations, there are more than 300 million indigenous people in over 70 countries. These people live in almost every climatic zone from the remote Arctic region and the deserts of Africa to the Pacific Islands and the rainforests of Asia and South America. While there is a great diversity of language, culture, dress, and customs among them, indigenous peoples share a strong sense of ethnic identity and close attachments to their ancestral lands.

Historically, indigenous peoples have been socially discriminated against and culturally marginalized by the process of economic modernization and development. Over the past decade, however, policymakers, development planners, and the public at large have become increasingly aware of the important role that the traditional knowledge of indigenous peoples can play in the promotion of sustainable development.

The significance of traditional knowledge for sustainable development was recognized in the Brundtland Commission's Report, Our Common Future (1987), and at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. It is also incorporated in the Agenda 21 documents of the United Nations and the International Convention on Biodiversity.

The World Bank and Indigenous Peoples

The World Bank was the first multilateral development agency to establish a special policy for the treatment of indigenous peoples in internationally funded development projects. This policy dates back to the early 1980s, when the Bank became involved in funding several projects that affected the lands and welfare of relatively isolated and highly vulnerable indigenous tribes in the South American Amazon. The Bank policy called for the recognition, demarcation, and protection of indigenous peoples' lands, and the providing of culturally appropriate social services, especially to protect and maintain their health.

In the late 1980s the Bank reviewed its project experience in this area and, in 1991 issued a revised policy. This new policy extends the definition of indigenous peoples to reflect the much broader range of social and legal definitions and situations in Bank member countries. Some of the earlier protective measures are maintained, but the new policy also stresses the need to promote the informed participation of indigenous peoples and their sharing in the social and economic benefits of development projects.

A major innovation of this revised policy is the commitment of the Bank to assist its borrowers in preparing and financing special Indigenous Peoples Development Plans. These plans, some of which are being prepared, are to be designed in consultation with indigenous peoples and, where conditions permit, to be implemented by them. These plans are also to respect indigenous peoples' "cultural uniqueness" and take into account "local patterns of social organization, religious beliefs, and resource use."

The Traditional Knowledge Conference

The September 1993 conference was organized as part of the World Bank's activities for the UN International Year of the World's Indigenous People. A major purpose of the conference was to bring together a small number of indigenous peoples from around the world to educate Bank staff on issues relating to traditional knowledge and sustainable development.

The questions that the conference explored were: What is the role of traditional knowledge in sustainable development? What are the contributions that traditional knowledge can make to health and environment programs? How can traditional institutions be used to increase participation in the development process? How can the Bank and other donor agencies improve their performance in planning development projects with indigenous peoples?

The September 1993 conference was only a first step in addressing these issues and did not cover all of the significant cultural and development concerns relating to indigenous peoples. The people who spoke at the conference provided their own personal perspectives and experiences; obviously, they could not represent the spectrum of the great cultural diversity of the world's indigenous peoples. In fact, some regions of the world, such as Asia, were not represented at the conference, even though Asia contains a major segment of the Bank's borrower countries. Furthermore, some of the people who spoke at the conference are members of large African tribal groups, many of which have non-western cultures and world views but do not fall within the restricted definition of "indigenous" used by the Bank and other international agencies.

To create dialogue, we did not ask the speakers to prepare formal papers. In this way, we hoped to maximize the amount of interaction among the speakers, participating Bank staff, and other conference attendees, as well as to respect the oral nature of traditional cultures. We also felt that it was important for Bank staff to hear the "voices" of indigenous peoples - which seldom find their way into development institutions, which are located far from the often remote areas in which indigenous peoples live.


This Proceedings contains two sections. The first summarizes the conference itself. In this section we highlight several themes: the importance of traditional knowledge to the cultural survival of indigenous peoples; the relationship of this knowledge to the land and environment; the contributions that traditional knowledge can make to agricultural sustainability and health; the relevance of traditional institutions for development planning; and, some recent government and international initiatives in the areas of traditional knowledge and indigenous peoples' rights.

The first section concludes with remarks made to the participants by Ismail Serageldin, Vice President for Environmentally Sustainable Development at the World Bank. His presentation is significant in that it represents the growing interest on the part of the Bank in integrating these themes into its development agenda.

