Scientists Call for Protection of Indigenous Knowledge

August 20, 2002

A tribal rights group based in India has welcomed an initiative by a global network of scientists and groups advocating the rights of indigenous people to raise the profile of traditional forms of knowledge around the world.

Rural Litigation & Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), a nongovernmental organization working with indigenous groups in the foothills of the Himalayas, said that it fully supported a move by the world's largest body of scientists to promote agricultural and medical practices that have long been part of the indigenous traditions.

"Indigenous knowledge, such as systems of preserving forests, is under threat because Western or scientific knowledge does not take note of it," said RLEK's chairman Avdhash Kaushal. "But we have seen over the years that it is traditional knowledge that actually takes care of nature," he said.

The call for a more "ethical and responsible" approach to environmental management, drawing on traditional knowledge, will be made at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development, which opens next week in Johannesburg, South Africa.

A paper on the subject, entitled 'Convention on Knowledge,' will be presented to summit delegates by a group of organizations, including the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility, a grouping of more than 90 organizations in some 40 countries, the London-based Institute of Science in Society, and Malaysia-based Third World Network (TWN).

The presentation will focus on the need to counter aspects of science and technology which have a damaging impact on environmental habitats and are leading to the demise of indigenous and other more benign forms of interaction with the natural world. Knowledge, the paper said, must not be used for "destructive, oppressive or aggressive" military ends.

"The poor bear the brunt of the destructive impacts of bad science and technology," said TWN's director Martin Khor in a statement published this week, "whether it be climate change, or environmental degradation created by intensive agriculture, chemical and biological pollution."

The paper also stressed the need for protecting knowledge which has been passed down within indigenous nations. RLEK's Kaushal stressed that there were several local indigenous practices that took better care of the environment than laws which India inherited from its former British colonial rulers.

Kaushal cited the example of a tribal community, the Van Gujars, who live in forested areas on the outskirts of the north Indian city of Dehradun, and who named animals for gods to ensure the sanctity of wildlife. In the wedding ceremonies of some tribes, he said, saplings were planted, thus helping to protect the natural canopy.

"The bride leaves her village to get married, but the sapling is looked after by all her friends and relatives as a symbol of fertility," he said, noting that such practices could be adopted by nations which sought to combine economic development with environmental protection.

The joint paper for the "Earth Summit" also acknowledged that "cross-fertilizations and partnerships between different knowledge systems and practices" were necessary to ensure that economic development did not jeopardize the conservation of wildlife.

"Knowledge should make the world equitable and life-enhancing for all its inhabitants," according to the paper. "Its first aim is to do no harm - to human beings and to other species. It must respect basic human rights and dignity."

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