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View the documentTraditional knowledge and sustainable development: a conversation

Traditional knowledge and sustainable development: a conversation

The following is a transcript of a post-conference discussion among some of the conference participants on the subject of traditional knowledge and sustainable development. The discussion was chaired by Shelton H. Davis, Principal Sociologist, Environment Department, World Bank, and included the following participants:

- Arturo Argueta, Ethnobiologist, National Indigenist Institute, Mexico

- Emmanuel Asibey, Senior Ecologist, Agriculture and Environment Division, Southern Africa Department, World Bank

- Ntombie Gata, Deputy Director, Department of Research and Specialist Services, Ministry of Agriculture, Lands and Water Development, Zimbabwe

- Maurice Iwu, Visiting Senior Research Associate, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, U.S.A.; and Professor of Pharmacognosy at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, Nigeria

- Moelagi Jackson, President, Faasao Savaii Society, Western Samoa

- Jorge Terena, Director, Regional Support Program for the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin, International Fund for Agricultural Development; and Andean Development Corporation, Ecuador.

What Is the Meaning of Traditional Knowledge to Indigenous Peoples?

Davis: There has been a lot of attention recently - at the [1992 Pio] Earth Summit, in the Agenda 21 documents of the U.N., and in the International Biodiversity Convention - on how traditional knowledge is important to sustainable development. However, what do indigenous peoples, people from the villages, mean by traditional knowledge? Why is it important for institutions like the World Bank to be concerned with this kind of issue?

Terena: Terms such as "sustainable development" and "traditional knowledge" are not known to our community or our leaders. But if you talk to indigenous people, you will find out exactly what traditional knowledge is in their world. If we study how our communities have kept this traditional knowledge for so long, we find that this knowledge was stored because of a need. The day to day need for survival.

For example, the Kayapo people in Brazil have small pastures for medicinal plants and food for animals they want to attract in order to hunt. This is done because of a necessity to live. The Kayapo are not thinking that someday outsiders are going to find out that they have good hunting in their area and that they will pay lots of money to hunt there. We don't preserve our ecosystems because we are thinking about future economic gain. We preserve them because there is a need to be met for day-today living.

Not only are the animals necessary, but the plants and certain kinds of fruits are essential for our cultural practices. The Xavantes, for example, need the pequi fruit. Why? To paint themselves for rituals. They also use the plant to feed certain ritually important animals. The ecosystem must be preserved to preserve the cultural practices and these, in turn, preserve the ecosystem.

Everything that belongs to the ecosystem, the environment, has a strong spiritual meaning to us. Our forest is a sanctuary. It is where the spirits live. It is where the spirits that our ancestors worshiped live. Imagine if I went to Rome and set off a bomb at the Basilica, St. Peter's Church. What is going to happen to me? I'd probably be put in jail because I'm destroying something that is sacred to million of people. So why is it that some people go out to our sanctuary, our environment, and destroy the sacred things that belong to us?

Biodiversity and the World Economy

Terena: Suddenly, the world has realized that we have preserved the ecosystem. That ecosystem brings economic gain to some people, and now they are trying to protect our biodiversity. Why? Because they have used everything they on their land and now, the only place where these things are found is on our land, on indigenous peoples' lend.

This question of biodiversity is so important because 40 percent of the world's market economy comes from biological processes and products. More important, 85 to 90 percent of our community's needs are based on this biological diversity. Not only that, but millions of people in South America have their needs met by the natural materials in our ecosystem.

I am glad that the World Bank and the U.N. are introducing the vocabulary of traditional knowledge and sustainable development to our community, but, in practice, it is not a strange thing to us. I hope that the World Bank, the U.N., and other institutions will visit our communities and learn what traditional knowledge is in practice, this traditional knowledge of sustainable development.

Indigenous Peoples and Biodiversity Conservation

Davis: I wonder if we could hear a little more about biodiversity conservation. What role have indigenous peoples played in biodiversity conservation and what role can they play in the future?

