Reviewing global action plans for traditional knowledge

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Jennifer Rose, an intern at Royal Holloway University of London, spent January 2018 researching traditional knowledge policies worldwide. Jenny is greatly enthused by the potential of traditional knowledge in preserving cultural heritage and informing research. Her research found that there have been great efforts to protect traditional remedies and adopt low-cost sustainable initiatives in environmental management. However, policies are often too generic and simplify the complexities of traditional knowledge. This results in lack of enforcement or overprotection of traditional knowledge to the extent that researchers and communities themselves are prohibited from using it.

Indigenous people possess knowledge, skills and a deeply ingrained relationship with nature. To lose this would be devastating in terms of cultural heritage and biodiversity conservation, yet it is considered backward and old-fashioned in too many cases. Traditional knowledge is crucial to future sustainability and we must engage with local communities to actively maximise on its potential.

Since passing the Amerindian Act in 2006 and developing a traditional knowledge integration strategy in 2009, Guyana has done little to integrate traditional knowledge in national policies. Jenny’s work aimed to analyse traditional knowledge acts and policies worldwide to find the best approaches for incorporating traditional knowledge into national policy and research in Guyana.

This was done by consulting official published documentation on traditional knowledge, including reports by the Convention on Biological Diversity and their progress with Aichi Target 18, namely the goal to respect and fully integrate traditional knowledge into national practices by 2020.

As well as secondary data, interviews with key experts provided additional insight into the topic area, incorporated their own specialisms and strengthened the validity of the report.

Ten countries were selected for analysis due to their relatively high commitment to protecting traditional knowledge. The main themes that emerged were environmental sustainability, governance and the role of traditional knowledge in national healthcare. Benefit-Sharing Agreements are essential for mutual management of traditional knowledge and resources. The concept has proven successful with mining development in Canada and park management in Peru. By using their local knowledge, Indigenous communities are being invited to make decisions and propose ideas related to natural resource management.

These are examples of the work that has already been undertaken to give Indigenous communities a voice. But there is still a long way to go. Intellectual property laws continue to delay progress in traditional knowledge integration and relationship building. Current laws tend to generalize traditional knowledge under the same context, when in fact it is very complex and varies hugely between communities. In addition, traditional knowledge is sometimes overprotected; this results in less ideal solutions being adapted from Indigenous input, such as logging for firewood to avoid a fuel crisis.

Traditional knowledge is very important to future research and efforts must be undertaken to include Indigenous representation in politics. By doing this research, Jenny has gained a broader understanding of traditional knowledge in policy. She is keen to conduct further research in this area and follow a career in conservation that considers all forms of knowledge on an equal footing.

Follow Jay Mistry:

Professor of Geography - Royal Holloway University of London

Jay has more than 22 years’ experience in teaching, researching and building capacity for natural resource management with local communities. Her particular interests include supporting local livelihoods and biodiversity conservation, local environmental governance, action research using participatory video and capacity building for natural resource management.