Knowledge is perhaps the major factor that will determine
whether humankind will be able to create a sustainable future on this planet.
Yet, until relatively recently, our conception of knowledge was bound by the
philosophy and methods of Western science. Few, outside of some anthropologists
and historians, recognized that there are myriad "sciences" embedded in the
cultures of other peoples and civilizations throughout the world. Today, both
scholars and public policy-makers are recognizing the importance of various
local or culture-based knowledge systems in addressing the pressing problems of
development and the environment. The United Nations declared 1993 the
International Year of the World's Indigenous People. This was followed by the
United Nations' declaration of 1995 to 2004 to be the Decade of the World's
This report, Traditional Knowledge and Sustainable Development
records the proceedings of a two-day conference held at the World Bank in
September 1993 in support of the United Nations year. The conference brought
together a small number of peoples from around the world - some of them members
of indigenous or traditional societies - to discuss how the knowledge of
indigenous peoples might contribute to creating more environmentally and
socially sustainable forms of development.
Interestingly, the conference speakers focused not on abstract
propositions but on real world problems, such as the contributions of
traditional knowledge to land use planning and environmental protection, food
security and agricultural sustainability, and health and medicine. They also
highlighted how traditional or customary social institutions can promote and
facilitate the practice of sustainable development.
This conference made no formal recommendations. However,
consensus (reflected in reports such as the UN Agenda 21 documents and those
from the UN International Year of the World's Indigenous People) seems to be
emerging that a new type of relationship or contract is needed among indigenous
peoples, national governments, and international development agencies. The old
top-down or paternalistic forms of development policymaking are no longer
acceptable to indigenous peoples. Like so many other groups who formerly were
unheard or unheeded, indigenous peoples are asking for respect for their land
rights and cultural integrity, and the right to participate as partners in the
development decision-making process.
For all of these reasons, I am glad to see that the Proceedings
of this conference are being published and will be available to persons involved
in sustainable development efforts both inside and outside of the World Bank.