Argueta: I want to mention an historical issue. Perhaps for 10,000 years in America people have domesticated plants and animals. In Mexico we have 25,000 different species of plants. Maybe 35 percent of the species that existed in Mexico have been used and conserved by the people for 10,000 years. This is the most important test of the conservation of biodiversity.

Davis: Are you saying that we should not just make parks to protect biodiversity, but that people should be using all this species diversity?

Argueta: The areas with the greatest biodiversity in Mexico are in the cultivated lands, in the peasant and indigenous peoples' areas, not in the national parks or biosphere reserves. The most important areas of biodiversity are in the inhabited areas.

Iwu: What he says of Mexico is also true in Africa. Namely, for at least 13,000 years the people have lived alongside forests. They have managed these forests. Suddenly, around the turn of the seventeenth century, there was a complete paradigm shift that led us to the industrial revolution. We have gone so far [in using up the natural resources] and now we want to have something left behind for our children, for our children's children. The only way we can do that is to go back and learn from cultures that managed to live alongside the rivers and forests and use them sustainably. We had symbolic ways of doing that. We had shrines and taboos. The symbolism involved in this should not prevent Western science from understanding the actual significance of those protective mechanisms.

For medicinal plants particularly, it is foolish to think we can know something about a forest without asking the people who live in it. The medicinal plants in Africa can only exist where there are people who use medicines. So it is inappropriate to build parks and reservation areas without addressing the issue of the people who live alongside them. You cannot have biodiversity protection without cultural protection. The two go side by side.

Traditional Knowledge and Present-Day Agricultural Practices

Gata: I would like to talk about agriculture, one of the most important factors in sustainable development. Scientists have recognized from bitter experience that technology transfers from the West such as pesticides, monocultures, and plow systems have not worked well in Africa. In the West the climate is temperate, and soils and rainfall patterns are different from ours. In most African countries we have sporadic rainfall patterns. In some countries the land is bare three-fourths of the year. The rain comes in heavy showers on bare land. The soil and the landscape is fragile.

The local farming systems that existed prior to the transfer of Western technologies evolved over a long period and were designed to cope with the local climate and landscape. Farmers used mixed cropping with a lot of ground cover. This ground cover protected the land from erosion. When monoculture, row planting, and the plow system came, these facilitated the washing away of soil.

In addition, these systems had no roots in the people so the people together with their local technology were marginalized. We pushed the people in a passive stream of development, and this did not work. Over time, there has been a lot of damage to the environment and to the biodiversity, and there's been growing poverty.

We should not have ignored the potential in the people because they are the actors in the development process. We must start now empowering them. This is what we are trying to tell the World Bank to do - to recognize and legitimize the people and their knowledge.

Wildlife Preservation and Human Usage in Africa

Davis: Another major issue in Africa is the idea of using wildlife for food and the conflict that this poses with parks where some of the large game animals are protected for tourism. What are your views on this?

Asibey: People assume that we did not have any use for animals because they were free for all. This is not true. In Ghana any hunter who kills a bushbuck or a bigger animal must give the hind leg and thigh, about one quarter of it, to the chief. That means about 25 percent of somebody's income is being taxed. So how can we say that the people place no value on the game, as if everybody can go and take it for free. This is not the case.

You have a situation where the people are dying of starvation, a situation where they could reduce the animal population to feed the people.

Bush meat has been part of their diet. Scientific analysis shows that nutritionally these animals are better than the best steak.

Some also say that the people don't appreciate the beauty of the animals. How can a hungry person appreciate beauty? Armies don't march on an empty stomach. So for people to admire beauty, they must be satisfied and have food. The people are starving. The environmentalists say that the people should leave the animals alone, because the tourist will pay a lot of money to look at the animals. These days, tourists pay everything with a credit card in America and Britain before they travel. How much money is left in the country?

In the old days we had animal sanctuaries, the places where people did not go. Then we did not need a whole army to protect the animals, because it was built into the culture and you knew you should not hunt in the sanctuaries. If you did, you would bring havoc to the whole community and be excommunicated from the society. Today, we keep a whole battalion, and we are unable to protect the animals, because the people are not convinced that it is in their interests.

