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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

Traditional knowledge and cultural survival

What is the meaning to indigenous peoples of traditional knowledge and what role can it play in the development process? Several speakers at the September 1993 conference argued that traditional knowledge is related to the entire culture of a people, including its identity and spiritual and religious beliefs. While some scientists and development planners may see traditional knowledge as a means to resolve certain problems of development, indigenous peoples see it as part of their overall culture and vital to their survival as peoples.

In making this point, indigenous peoples are not saying that their communities are not interested in participating in the development process, or in sharing their knowledge with scientists, development planners, and the global community. They are saying that there must be respect for the cultural values of this knowledge and that their rights to maintain these values must be acknowledged and protected in the development process.

This was the theme of the remarks made by Brazilian Indian leader Jorge Terena, who told the conference that the history of the West's relationship to indigenous peoples and their traditional knowledge has been contradictory. On the one hand, Western cultures have for 500 years rejected traditional knowledge because:

... it is said to be a primitive knowledge, from a primitive culture. It is of the past, and therefore it is no, certain scientists are beginning to realize that this knowledge can be considered scientific.

Why? Because they know that our community has helped preserve the earth, not only the natural resources but humanity as a whole.

This new interest in the scientific value of traditional knowledge, however, poses a paradox for indigenous peoples. Today, there is an interest in the economic value of traditional knowledge; this is especially true in the area of biodiversity and the uses of medicinal plants. Many companies, Terena said, are identifying traditional medicines and patenting them but not giving back anything to the indigenous communities. Furthermore, there is little understanding on the part of these companies or the development community in general about the meaning that this knowledge has for indigenous peoples. Terena told the conference:

This knowledge that we have, we are not so eager to sell it and not so eager to patent it. Because it is on this knowledge that our community depends for its living. The important thing is our community has a traditional belief, a spiritual belief, that controls this knowledge. This goes far beyond just thinking of the economic value that the knowledge has.... It is something sacred to us.

Roberto Haudry de Soucy, a Venezuelan economist who works with the International Fund for Agriculture Development (IFAD), made a similar point: we should look at a people's culture as having "intrinsic value" and hence invest in it as part of our development lending and assistance. To do so, however, he said, we will need to accept indigenous peoples as "equal partners" who bring their own cultural assets and identities to the development process. He suggested that this acceptance means financing such activities as the strengthening of indigenous organizations, cultures, and languages. Haudry said:

The major asset of any indigenous peoples is its culture, and since this is an inseparable component among the assets making up its heritage, it is to their culture that any international financial institution (IFI) should channel its investment. And if, in reply to the question as to what the investment should be made in, we have said 'culture,' then the question as to how such investment shall be made, the reply must be to acknowledge that a culture is indivisible and admits no fragmentation. A manifestation of a people's culture, such as its productive technology, is bound up with a language, with an environment whence it draws its sustenance, with a pattern of distributing the end product, and with a religious view of the world and practice.

Until recently, a local culture has been seen as a hindrance to development, whereas today we must rather look upon culture as an asset, as a driving force for self-development. Nowadays, one hears it said that if we conserve a heritage (water, forests, biodiversity), future generations will have a larger stock of these component assets of that heritage, and enjoy a correspondingly enhanced wellbeing. Similarly, one might argue that more culture is more wealth, that having more know-how, more languages, and more centers of interest enriches indigenous peoples, as well as enriching in the process the rest of a country's citizens and some segment of humanity as well.

In a similar way, Whaimutu Dewes noted the importance of traditional knowledge to the cultural identity and survival of the Maori people, and the role which it plays in his people's development choices.

To the Maori there are three very important questions:

Ko wai koe? Who are you? (identity)
No hea koe? Where are you from? (lineage)
E ahu ana koe ki hea ?
Where are you heading? (survival)

These questions are the starting point, of all Maori discussions and negotiations with outsiders.

In trying to explain to corporate people with whom we are negotiating joint ventures, we start there. They have to understand that this is a survival issue. Time horizons do not mean a great deal to us. To put it in banking terms, our discount factor is not as high as they are used to because we've got a much longer time horizon. However, that is not to say we are going to accept a lower rate of return.

The leitmotif of the conference was the intrinsic value of traditional knowledge to the cultural survival of indigenous peoples. Traditional knowledge can play an important role in the development process, not only because it offers some obvious solutions to local problems but also because it is an important component of the identity and spirit of a people.

It has been 500 years that colonialism has been trying to offer us something different, and yet for 500 years the world has still not recognized our traditional knowledge. You must respect our culture, our social structure, and our way of living before you can offer us anything different. - Jorge Terena

Some implications of this proposition, as well as its operational relevance to the work of the World Bank and other development agencies, were reconfirmed and explored by other participants at the conference. Nowhere was this issue of intrinsic value clearer than in the discussions concerning the relationship of traditional knowledge to land and the environment.