The second section of this report is a transcript of a roundtable discussion that took place on the day following the conference among some of the conference participants. It presents many of the key issues related to traditional knowledge and development raised by the indigenous participants.

The Appendixes comprise the conference program; names and addresses of conference participants; names and addresses of Indigenous Knowledge Centers recently established throughout the world; the World Bank's Operational Directive on Indigenous Peoples; and a selected bibliography.

Themes and Perspectives

While the conference made no formal recommendations, participants highlighted a series of themes or perspectives. These themes can be organized around five subjects: culture, development, participation, rights, and partnership.

1. Culture. A strong motif of the conference was that traditional knowledge must be under stood within the framework of the cultures of indigenous peoples. Indigenous peoples value traditional knowledge, because it is fundamental to their cultural values, spiritual beliefs, and collective identities. To separate traditional knowledge from its cultural context is to lose sight of the meaning that it has for the survival and integrity of indigenous peoples.

2. Development. There is no contradiction between the preservation of traditional knowledge and development. To the contrary, traditional knowledge can be seen as a "tool" or "instrument" to promote culturally sensitive or appropriate forms of development. This is particularly clear in the areas of environment and natural resource management, in which the use of traditional knowledge is increasingly recognized as a key to sustainable development. Similar contributions are being discovered in the fields of agricultural development, health and medicine, education, rural finance, law reform, and the strengthening of kin-based social safety nets, especially for groups such as youth, the handicapped, and the elderly.

3. Participation. As in so many other areas, local or popular participation is fundamental to the ownership and success of these development interventions. Traditional knowledge can play a role in the design of culturally appropriate participation mechanisms, particularly when government policies and programs and project designs give adequate recognition to indigenous social and political institutions (Chapters 5 and 6). Here, the recognition and support of indigenous women are especially important because women are key transmitters of traditional knowledge and values, and they are significant participants in the development process.

4. Rights. The contributions of traditional knowledge to development also must be seen within the larger framework of the struggle of indigenous peoples for social justice and the recognition of their rights. At numerous international conferences, including this one, indigenous participants have stressed the critical role of land rights recognition for the integrity and survival of their people. Other social justice issues voiced by indigenous peoples include the rights to practice their own cultures and speak their own languages, to be protected and receive appropriate benefits from the use by outsiders of their traditional knowledge (intellectual property rights), to be free from economic exploitation and poverty, and to determine their own development paths and destinies.

5. Partnership. Several participants stressed the need for a "new partnership" among indigenous peoples, national governments, and international development agencies. While the nature of this partnership was not spelled out, indigenous peoples clearly are not seeking the old types of "paternalistic" or "top-down" approaches to development so characteristic of past government and donor agency responses to their situations. In contrast, what was expressed during this and other recent fore is the need for a new type of relationship in which indigenous peoples, national governments, and international agencies are equal partners in a common effort (that includes other actors) for planetary survival and sustainable development. Obviously, there are lessons here for institutions such as the World Bank, and its affiliates, in designing and funding projects in which indigenous peoples are affected populations or key participants.

Traditional Knowledge and Western Science

It is worth mentioning that, in highlighting the important (and frequently overlooked) role that traditional knowledge can play in the development process, the speakers at the September 1993 conference were not arguing against the contributions that Western science (if appropriately applied) can contribute to the problems faced by indigenous peoples and other marginalized populations.

None of the speakers questioned, for example, the role that modern medicine can play in the control of diseases among indigenous and other rural peoples; nor did any of the speakers question the utility of modern agricultural and natural resource management techniques in improving food security or rehabilitating degraded landscapes and ecosystems, especially under conditions of rapid demographic growth and social, economic, and cultural change.

The issues at the conference and in this report are raised less as opposing traditional knowledge to Western science than as questioning the current balance among the uses of different types of knowledge in the development process.

Similarly, the challenge is less one of coming out on the side of one form of knowledge or another than of finding areas in which traditional knowledge and Western science can mutually support each other in the common quest for solutions to what up to now have often been intractable local and global problems.

Shelton H. Davis
Katrinka Ebbe
Conference Organizers