You mentioned traditional knowledge. Again, we can learn from what has happened in the West. If you look at Europe and some parts of North America, where is the biodiversity of these areas? It is destroyed. The technology that was used has destroyed these places. If we want sustainable development in another country where species have been preserved and people have been living with nature, it is just common sense to ask: How have they been doing this? How do they sustain that? Rather than introducing the very technology that has destroyed the West's resources, we need to understand these peoples' knowledge. To achieve conservation without that is impossible.

Traditional Medicine and World Health

Davis: One of the issues discussed at the conference was the relationship of traditional medicine to health problems. A speaker from the floor pointed out that about 80 percent of the world's population still uses medicinal plants. It is not just something that is interesting to study or document in museums. He also pointed out that the World Bank has published a World Development Report on health that made only minimal mention of traditional medicine.' I was wondering if Maurice Iwu and Arturo Argueta have any comments on this whole issue of health and traditional medical knowledge.

Argueta: For an estimated 4 billion people in the world, traditional health care is very important. The materials and procedures, the beliefs and ideology, the sacred places and the holy plants - the whole thing - provides health for many people. The trend is toward growth in the next decade. Maybe 5 billion people in the next century will use natural medicines. More and more people from Western societies are using non-Western medicinal plants and traditional health systems.

Iwu: The point made by Arturo is a world-wide phenomenon. The World Health Organization has indeed estimated that 80 percent of the world's population uses traditional medicine. That means that it is the majority form of health care. But how much money is spent on traditional medicine by the World Bank and other institutions? It is probably zero or something minimal.

Traditional medicine is "cost effective," to use a World Bank term. Traditional medicine reduces hospitalizations. Using plants rather than chemicals is also a less expensive proposition.

If you are actually trying to develop drugs from plants, the very first act should be to increase the efficiency of traditional healers so that they can prepare herbal medicines. The only way you can do that is to invest in support for traditional health care practitioners. Until now, they have been working only at the local level. There was little demand for these plants, but over time people are beginning to recognize that this is a growth industry. Several billions of dollars are spent on drugs each year. The only way, our people can reap the benefits of this is to gain recognition of our traditional practices and bring them into the international marketplace.

It is estimated that about 130 pure compounds that are used as drugs in the West are derived from plants. Of those compounds, 74 percent come directly from the recommendations of traditional healers. As Jorge Terena mentioned, quinine came from traditional healers. How much money does the traditional community make from quinine? Nothing. It is the pharmaceutical companies that make money from it.

The International Intellectual Property Rights Commission and everybody else is talking about a "trickle down" of money to the communities who have discovered these medical properties. The pharmaceutical companies should make so much money, and when they are rich enough, they should give us 1 percent of their profits. I do not think that a "trickle down" is sufficient compensation for this kind of valuable knowledge.

Consider the pharmaceutical products that we use in developing countries. The shameful part is that we get nearly 99 percent of them from the developed countries. They buy raw materials from us, modify them, and bring them back to us as finished products. We have to pay for them in their currency. We earn their currencies by cutting down forests to plant more cash crops in order to pay them for the drugs that originally came from us.

Changing Attitudes toward Traditional Medicine

Davis: Let me ask Moelagi Jackson to comment now, because it is a very different situation in the Pacific Islands and Western Samoa. What are some of your thoughts on traditional medicine?

Jackson: In the Pacific, especially in Samoa, a lot has to do with attitude. When the colonial powers came, they taught us their way of living, and our Samoan doctors, trained in the West, came home and said "This is the medicine." So the attitude was that our traditional medicine was wrong. A lot of people believed this. But some of the old people never changed their attitude. They continued to teach and pass down their knowledge to the young people.

