Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Value of Traditional Knowledge

It is becoming more common place to hear about indigenous traditional knowledge in legal academic discussions ranging across a wide variety of subjects -- human rights, intellectual property, environmental law, economic law, medical law, and cultural heritage. Traditional knowledge is a simple name for an area that is vast in scope. Just what is traditional knowledge and why is so much importance being placed on this across such a wide variety of areas of law?

A new article in National Geographic, “The Key to Understanding Climate Change: Indigenous Knowledge” ( link to article here ) highlights the ways in which indigenous knowledge is and has been important in understanding the environment. A few statistics noted in the article bear this out: “Comprising only four per cent of the world’s population (between 250 to 300 million people), they utilize 22 per cent of the world’s land surface. In doing so, they maintain 80% of the planet’s biodiversity in, or adjacent to, 85% of the world’s protected areas.”

These facts and figures alone point out the importance of indigenous peoples and indigenous traditional knowledge to the environmental health of the planet today. But there is also an important contribution to be made to scientific knowledge, again, as noted in the National Geographic article, “[indigenous] community-based and collectively held traditional knowledge accumulated and maintained through practice over countless generations, offers valuable insights into the state of the environment. Indigenous knowledge possesses chronological and landscape-specific precision and detail that is often lacking from scientific models developed by scientists at much broader spatial and temporal scale…”

The National Geographic article is not the only one to point out the benefits, and indeed, the necessity of traditional knowledge in scientific research today. An article at this link points out the valuable contribution that local traditional indigenous knowledge played in the study of the migration habits of killer whales, in research done through the University of Manitoba. The article quotes Paul Irngaut, “Inuit traditional knowledge is essential to scientific research,” Irngaut said. “It’s verified by local hunters year after year. It’s not projections or predictions — it’s current and it’s accurate.”

This is good news—but the involvement of traditional knowledge in scientific research and development comes at some risk. Whether adequate protections are provided in law and in practice is the subject of on-going debate. An article reflecting on the protections in the Kenyan Constitution ( link here ) argues that the Kenyan Constitution provides adequate legal protections for traditional knowledge. How traditional knowledge is protected and exploited in other parts of the world will be the subject of future blog posts.

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