What is traditional knowledge?
There is no unanimous international definition on what traditional knowledge (TK) is, even though it has become an established, widely used phrase. In general, it is a term covering a living body of knowledge, know-how, skills and practices that have been developed and passed on from generation to generation in a community, often forming part of its cultural or spiritual identity.
One example of a definition of traditional knowledge, defined by the Gwich’in Tribal Council as:
“Gwich’in Traditional Knowledge is that body of knowledge, values, beliefs and practices passed from one generation to another by oral means or through learned experience, from one generation to another by oral means or through learned experience, observation and spiritual teachings, and pertains to the identity, culture and heritage of the Gwich’in. This body of knowledge reflects many millennia of living on the land. It is a system of classifications, a set of empirical observations about the local environment and a system of self-management that governs the use of resources and defines the relationship of living beings with one another and with their environment”
Other terms used in the same context are Indigenous Knowledge (IK) and Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK).
How is traditional knowledge used in partnerships with indigenous peoples?
Traditional Knowledge covering so many areas also makes the use of traditional knowledge possible in many areas. One area where traditional knowledge is being used regularly is in environment impact assessments projects.
Indigenous peoples’ traditional knowledge is often linked with the environment in which they live. They have an extraordinary understanding of the environment from the observations and experiences of many generations passed on to today’s generation.
Therefore, scientist seeking to understand how climate change affect certain areas of the eco-system often use local peoples’ observations in their research. The observations made by indigenous residents is generally considered to be “homework” rather than field work: made every day and all through the year, the observations of those living on the land lead leads to the development extraordinary understandings of their environments that represent valuable complements to the findings of the scientific researchers.
Critique of traditional knowledge
One point of critique of the use of traditional knowledge is that political correctness has turned traditional knowledge into a “sacred cow”, giving traditional knowledge sanctity which can lead to wrong results.
Another point of critique is that many projects are required to incorporate traditional knowledge. Some say that traditional knowledge in some projects is not taken seriously and only becomes part of the final report to fulfill an imposed requirement to incorporate traditional knowledge without really putting it to use in the given project.
Some also point out that it makes no sense to talk about indigenous knowledge as being somehow traditional as opposed to the (western) science to which it is typically being contrasted. Science, they point out, is no less traditional than other kinds of knowledge, no less a tradition of knowledge shared by a community of peers.
Furthermore, some consider traditional knowledge a term referring to local knowledge, i.e., the knowledge of local, including indigenous, residents of a certain area.
While many indigenous people resent having their traditional knowledge assimilated to other kinds of local knowledge, others see traditional knowledge as a precursor of an emergent citizen science, even if it still being conceived as fundamentally more profound than other expressions of citizen science due to its local – indigenous and non-indigenous alike – anchorage.
Protecting traditional knowledge
There are at the moment no conventions protecting indigenous peoples traditional knowledge, however, World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) are working on examining the role intellectual property principles can play in promoting community led economic development and benefit-sharing of indigenous cultural heritage.
Negotiations are currently underway in the WIPO Intergovernmental Committee on Intellectual Property and Genetic Resources, Traditional Knowledge and Folklore towards the development of an international legal instrument or instruments for the effective protection of traditional cultural expressions and traditional knowledge, and to address the intellectual property aspects of access to and benefit-sharing in genetic resources.
In the Arctic Council, in the declaration issuing from the Council’s recent Ministerial meeting in Kiruna, Sweden, “[ministers recognize] that the use of traditional knowledge and local knowledge is essential to a sustainable future in the Arctic, and decide to develop recommendations to integrate traditional and local knowledge in the work of the Arctic Council”.
The Kiruna Declaration does not explicate further about by when those recommendations should be developed. It does, however, say that the Arctic Minister request their Senior Arctic Officials “to recommend ways to increase awareness regionally and globally on traditional ways of life of the Arctic indigenous peoples and to present a report on this work at the next Ministerial meeting in 2015”.
For some reason, it seems safe to assume, the Foreign Ministers of the Arctic states and their officials feel more at ease speaking about traditional ways of life than about traditional knowledge and, hence, better able to set a timeline for requested deliverables within this field.
Furthermore, they mention traditional knowledge only in conjunction with local knowledge which, many feel, is equivalent to talking about indigenous and other local knowledge traditions.