I have an example from my family. We've had a long line of doctors. My uncle is the medical superintendent. I can remember twenty years ago when he did not like to see a tea leaf in the house. His grandmother, whether we had a cut or headache, the first thing she would go for was the tea leaf, the nono leaf. So in my family, we've got our medical doctors on one side, and our traditional medicine on the other.

We have a hospital near where we live in Savaii, but the doctors are never there. So I encouraged my children to learn from my grandmother. These children are now healers. When my Western-trained relatives came, they said "What are your children doing?" "Oh," I said, "They are mixing medicine for so and so." The doctors were very angry. They said "How dare you? This is wrong!"

Now people are realizing that it is too costly to fully maintain our hospitals. Maybe they have the medicine, but they do not have the technology to diagnose the patient. All of a sudden, they are appreciating our local medicine. It has been proven through generations that there are leaves, roots, and juices extracted from the rainforest that can cure a simple illness, instead of going a great distance away to the hospital. Herbal doctors are very respected members of the community, and we're trying to reactivate and increase the traditional knowledge. In the Fassao Savaii Society training program, we are teaching the young people to identify medicinal plants in the rainforest. At the same time, we are trying to encourage the Western-trained doctors to work with us.

Scientific Validity of Traditional Knowledge

Davis: I would like to continue on the issue of the scientific validity of traditional knowledge, especially in the agricultural sector. I know you have some views on this, Dr. Gata.

Gata: It must be emphasized that indigenous peoples use methods similar to those of the scientific world. For example, indigenous peoples classify soils using color, texture, and structure. They use indicator plants for deciding the suitability of soils for a given cropping system. They classify plants using morphological characteristics and physiological attributes, according to their growing and reproductive habits. The fact that indigenous peoples do not use microscopes or electrophoresis equipment for finer analysis does not nullify their methods. The scientific world did not bother to study local people's science and technology but instead went about, in many instances, reinventing the wheel.

Colonial authorities castigated indigenous peoples for slovenly farming methods, for mixing their crops in an unhygienic, haphazard way. But now science has realized that mixed cropping systems are not haphazard. They were developed through long-term experimentation, resulting in an invaluable knowledge of crops that are compatible and often have symbiotic and synergistic relationships. These combinations answered the people's needs of diversification of food types. These systems have also been found to have a lot of merit for plant protection, soil, and moisture conservation, time and labor management, and nutritional balance.

Asibey: Another scientific concept that the African farmer has worked out is that of ecological succession. In the practice of shifting cultivation, the people know that after farming one area and then leaving it, they must watch for certain species to grow again before they return to that plot. Population pressure does not always allow this cycle to be complete now. But this is the local application of the scientific notion of succession, which the illiterate African farmer worked out for himself.

Gata: African farmers have indicator plants for soil classification and land use planning. They know that a certain type of plant or tree grows in a soil that is suitable for certain crops. So they actually marry what I would call the physical properties with the biological dynamics of the ecosystem. It is time that we legitimize this knowledge and start to work together with the people who actually own it. We must start to work with grassroots farmers as partners in research and development, but not in a one-way system in which scientists drain local knowledge for their own self-improvement. The knowledge that grassroots farmers have developed thus far suggests that they can meaningfully contribute to research and development, side by side with modern scientists. After all, without people's participation, scientists have not made much headway in developing Africa.

International Agencies and Indigenous Peoples

Davis: What should be the policies of international development agencies like the World Bank for traditional knowledge and indigenous peoples? Also, what policies should we encourage on the part of the governments that these donor agencies are working with? If we were looking ahead, what should we be promoting? Maybe, Jorge, we could begin with you. At the conference, you mentioned the issue of assistance with land demarcation. Why is that so important?

Terena: Land demarcation. We need to know that the land is ours, that legally we can control our lands. There is a necessity to demarcate our lands and ensure that nobody is going to invade them. The world needs to understand that the things that exist in the world today, whether it is medicinal plants or biodiversity, have been preserved only in our areas. The only way that we're going to continue to have this diversity is by preserving our land. We can assure the world that we will maintain the biodiversity that people will need in the future if we're assured of our land.

