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 good....now, certain
scientists are beginning to realize that this knowledge can be considered
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
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
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