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Call for greater recognition of 'indigenous knowledge'

28 June 1999

[BUDAPEST] Representatives of indigenous peoples organizations attending the World Conference on Science are raising concerns that the draft of the final conference declaration takes insufficient account of the contribution of traditional knowledge systems to modern science.

At a specially-convened meeting later today (Monday, 28 June), indigenous members of the Australia, Canada, Greenland and New Zealand delegations are expected to call on the conference drafting group to alter the document accordingly.

The current version of the draft declaration emphasizes "the importance of traditional and other knowledge systems as dynamic expressions of other ways of perceiving and understanding the world", as well as the need to conserve this heritage and explore its interface with science.

The draft framework for action document calls on governments to formulate policies to implement these objectives, and to protect indigenous knowledge from what it calls "unrewarded exploitation".

But Harry Daniels, president of the Congress of Aboriginal peoples of Canada, says that "the conference documents must state clearly that traditional systems of inquiry are a legitimate science". Daniels adds that the documents must also recognize the contributions of indigenous systems to the development of modern science.

Daniels, whose organization represents 800,000 Canadians, says that he is disappointed - though not surprised - at what he sees as the failure of the authors of the draft documents to recognize that much of modern medicine and technology owes a good deal to the fruits of indigenous systems of inquiry.

He acknowledges that many scientists are hostile to traditional knowledge systems. Daniels says he believes such hostility is partly because today's science is based on observation and measurement, while the inner workings of traditional knowledge systems remain largely a mystery to non-practitioners.

And he says that "just because traditional knowledge isn't written down in journals or codified doesn't mean that it is not legitimate". Daniels adds that "traditional medicine works. That makes it legitimate."

Daniels says he does not understand how many scientists, while dismissive of traditional knowledge as being unscientific, are happy to "wander in jungles" seeking traditional healers for information on medicinal plants.

Indigenous peoples support the idea of equitably sharing the benefits from the exploitation by pharmaceutical companies of medicinal plants used in traditional healing systems - the draft declaration calls on the World Intellectual Property Organization to develop an international legal framework to protect traditional knowledge.

Indeed, Daniels says that indigenous peoples have a duty to share their knowledge with others. But he adds that indigenous communities - healers in particular - remain concerned at the tendency of pharmaceutical companies to base their remedies by isolating the active ingredient in a plant.

Daniels welcomes the section in the draft framework for action document, which calls on countries to "promote a comprehensive understanding of traditional knowledge systems, instead of focusing only on extracting elements for their perceived utility to the Science and Technology system".

He says that modern science has much to offer indigenous peoples, for example, in helping to explain and treat the rising incidence of diabetes in their populations all over the world. But he says that indigenous peoples believe that advances such as genetically modified food, and cloning - what he calls "the manipulation of nature" -- are going too far.

Such developments, says Daniels, illustrates one of the differences between traditional knowledge systems and modern science. "Traditional systems want to work with nature - as it exists. They don't try to change it."


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