Recognition of the scientific validity of indigenous knowledge. The second thing is, as Dr. Gata pointed out, the need to recognize indigenous knowledge as scientific and as an appropriate technology. If it were not scientific, we would not have preserved the ecosystems that exist on our land for thousands of years. It's still there, because there is a scientific method to it. That needs to be recognized.

Intellectual property rights. We've been talking a lot about medicinal plants. Some scientists go to our community and have our people teach them what purpose a root or a plant serves. Those scientists take that plant back to the laboratory and put chemical additives with it and come up with a pill. Then, that person patents the pill in his name or the laboratory's name. They don't give any kind of recognition to the community that knew the use of that plant in the first place. They say they "discovered" it; therefore, they patent it.

As you know, for someone to patent something, it must be new and original. How can they say it's new and original if our communities already knew about it? Why not name our community as coinventors? I'm sure the scientific world does not want to do that, because it would have to pay royalties to our communities.

As an excuse for not recognizing us, they say everything that exists, including the ecological diversity on indigenous lands, should be used for humanity's benefit. Well, of course, yes. If, for example, Maurice Iwu patents something, it's going to be used for humanity's benefit, but he wants to get some credit for it. Therefore, one of the things the World Bank could do would be to help our communities be recognized as co-inventors of this technology.

Institutional support for indigenous organizations. Another thing I suggest is assistance with the institution building of our own organizations and communities. I think that we are sufficiently organized now that we can become our own spokespeople. We don't need the church anymore. We don't need other NGOs to be our spokespeople. We have our own organizations and our own people who can speak for us. We have our own leaders. They can speak to the world about our needs.

However, in order to function in this world certain things are needed. Telephones and copying machines are needed. Somebody said the other day, indigenous peoples in the community don't use them. Of course, they don't use them, but the organizations in the city do. In order to make contact with this world and defend our rights before the governments, we need certain tools, and if these tools are not given to us, we cannot do it.

Jackson: Along with Jorge, I would emphasize the importance of land demarcation. How can we reactivate and reemphasize traditional knowledge if there is no land? All traditional knowledge is bound with the land. The World Bank must appreciate and support proposals and projects that have a viable and sound plan for sustainable use of the land. They must insist that an environmental plan and feasibility study be attached to any proposal. It is all very well to have a plan, but we must be sure it can be followed.

The idea of capacity building, mentioned by Jorge, is also important. For example, we have our own universities in the islands like the Universities of the South Pacific, Australia, and New Zealand. Is it possible for the World Bank to fund, through these universities, a special study of our traditional medicine within the Pacific? If the World Bank can agree to some funding attached to the institutions we've already got, it would protect the land, protect our medicine, and give the knowledge to our young people.

Cultural Preservation and the Global Environment Facility

Davis: One of the things that discussed at the conference was the rapid loss of cultural and linguistic diversity. For instance, I know a linguist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who is studying the situation of the world's indigenous languages. There are 6,000 languages in the world today. Three thousand of them are threatened with disappearance because children are not being taught these languages. By the year 2020, there may be only 300 languages that are actively spoken in the world. That potential loss means that we'd better do something quickly, especially if language is related to knowledge.

Now we've created a Global Environment Facility (GEF) to deal with global problems. Should this language and cultural loss be seen as a global problem? Should cultural diversity be taken up within this framework?

Argueta: In 1992 Time magazine carried an article entitled, "Lost Tribes, Lost Knowledge." This problem is a contemporary problem of the world, and I think the GEF can play a very important role in the preservation, conservation, support, and development of culture and therefore of knowledge.

I would like to make two points. First is the importance of the dissemination of information. I recommend this not only for peasants or indigenous peoples, but also for technical resource people in the governments. This is very important because government staff in many countries don't know anything about the value of traditional knowledge. I hope that the World Bank, the GEF, and other international donors will emphasize the dissemination of information about indigenous knowledge and cultures and their importance to sustainable development.

Another point is the need to support conservation of biodiversity. For nearly thirty years, in agriculture and medicinal plants researchers have been working on the conservation of seeds in genetic banks, in freezers and so on. For the past ten years, the new idea has been conservation in protected areas. Why not change? Why not put the emphasis on conservation with the people who have conserved the biodiversity every year for centuries? Why not put the investments in conservation with the people who live there and preserve the seeds in situ?

Iwu: I had hoped that the GEF approach would be a departure from the classical development mentality. But what GEF is doing is the same old thing. I think it is because of its association with the World Bank. You send the experts to a country, and in two weeks there is a beautiful report.

There is no way that can continue to happen if the GEF is to address the complexity of the situation.

They must not continue to develop concepts at headquarters and then push them onto the field. As Moelagi Jackson suggested, the GEF should attach itself to institutions already in place. We need capacity strengthening, not capacity building. Building means there is nothing there. We already have capacity. All we want to do is build a bridge between indigenous knowledge and Western science.

In Mexico an inventory of biological resources is being done. We are doing the same thing for West and Central Africa. But the GEF doesn't see any relevance for economic development in what we are doing. We don't have any baseline data of the resources we have from a ethnobiological point of view. The GEF doesn't see that this as the kind of base data we need.

The GEF should be set up not to deal with governments. The World Bank deals with governments. The GEF, because of its unique nature, should recognize and deal with the various tribes and NGOs and leave the World Bank to deal with lending to governments. Yet the structure of the GEF is that the NGOs and the tribes can get only $50,000 for projects based in their home country. The big projects are through the governments. For instance the projects to save the forests of West Africa...why couldn't there be a commission made up of all the tribal chiefs to work with the scientists to look at the forests together?

Asibey: I think that it is possible to use indigenous knowledge in designing our projects if we say to the task managers who are designing the biodiversity programs: "Indigenous knowledge is important for the management of these resource bases." All we need to do is design our projects to include the local knowledge on whatever areas we are going to deal with.

If we are talking about biodiversity conservation in Malawi fishery resources, we can design that project to include indigenous knowledge and use indigenous peoples in the management mechanism. If we are talking about West African forests, why design as if we are looking after only the trees and exclude animals and other things which are essential to the people? We must incorporate indigenous knowledge in project documentation and indigenous peoples as participants in project design and management.

I think it is a question of reeducating ourselves. World Bank sensitivity to these issues is improving, at least in the Southern Africa Country Department. There, I am specifically asked to look at projects from the point of view of the local people. We ask the people, What do you want us to do? We try to find out what they themselves consider to be the most important project - how they want it.

If we are going to do participatory project planning, we have to convince our colleagues that the project design phase must be lengthened. It cannot move as fast as before because it involves local consultation. Projects that include participation take time. We must get to know the local people. Most Africans do not just start talking to you because they see you are nicely dressed. They take a long time to assess you. World Bank staff cannot assume that they can get the proper information in the same short time frame as before.

Gata: I would like to stress that the World Bank as well as the national governments have realized that there have been shortcomings in development efforts to date. Whatever we're going to do from now on, it must be a different approach. A different approach cannot be implemented within an existing structure. I can tell you that from my personal experience. After independence my research institution was never overhauled like other government institutions. Because of that, we're having problems changing from the old colonial to the independent mind set. I know that creating new structures is expensive, but how long are we going to continue with things that we know very well are not meeting our needs? Are we serious about change? If it is going to be costly, so be it.

Davis: There have been many interesting ideas presented here, and I would like to thank everyone who has participated in this discussion. Hopefully, this is a beginning step for the World Bank and the various people and organizations who were represented at the conference to continue to share ideas and information. Hopefully, together, we can continue to work on these common issues, trying to convince each of our respective organizations to take into account the important contributions that traditional knowledge and indigenous peoples can make to sustainable development.


1. World Bank, World Development Report 1993: Investing in Health (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

2. Eugene Linden, "Lost Tribes, Lost Knowledge," Time 138 (12) (Sept. 23,1991): 46-56.